NFL game day with Pete Bevacqua
NBC Sports Group President Pete Bevacqua had just arrived at NBC’s ad sales tailgate on Waldron Deck outside of Soldier Field when a colleague thrust a cold can of Spotted Cow beer into his hand.
It was two hours before kickoff of the Packers-Bears game that would start the NFL’s 100th season. NBC carried the Sept. 5 game, and Bevacqua wanted to take some time to press the flesh with advertising clients and see NBC staffers. He flashed an easy smile.
“Am I supposed to shotgun this?” he joked.
Bevacqua opened the beer, took a swig and immediately joined a conversation with executives from Lowe’s, one of NBC’s top clients. After a few minutes, he engaged in easy conversations with several NBC ad sales executives – including executive vice president Dan Lovinger, and senior vice president Brian Nyemchek.
The scene was consistent with how most NBC staffers describe the well-liked Bevacqua, a genuine executive who joined NBC Sports Group as president around a year earlier, on Sept. 17, 2018. Five months later, on Feb. 21, his role was expanded to oversee the Olympics, production and operations groups, effectively giving him total control of the sports group.
“He has terrific leadership qualities,” said Mark Lazarus, NBCUniversal broadcast, cable, sports and news chairman who hired Bevacqua. “He is a great culture fit. NBC Sports is not a fixer upper. It’s a well-run business with experienced executives. I was looking for somebody who could add to that and help drive collaboration, not only within NBC Sports but across NBCUniversal and Comcast.”
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After spending about a half-hour at the tailgate, Bevacqua ventured back inside Soldier Field. He wanted to go to the field to see NBC’s on-air personalities as they prepared for the game.
On the way into the stadium, he bumped into the NFL’s top media executive, Brian Rolapp.
The two executives shared small talk. They compared notes to see whether NBC Sports executive Samita Mannapperuma, whose due date was last week, had given birth yet. Mannapperuma is married to NFL Media executive Hans Schroeder, who reports to Rolapp.
As of deadline last week, she had not.
Keeping a good relationship with Rolapp is critically important to NBC. “Sunday Night Football” has set a television record as prime time’s top-rated show for eight consecutive years. Those rights end in 2022, and NBC, obviously, wants to keep them. Bevacqua will oversee those negotiations.
But in what has been his most public move in the year he’s been with NBC, he made tough organizational decisions on reporting structures involving longtime staffers. Bevacqua has hand-picked the executives that he wants to run rights negotiations, elevating NBC Sports Regional Networks President David Preschlack and Chief Marketing Officer Jenny Storms to the shared title of executive vice president of content strategy.
Bevacqua has spent much of his first year learning the business. To many NBC insiders, the move of Preschlack and Storms, relative newcomers to NBC, demonstrates that he will make tough decisions, too. “He has sharp elbows when he needs them,” one NBC insider said.
“He has reshaped the organization in his own image,” Lazarus said. “He didn’t need to make changes just to show that he’s in charge. He respects the job that people are doing and tweaks the organization towards the future.”
NBC is about to enter a period where many of the rights it holds will have to be negotiated. Bevacqua, who came to NBC from the PGA of America, already has engaged the PGA Tour on extending its golf package for both NBC and the Golf Channel. NBC’s NHL rights end after the 2021-22 season. Its NFL deal ends in 2022.
“The perspective that he has as a former rights holder who had rights to sell, and how we should be thinking in terms of buying those rights, monetizing those rights, knowing what we might be able to work with the rights holders on — that strategic thinking is real additive to the already strong management team’s thinking,” Lazarus said.
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On Wednesday, the day before the opening game, NBC’s top brass and most recognizable talent gathered in a studio at NBC Sports Chicago to produce a Town Hall that was streamed to all employees.
NBC started holding these Town Hall meetings quarterly under Lazarus. Bevacqua has continued holding them, putting his own stamp on them. In May, he sat down for a “Jeopardy!”-style one-on-one interview with Greg Hughes, NBC Sports senior vice president of communications. The questions were both personal and professional.
