Richmond resident Neal Pilson's airwave days to echo in Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame
For Neal Pilson, 78, a full-time town resident and now Select Board chairman who was a heavy hitter in the executive ranks at CBS Sports from 1981 to 1994, the recognition has been a long time coming but is just as welcome.
During a conversation at the downtown Lenox office of his consulting company, Pilson Communications, he recounted the twists and turns that propelled him into the ranks of sports telecasting pioneers as he took CBS from worst to first among the national broadcasting networks (only three in that era).
He also dwelled at length on his love for the Berkshires, dating to his childhood, when he attended Hamilton Farm, a sleep-away nature camp in Sheffield when he was 8. As a teenager in 1955, he became a camper-waiter at Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, where he was marooned for a week when floods from Hurricane Diane devastated the region.
As a college student, he camped out at October Mountain State Forest, discovered Tanglewood as he dated a classical music aficionado, the young lady he married 56 years ago. Later, he, his wife, Frieda, and their three children made Richmond their weekend and summer destination from their house in Chappaqua, N.Y., staying at various inns until, in 1997, the couple purchased a second home, on East Road, after he left CBS Sports, where weekend work was required.
They moved here full time in 2010, and Pilson became involved in local government on the zoning board and long-term planning committee, helping lead a successful effort to stop a proposed Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline that would have crisscrossed Richmond.
Explaining the lure of the region for media executives and personalities, he noted that the Berkshires, famed for its cultural and recreational attractions, also is easy to reach by car from Manhattan as well as from New York's northern suburbs, where many TV VIPs live.
Pilson, a native of New York City, graduated from Hamilton College near Utica, N.Y., majoring in history, and then earned his law degree from Yale University. He spent 13 years honing his craft, specializing in writing contracts at a small law firm in Manhattan before landing a post as corporate lawyer and then a business department negotiator for Metromedia to acquire entertainment shows such as movies of the week and National Geographic specials.
After Metromedia phased out its entertainment division, eventually selling its TV stations to Fox chief Rupert Murdoch, he spent an unpleasant interlude as an entertainment lawyer for William Morris, the national talent agency.
"During those 18 months, I was looking for something else," Pilson recalled, until HBO and CBS approached him with a choice of offers.
HBO was seeking a lawyer to negotiate deals for new acts, while CBS dangled a post in its sports division.
"It was a little less money, but I felt a lot more comfortable going in as a business guy in TV sports than as a business guy for entertainment acts and nightclub stuff," he said.
So, Pilson joined CBS in 1976, five years before he was named president of the sports division. He handed off the HBO offer to a William Morris colleague, Michael Fuchs, who rose to become president, CEO and board chairman at the pay-cable giant.
"Whenever I see him, he says, `I owe you,'" Pilson said, chuckling, because in 1995, Fuchs left Time Warner, which had bought HBO, with a golden parachute worth a reported $50 million.
Pilson harbors no regrets, stressing that "there is no career decision I would change. I was very lucky; it wasn't all smarts, it was just assessing what my strengths were and where my interests lay."
By 1981, CBS Sports had gone through four presidents in five years, and Pilson had worked for all of them until the network turned to him to lead the division and rescue it from its perennial also-ran status behind first-place ABC and distant-second NBC.
"CBS was first in news, first in entertainment and dead last in a three-network race in sports; we were not competing very effectively," he said. "We had nowhere to go but up."
"We went out looking for properties we could acquire, steal or lure away," Pilson said. His haul started with the World Figure Skating Championships and he went on to a major coup, signing up the Daytona 500 annual NASCAR series by committing to first-time live coverage of the three-hour-plus race, whereas ABC had only offered highlights on a one-week delay.
"This was earth-shaking; revolutionary," Pilson said proudly. It turned out to be a ratings hit and a big moneymaker for CBS, and paved the way for more triumphs as the network acquired rights to a major college football package and the NCAA men's basketball championship.
His run as head of CBS Sports spanned 13 years, interrupted for two years in the mid-1980s when CBS promoted Pilson to executive vice president of its broadcast group, with sports, network-owned stations, radio and operations division leaders reporting to him.
"It was a bigger deal, more money, a car and driver, and better access to the company plane," Pilson said. "But it wasn't as much fun."
After another of its frequent management changes, CBS simplified its executive ranks, and he returned to run the sports division, continuing there from 1986 to 1994.
He increased NCAA basketball coverage, extended Master's golf tournament rights and acquired coveted Winter Olympics rights for 1992, 1994 and 1998. The 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway, featured the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding figure skating saga, which played out in half the TV-owning homes in the nation, a bonanza for CBS.
The next challenge involved acquiring Major League Baseball rights, which Pilson termed "a disaster" because revenue projections turned out to be wildly exaggerated, caused, in part, by a four-game World Series, the Gulf War, a recession and a labor dispute resulting in a lockout.
"We got off to a very poor financial start; we were never able to recover. We lost a lot of money and after four years, we just walked away," he said.
"That was a setback. I was the head of the sports division and had to live with that," he said.
Then the network lost the NFL after CBS owner Larry Tisch failed by $110 million to match a Fox bid of $400 million.
Some network affiliates defected to Fox, prime-time ratings among men slid, and "60 Minutes" took a nosedive in viewership because it had followed pro football on Sunday evenings.
"That was a major blow for CBS," Pilson said.
He was asked to "request a reassignment, a nice way of saying, 'We're going to make a change in the sports division,'" he said.
After accepting a "very nice severance arrangement," he remained with the company for another year to become fully vested for retirement benefits at age 55 while he figured out what to do next.
He celebrated that birthday by leaving to form Pilson Communications, representing clients such as NASCAR, Arena Football, the International Olympic Committee, Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl, the NCAA's multisports Big East Conference and other major sports properties.
After 23 years running what he called "a pretty successful business," not only is Pilson's client list massive, but he has also found time to teach a weekly three-month course, "Leadership and Personnel Management in the Sports Industry," at Columbia University's master's degree program in sports administration.
"The premise is that the essential skills to become an effective leader can be taught and learned," he said. "It puts the student in a position to be perceived and chosen as a leader.
"It relates to personal behavior, learning how to deal with managing yourself and others, stress management, organizational skills, running a meeting, having a point of view, speaking, writing and presenting well," Pilson said. "Rudimentary skills like handshakes, eye contact, voice modulation."
He began teaching the course nine years ago within the Graduate School of Professional Studies.
Happy as he is to be joining the Hall of Fame, Pilson doesn't miss the stress of the job that got him there.
"In sports television, you're graded every day with ratings; a daily report card.
"I love what I'm doing now," he said. "The independence of it, and being away from that corporate responsibility for 200 or 300 people."
But Pilson remains an avid viewer of sports on TV. He described his pet peeve as studio analysts trading inside jokes and "yelling with fake enthusiasm over a sports highlight'' from the previous day.
When he instinctively reaches for the phone to complain to the studio producer, "my wife reminds me I left that life 23 years ago. No need to call; no one cares what I think now."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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