It’s not easy to negotiate a $4 billion deal. It’s even harder to replace an industry legend.
But Mark Lazarus had to do both at the same time during a whirlwind 19 days after the Atlanta resident was named chairman of NBC Sports Group.
Lazarus, 48, was picked to replace TV heavyweight Dick Ebersol, who abruptly resigned in a contract dispute with new owner Comcast on May 19 after 22 years at the helm.
Talk about getting thrown into the fire. On June 7, the International Olympic Committee was scheduled to decide if NBC would win the rights to broadcast the Games until 2020 — or get dislodged by ESPN or Fox.
It was Ebersol who made NBC home of the Games since 1988. (He also co-created “Saturday Night Live.”) Would Lazarus be the guy who lost them?
“I’ve been through a lot of transitions in my career,” Lazarus told me recently, shortly before the movers came to empty his Buckhead home and take his furniture to Connecticut. “The key is to manage through them.”
Three years ago, as head of Turner Entertainment, Lazarus was on the losing end of a transition. His job, reporting directly to the CEO, was eliminated.
But this time, after working for Ebersol for just four months as head of NBC Sports’ cable unit, his career would take a promising turn at 30 Rock. Lazarus went from having a bit part in NBC’s Olympics bid to becoming a key actor.
He also had to grab the reins of a multifaceted media operation — from NBC Sports, Golf Channel and VERSUS, to 11 regional sports networks and a dozen websites — while simultaneously improving the network’s two-hour bid presentation to the IOC in Switzerland.
After getting the job on a Thursday, his methodical manner kicked in.
“I spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday focused on the [corporate] transition, calling everyone,” Lazarus said. “On Sunday, the Olympic team came in and … we started reformulating our pitch.”
A team of 20 worked overtime, including Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. The June 7 pitch to the IOC, which detailed why it should pick NBC, was critical.
But what was even more important was the sealed bid quantifying what NBC was willing to pay. Execs tried to predict what the competitors would offer, throw in a little more — but not too much or they can lose money. (NBC lost $200 million during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.)
NBC bid $4.38 billion to win the Games from 2014 to 2020. Fox bid $3.4 billion for the four Games, while ESPN bid $1.4 billion for 2014 and 2016.
As for next year’s Games, which NBC already had locked up, Lazarus is hopeful the recent riots in London will be a distant memory by then.
“We’ve had strong ad sales so far,” he said.
Not all of Lazarus’ early days have come with a victory. After 43 years of broadcasting Wimbledon, NBC lost it last month.
“At the end of the day, ESPN outbid us,” he said. “They are incredibly powerful and a formidable competitor.”
As he goes forward, Lazarus knows he’ll be facing many tough competitors.
“I’ll compete with anyone who wants our eyeballs,” he said.
A philosophy close to the legend’s heart.
– Henry Unger, The Biz Beat