In Chicago, Bevacqua interviewed Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. A 1993 Notre Dame graduate, Bevacqua becomes a fan when the Fighting Irish play. He was a walk-on punter for a season when Lou Holtz was the coach.
“Sunday Night Football” announcer Al Michaels also spoke during the Chicago Town Hall, mentioning that he has never seen a company support a sports program the way that NBC-Universal supports “Sunday Night Football.” In the run-up to the opener, for example, Mike Tirico appeared on the “Today” show and Michaels did a spot for CNBC.
Bevacqua made it clear that he plans to stress that level of cooperation in rights negotiations. Given his former role at the PGA, Bevacqua knows firsthand how much rights holders value that approach.
Before the Packers-Bears game, Bevacqua asked Storms to put together a presentation showing what NBCUniversal did to promote the game. That included commercials, one starring Betty White and another with Brett Favre and the Da Bears superfans. It included having Kelly Clarkson talk about 100 years of football. It included the establishment of the “Sunday Night Seven” free-to-play prediction game with the NFL.
“When you see all of that come together, it’s really awe inspiring of how this large entity, NBCUniversal, part of Comcast, can really be aligned to bring unparalleled attention to an event,” Bevacqua said.
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About 90 minutes before the Thursday night kickoff, Bevacqua spotted Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the field. They were both talking with Bears kicker Eddy Piñeiro, who was making his debut in Chicago.
They greeted Bevacqua warmly when they saw him. Collinsworth’s son, Jac, had just made his debut on the ACC Network. Collinsworth pulled out his phone and showed a video of his son chest-bumping former Clemson offensive lineman Eric MacLain in the studio. In the video, the much larger MacLain didn’t move. Jac Collinsworth crumbled to the ground.
Michaels, Collinsworth and Bevacqua all laughed loudly at the video.
Michaels and Collinsworth are the gold standard of NFL broadcasters. There’s no chance that Bevacqua would come in and make big changes to a broadcast that has been as successful as “Sunday Night Football.”
Bevacqua started the game day in a production meeting run by “Sunday Night Football” executive producer Fred Gaudelli. He made sure to visit individually with several of the talent on the field before the game — Mike Florio, Chris Simms, Liam McHugh, Michele Tafoya. He spent the game in the production truck, watching Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff produce and direct the game.
Bevacqua believes his role is to remain unobtrusive and allow his team to produce the games the way they always have. He wants to remain available should anything go wrong.
“I’ve always enjoyed helping architect and figuring out overall strategy,” Bevacqua said. “My ultimate goal and responsibility is to make sure that we have the right pieces in play.”
But Bevacqua’s role clearly extends beyond the production, and he said he needs to think strategically about how to move the sports division forward.
“We have a lot of moving pieces in play,” Bevacqua said. “When you think about our partnerships with the Olympics and with the NFL, you think about where we are with NASCAR, the PGA Tour, and the NHL, and what we’re doing with the English Premier League and what we can do and what synergies we can develop now with the acquisition of Sky on a global basis. There’s all these moving pieces and I think my No. 1 job is to make sure we have a game plan for where we’re going with all of that.”
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Early last year, as Lazarus was contemplating how to fashion a bid for the PGA Championship, he was speaking with a non-NBC colleague when the subject of Bevacqua came up. Lazarus had been looking to bring in someone to run the sports division. He immediately thought Bevacqua could be a good candidate.
“I called him the next day,” he said.
NBC has a lot of high-level executives who have been with the company for a long time — the kind who have institutional knowledge and deep relationships. Lazarus looked for someone who could bring a new perspective to the division.
“We didn’t need another person who had run a media company,” Lazarus said. “I was looking for someone who could add another dimension to the team.”
After receiving that call from Lazarus, Bevacqua went home and discussed the opportunity with his wife.
“It really was a fascinating conversation,” he said. “I had the ability to go to work for this great, iconic American brand. I realized immediately that if we’re not smart and not impressive, we can wake up in a couple of years and be behind the eight ball. Having that challenge motivates the hell out of me. My biggest responsibility is charting that strategy and making sure the overall sports strategy fits in with the larger strategy of NBC-Universal.”