As a teen, Mark Lazarus went to the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the U.S. hockey team made history with its “Miracle on Ice” upset of the Soviet Union and eventual gold medal win.
Now, some 30 years later, Lazarus — as the new head of NBC Sports Group — is flying off to Lausanne, Switzerland, to spearhead the network’s negotiations for rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympics next week. Joining him will be top executives from NBC and parent company Comcast Corp., the cable giant that five months ago took control of NBCUniversal from General Electric Co.
That Lazarus finds himself in such a key role is no surprise to those who have followed his career or know his family. He got to those 1980 games courtesy of his father, John Lazarus, who was a top advertising executive for ABC Sports and later Fox. One of his brothers is a vice president of news at ESPN and another has held senior sales positions at NBC and Univision. His cousin, David Lazarus, is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Until two weeks ago, Dick Ebersol, the legendary executive whose deal-making made NBC the exclusive home of the Olympics for more than a decade, was set to lead the network’s delegation as chairman of the NBC Sports Group. Lazarus, brought in late last year as president of NBC Sports Cable Group, was seen as Ebersol’s eventual successor but was expected to spend a few years watching and learning before assuming the throne.
That all changed when the 63-year-old Ebersol abruptly quit last month after clashing with his new boss, NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke, over terms of a contract extension and bumping up against Comcast’s buttoned-down culture.
With no warning, his understudy was thrust onto center stage.
While not as high profile or outgoing as Ebersol, Lazarus is no stranger to big deals. As the head of Turner Sports, he landed contracts with the National Basketball Assn., Major League Baseball and NASCAR.
“Tough” is how NBA Commissioner David Stern described Lazarus. “He’s a very good negotiator. We haven’t always agreed on every point, but he is a man of his word and has great integrity.”
Called “Laz” by his colleagues, Lazarus, 48, grew up with a front-row seat to the glamour of sports and television. Raised in tony Chappaqua, N.Y., he and his brothers were a regular presence at Yankee Stadium when the Bronx Bombers were winning back-to-back World Series. He spent the summers of his college years working odd jobs at ABC, including operating a boom mike on the set of the soap opera “All My Children.”
After college, Lazarus started out on Madison Avenue and in 1990 joined Turner Broadcasting as an account executive in sports and then relocated to Atlanta, where Turner is based.
Going from Manhattan to Atlanta may be culture shock to some, but Lazarus blended in without missing a beat.
“Mark can be New York elite and he can be a good old boy,” said Brad Siegel, a former Turner president who now runs music and cable channel GMC. “He moves between different worlds very well.”
Lazarus spent almost 20 years at Turner, holding several top positions, including president of sports and entertainment. He was seen by many inside the company as the odds-on favorite to eventually succeed Turner Broadcasting Chairman and Chief Executive Phil Kent.
Instead, Lazarus found himself pushed out in a management restructuring in 2008. For years, Lazarus and two other Turner executives — David Levy and Steve Koonin — had been jockeying for top positions at the company, and ultimately those two prevailed. Lazarus went from being the heir apparent to an unnecessary layer of management.
The ousting hit Lazarus hard, people close to him said. At the time, Lazarus told Sports Business Journal that his departure wasn’t “necessarily how I would have scripted it.”
Lazarus parked himself at Career Sports & Entertainment, an Atlanta sports marketing firm, until Comcast wooed him back to New York in December to run the Golf Channel, Versus and 11 regional sports channels.
While Lazarus has spent his entire life around larger-than-life executives and athletes, he’s kept himself grounded. Even at the 1980 Olympics, he had to earn his keep by working the hospitality suites and setting tables for the network’s after-parties.
“Mark is a guy who doesn’t have a huge ego. As you get higher and higher in the entertainment business, that is rarer and rarer,” said Terry McGuirk, chairman of the Atlanta Braves and a former chief executive of Turner Broadcasting.
That lack of ego has proved to be an asset in negotiations.
“He’s not going to get sucked into doing a bad deal,” said Jamie Kellner, who was Lazarus’ boss at Turner when the company was negotiating for the NBA.
A bad deal is what NBC is currently saddled with when it comes to the Olympics. In 2008, Ebersol bid more than $2 billion of NBC’s money for the rights to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London. The price seemed high even in a strong economy. Then the economy tanked and NBC ended up losing $223 million on Vancouver, and the network is concerned that London could be a money loser as well.
This time around, Lazarus will have to balance Comcast’s own financial concerns while having to compete against NBC’s rivals Walt Disney Co., parent of ABC and ESPN, and News Corp., owner of Fox.
“He’s going to vector far stronger on the business side than Dick,” said McGuirk when asked what Lazarus brings to the table. “He can structure deals with one arm tied behind his back.”
There may be a gold medal in that.