if there is anything the sports fan covets above all else, it is the elusive all-access pass. But even the luck of scoring a couple of great tickets to a playoff game is nothing compared to the privileged life of Mark Lazarus, who is free to wander the sidelines at either NFL games or English Premier League matches. He’ll be taking in the quiet of the PGA Tour or the roar of NASCAR. That’ll be him catching up on gossip at the Kentucky Derby or keeping up with medal counts at the Olympics. He’ll be there. And you’ll probably be watching it on TV.
Mark Lazarus is accustomed to working with extraordinary numbers. As chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports, he has reviewed a lot of contracts, all emblazoned with rows upon rows of expensive zeroes. Lazarus is at the helm of a fast-moving media juggernaut.
Lazarus, a pale six-footer with light brown hair, favors khaki pants, an open blue dress shirt with no necktie. If he wears a jacket, it’s often loose. He has the sort of air of merriment and openness that leads instantly into neighborly conversation. He squints at times, as if his eyes itch, but it’s with a twinkle. One might expect that a top-kick chairman who has to wrestle the National Football League on contracts might have more of a Game of Thrones bearing about him, but he retains an air of genial sunniness. He says he likes to make people laugh.
What’s making him smile these days is the prospect of doing lots of business. It’s become clear, after all, that anyone wanting to build a media colossus should probably start by corralling as much sports coverage as possible. The explosive rise of the ESPN and Fox Sports dynasties is proof of that. Seeing this, NBC’s sports division has gone on its own empire-building binge in the last seven years, all made possible by the merger with Comcast cable when NBC Universal was acquired from General Electric. Comcast is now a $155 billion company—with upwards of $40 billion slated for sports programming. And Mark Lazarus is now in charge of the purse.
When Lazarus first set up office at NBC, it was at the famous 30 Rock building in Manhattan, where he had to coordinate with a far-flung staff in four buildings across three states. When the decision was made to consolidate, the ideal location was found in Stamford. For the last three years, the nerve center of the sports division has been in a spreading glass contemporary patch of buildings placed over the old Clairol factory in the Cove area of town. “We cut a good swath between here and Port Chester [New York] to see what was best in real estate.” Stamford, Lazarus said, scored best in the issues of transportation, nightlife and new apartments that are “new, smell good and everything works.”
The move from Atlanta was tough on his three kids, but a new house in Greenwich eased the burden somewhat. “One of the great luxuries is having this place in Stamford and living just eight miles down the road. To see your house in daylight, on both ends of the commute…” he trails off, fanning his hands in delight.
Given the vast number of operations he oversees, and the 900 employees beavering away here, it’s easy to think of Lazarus being as frantic as the air-traffic controller at LaGuardia Airport. But he smiles brightly and waves it off. Other people stress those details. “I just talk about sports, media and money all day,” he grins. “Three things that I really like.”
It was as a kid growing up in Westchester County that Lazarus learned how the gates of heaven open up with that all-access pass. His father, John Lazarus, ran sports sales for ABC Sports, and the family already had season tickets to the Yankees and the Giants. But then came two incidents of revelation. “One was at the baseball All-Star Game in Philadelphia,” he says, leaning back in his chair. Through the multiple planes of glass on all sides he can look out over the neighboring offices. “We’re at batting practice the day before, and all the players are coming in off the field and talking to us in the dugout. That was pretty fun.”
Then, when the 1980 Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, he convinced his folks to let him skip school for two weeks to be a waiter in ABC’s hospitality suite. “I was around the clients, talking to people from Anheuser Busch, the car companies,” he says, lifting an eyebrow.
“I loved talking to my dad about sports and media. He was always in the buying and selling side, and I gravitated to that.”
This was, after all, the family trade. His grandfather and two uncles were in the movie business. And now Lazarus and his two brothers are sitting pretty: Peter Lazarus also works for NBC and Craig Lazarus is a longtime producer at ESPN. “Craig is the smartest,” Peter Lazarus once told USA Today. “Mark is the executive in the family. And I’m the traveling salesman.”
Lazarus just breaks up laughing at the thought of all this. “Not one of us had an original idea!”
From his father he learned that it was important to be able to talk to either the CEO or the janitor with the same respect. “Then you’ll have a happy life,” he says.
The secret to making deals, he says, is to do the negotiations with pace. “Time tends to kill deals. Also people who are disingenuous and don’t work with integrity.
“I think I have good relationships with people I work with—both the people I report [to] and my peers. People here are perhaps surprised that I talk with them. I take pride in knowing as many names as possible and calling people by name, because I think that sends a good message about the culture I want to have.”
