For Mark Lazarus, being chairman of the NBC Sports Group means, among many other things, making good in the family business.
His father John was a VP of sales and advertising for ABC back when the network had famously hit its sports stride under Roone Arledge, thanks to Monday Night Football. His youngest brother Peter works as an ad salesman for NBCUniversal while his other brother Craig is a production executive for ESPN.
Deals with the NFL, NHL, the Olympics (lasting until the end of time it sometimes seems) and the English Premier League, and an upcoming pact with NASCAR, among a host of others, proves NBC Sports’ standing among the leaders in the space.
However, three years ago, when Lazarus ascended to the top of NBC Sports Group as chairman, there was an understandable sense of uncertainty, akin to when, say, a respected veteran player is sent in to replace a legend.
“Mark filled some very big shoes when Dick Ebersol left NBC,” says NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, who insists the fine transition is a testament to Lazarus. “He has done it his own way; he hasn’t tried to be Dick.”
In early 2011, Ebersol—who had built NBC Sports into a powerhouse—resigned, putting Lazarus in the spotlight, as he moved from heading NBC Sports’ cable assets to running the entire division. “The initial moment was somewhat shocking because [Ebersol] left rather abruptly,” recalls Lazarus. “We didn’t have a renewed Olympics deal, we didn’t have an extended NFL deal.”
Ebersol’s resignation came three weeks before NBC was set to present in front of the International Olympic Committee for the rights to the following four Olympics, beginning with the 2014 Sochi Games. “It was all of sudden laid on me,” says Lazarus. NBC’s run of Olympics broadcasts appeared in jeopardy as rivals Fox and ESPN were circling the waters. But the new NBC Sports head rose to the challenge.
“The Olympics had been so much a part of NBCUniversal for so long, but when the time came to make the presentation we looked to Mark,” says Burke. NBC ended up securing the rights through 2020. Burke’s point about Olympic importance to NBC was punctuated with the 2012 London Games becoming the most-watched TV event in U.S. history, drawing more than 217 million viewers.
Bob Costas, who has been the network’s top Olympics host, remembers the anxiousness that permeated throughout NBC during the selection process. Many at NBC wondered what the future of NBC Sports would look like; NBCU was also under new ownership, following Comcast’s purchase from General Electric.
“The answer came almost immediately and resoundingly,” says Costas. “It’s been an extraordinarily smooth transition.”
And then, this past May, NBC sent a shockwave when, with three more Olympic games still on its rights deal, the network agreed to a new pact with the IOC through the 2032 Olympics, ensuring that NBC would maintain one of its most vaunted staples for years to come. (Lazarus jokes, “some of the athletes aren’t born yet” for those 2032 Games.)
At a conference call following that May agreement, many wondered why the IOC would not wait until after NBC’s current deal expired following the 2020 Tokyo Games. IOC president Thomas Bach explained that he was pleased with Lazarus and the NBC Sports team’s treatment of the Games—so why wait? “Maybe in one deal you can make one or another dollar more, and afterward you can have your product destroyed.”
Lazarus may have taken his top seat at a somewhat precarious time for NBC Sports, but Ebersol—himself a 2005 B&C Hall of Famer—had left him with a strong foundation upon which to build. And Costas argues that Lazarus’ realization of this was an early strong suit. “One of the smartest things he did is to recognize if something isn’t broken, you don’t have to fix it,” Costas says. “Some other people might have been impelled by ego to put their own imprint on it.”
And Burke had recognized Lazarus’ leadership qualities when he was initially hired by NBC from sports marketing agency CSE late in 2010. “The idea always was that Mark was going to take over for Dick,” he says.
They were qualities Lazarus established early. Getting his start on the advertising side as a media buyer and planner, he first enjoyed success during 18 years at Turner, starting at the sports division—it was Lazarus who hired popular NBA analyst Charles Barkley —before adding entertainment networks including TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim to his purview. “Turner was a big company but a very entrepreneurial company,” says Lazarus, whose tenure began when Ted Turner was still running things before the sale to Time Warner. “I got a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things.”
Lazarus transitioned from the network side to the agency side when he joined CSE. His former boss Lonnie Cooper, CSE founder and CEO, credits Lazarus for much of his firm’s development.
“He was a tremendous influence in the growth of my company,” says Cooper. “He was a very good mentor for me as a CEO.” Cooper particularly lauds Lazarus’ work as CSE was trying to extend its reach into the digital sector.
“Mark was great about recognizing acquisitions,” he says. “He put me on the great track in the content space. Mark was able to watch my company evolve.”
While Lazarus may be a Hall of Famer, don’t expect him to hang up his suit and tie anytime soon. “I want to be a contributor to what NBCU and Comcast are doing to reshape, as technology allows, the media landscape,” he says. “Over time, sports has been one of the things that has changed technology.” Spoken like a man who’s head remains squarely in the game.