Sports executives who know Mark Lazarus typically use the same terms to describe the new head of NBC Sports: a smart, level-headed dealmaker.
For the most part, sports league and media executives know and like Lazarus, an executive who literally grew up in the media business. Those attributes are reasons why most of the executives contacted for this story believe Lazarus is a good choice to replace the legendary Dick Ebersol as the head of NBC Sports.
“When I first knew him, Mark was usually the designated bulldog. But as he rose in the ranks at Turner, he became the responsible one in the room who always remained even-keeled with one eye on the bottom line,” said NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, who has known Lazarus for 20 years.
“He has an extensive background in sales, programming and production, but I think a big reason why he is one of the most well-respected executives in sports is how he treats people. He is friendly to all, builds strong, long-term relationships, and has a great instinct for deal-making.”
New head of NBC Sports has strong relationships with many top league executives.
Comments made by Comcast Chief Financial Officer Michael Angelakis last month suggest that these questions haven’t been answered. Speaking at a media and technology conference, Angelakis described sports as a “conundrum” for Comcast.
“Let me be perfectly clear about sports,” Angelakis said. “Sports are important to the extent that we can make money and build value. Just leave it at that. I think that we are trying to manage sports.”
Angelakis went on to describe last month’s Pac-10 deal, in which Comcast lost the rights to a combined bid from Fox and ESPN. “Did we lose? So be it. We’re not that emotional about it. … We’re going to be financially disciplined on it. We look at this as a business, and we’re here to make money for our shareholders.”
A relationship guy
Lazarus’ strength comes from the strong relationships he has developed with many top league executives, thanks to his time running Turner Sports.
He owes his job at NBC to the strength of his relationships. Ebersol moved Lazarus to head up NBC Sports’ cable group in February. Lazarus had spent the previous 2 1/2 years as the head of Career Sports & Entertainment after an 18-year run with Turner that ended in January 2008. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last month, Ebersol said, “I’ve known Mark for the last 15 or 16 years. When he was really unfairly cast aside four years ago by Time Warner, … I kept up the relationship.”
Officials with the top leagues describe Lazarus as a smart and capable executive. While running Turner, Lazarus maintained relationships with Major League Baseball and the NBA, while cutting rights deals for NASCAR, the PGA of America, the British Open and Wimbledon.
“This is not his first rodeo,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president of business operations. “He gets it. He understands our business. We understand his.”
There has been talk of a culture clash between the freewheeling NBC Sports and the fiscally prudent Comcast in the five months since Comcast assumed control of the network. When Ebersol and his second in command, Ken Schanzer, resigned within a week of each other, some suggested that Lazarus would come in and clean house, sweeping all of Ebersol’s loyalists from 30 Rock and inserting his own people.
Insiders say that such a massive house cleaning isn’t likely to happen; it’s not Lazarus’ nature. The department likely will see a restructuring, especially since it lost its top two executives who had run the group for decades. But don’t expect Lazarus to do anything rash. He faced a similar situation in 1999 when he took over as head of Turner Sports from Harvey Schiller. Heads didn’t roll. Instead, Lazarus worked with the existing executive team to expand the business, including executive producer Mike Pearl and head of programming Jeff Gregor.
Paul Brooks, president of the NASCAR Media Group, recalled cutting NASCAR’s first online deal with Lazarus and
Mark Lazarus was on hand in April when the NHL announced its new rights deal with NBC. Here, Lazarus chats in the background with NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (left) talks with former NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer.
“It was Mark’s vision that sold us on their core competency as a company. He really painted a vision and we had a big belief they could do that,” Brooks said. “We were cutting new ground together, and there was always a comfort with Mark.”
Unlike Ebersol, Lazarus is not the type to sit in a production truck directing action. He’s much more of a businessman, focused on cutting deals and developing relationships. Insiders say they expect Lazarus to hire or promote an executive producer to oversee all production. Until then, he will rely on the existing team — built and trained by Ebersol — to continue producing games.
Ebersol initially brought Lazarus into NBC late last year as a senior adviser to help develop a cable strategy with Versus, Golf Channel and the company’s regional sports networks. Insiders expect him to continue with the plan to rebrand Versus under the NBC Sports banner and to continue co-branding Golf Channel with NBC Sports.
Lazarus also has online experience, overseeing the launch of NASCAR.com and managing PGA.com. Insiders expect him to spend a lot of time trying to develop NBC’s broadband and mobile services, too.
“He’s intelligent, very buttoned-down, reliable and with the reputation for being a real straight shooter,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “He’s someone who has a very good background in cable, which I think is very important when he’s now running the portfolio of properties at NBC Sports, because cable is going to be an increasingly important part of that portfolio.”
Lazarus grew up in a TV household. His father ran sports sales for ABC Sports for more than 10 years. One brother ran sales for NBC Sports and Univision. Another is a senior executive at ESPN.
In his college years, during summer breaks from Vanderbilt, Lazarus had jobs as a cameraman and boom operator at ABC. One summer, he was a boom operator on the set of the soap opera “All My Children.”
One story that shows the effectiveness of Lazarus’ relationship building occurred when he hired Charles Barkley for “Inside the NBA” in 2000. At the time, Barkley was being courted by both Lazarus and NBC’s Ebersol. Ultimately, Barkley picked the smaller network over the big broadcast network thanks, in large part, to Lazarus’ ability to make Barkley feel comfortable.
Lazarus has built his reputation as a collaborative executive. While overseeing Turner Sports, he partnered with NBC on NASCAR and Wimbledon coverage.
His first deal as Turner Sports president was to poach Wimbledon rights from HBO for around $10 million per year. Now, his first deal with NBC will be to negotiate a renewal for Wimbledon rights, which end after this year’s tournament.
“He’s open. He’s collaborative. He’s a relationship guy,” said SportsNet New York President Steve Raab, who worked for Lazarus at Turner Sports. “He is a really smart and straightforward and honest guy.”
Raab recalled when he accompanied Lazarus to a race at Daytona shortly after Raab started at Turner Sports. Lazarus called the new executive and invited him to dinner with NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France and George Pyne, at the time NASCAR’s chief operating officer.
“There was no reason that he had to call me. He certainly had those relationships himself,” Raab said. “But it was also going to be better for the department. It was definitely not all about Mark. Mark is a real team player.”
For Greg Hughes, who worked for Lazarus at Turner as a communications executive, that story is not surprising. Lazarus made a point to reach out to all the people who worked for him. Hughes recalls Lazarus frequently standing on a desk in “The Bullpen” — the area where production team cubicles were located — to address Turner Sports employees.
Said Hughes: “He makes a point to know everyone that he oversees.”
Staff writer Tripp Mickle contributed to this report.