Lazarus learned show business at the floor level. During breaks from college life at Vanderbilt, he worked on the camera crew for the soap opera, All My Children. He learned the ad business on the ground floor working as a media planner for Fisher Price toys. His career really began to skyrocket when he got to the burgeoning Turner Broadcasting, not least because of the fireworks inspired by owner and head case-in-chief, Ted Turner.
There are still stories being told about the Turner company of the 1980s. Asked if the network’s old Wild West reputation is true, Lazarus solemnly answers yes. “With Ted, you never knew what was going to come out of his mouth. Stuff that went on in the hallways would be daily calls to H.R. now. It was irreverent; it was tough. But there were tons of opportunities. They had the NBA and had just added NFL Sunday Night Football.”
In 1990, cable TV was causing the same sort of disruptions, he says, that the digital age is causing now. “And I do remember how much fun it was to be the underdog and aggressor, with the swashbuckling, nothing-to-lose Ted Turner attitude.” Turner, aka Captain Outrageous, snapped up various film studios, then created new TV networks. “It was a nice learning experience because the rules weren’t very limiting, so you could do a lot of interesting things. We had to dial for every dollar. I learned a lot about what it takes to be an aggressive sales manager.
“From Ted I learned to be willing to take risks and to not be afraid to fail. And if you fail, be honest about it and you move forward. One of the great things about that culture was certainly the opportunities I was given. I was involved in rights deals that put me in a position to become the head of sports at Turner without ever having been the head of sports. Because the company was organized that way, where the smartest people got to be involved in things and then prove themselves. At most companies there is such a rigid hierarchy that that doesn’t necessarily happen.”
Made Turner’s sports czar at thirty-six, Lazarus was able to decamp from Scarsdale for Atlanta, where he and his boys enjoyed the outdoor life of golf, fishing and bird hunting. The family threw its support to the Boys & Girls Club (which continues today). By 2003 he was made head of the entire Turner Entertainment group. But as anyone in media knows, fortunes change. He once saw his father get fired by Fox. After eighteen years at Turner, Mark found himself surprised by a company reorganization, and in 2008 he was eased out the door.
As an independent, he advised the Comcast colossus, among others, on various matters for a couple years. In 2011, now owned by Comcast, NBC went through its own shakeup and its legendary sports boss, Dick Ebersol, departed with hurricane suddenness. Comcast then turned to Lazarus.
Unlike Ebersol, who was known for standing over directors’ shoulders in the production truck, Lazarus was more the savvy dealmaker. And Comcast wanted new deals.
The big kahuna among the signed contracts was the $8.5 billion deal with NFL that ensures Sunday Night Football stays on NBC through 2022 and gives it three Super Bowls. It’s the No. 1 show in the ratings and the No. 1 annual event, respectively. And the price was nearly double what NBC spent to keep the Olympics through 2020. NBC now has two separate NFL deals—one for Sunday, one for Thursday.
“Are [the deals] hard because there’s complicated issues?” Lazarus asks. “Yes. Is it hard to sell yourself? No, not if you’ve done a good job on behalf of your partner. You have to look. Is there something new I can do? You have to provide the economics that the marketplace allows for.” He shrugs. This would be a gentle way of addressing the job of forking out $8.5 billion.
“The NFL is tough to deal with but they’re fair to deal with. They’ve got the strongest television product in the land right now and they behave accordingly, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Anyone making a nine-year deal with a sport that is currently being questioned about CTE, concussions and other brain injuries should want to know about the sport’s longevity in the American scene. “I don’t have enough recent facts,” he replies. “I only know what I’ve read over the last forty-eight hours. [It seems] they’re making investments in research, which is a smart thing. I think the NFL should be part of that.
“If you believe the research, that this [has] a cumulative effect over time, it doesn’t happen from one guy getting tackled in MetLife Stadium. It goes from middle school to high school to college. The NFL has taken a lot of precautions on safety—no physical practices and all that. I don’t know if it’s been grasped by all the universities and high schools. The NFL’s influence could be and should be, I feel, to be pushing their safety procedures to reduce the cumulative effects and still have people playing football in a safe environment.”
Lazarus likes to say that his job is to find the balance between art and commerce. He has to find that balance while keeping up a travel schedule that would be insane for anyone but a sports fan.
The real world introduces itself to his high-flying jet trails in the oddest ways. A few years ago he happened to mention that he thought it was a shame that hockey players were growing those playoff beards. Lazarus was the instant target of a million blasts on Twitter.
At other times, his sports shows can offer only tenuous relief from the world situation. The 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi were conducted a few hours away from the simmering Ukraine crisis. As 3,600 people working for NBC Sports dove into producing 6,000 hours of content in seventeen days for the Rio Olympics, he had to ensure his hard-nosed associates at NBC News were also there to deal with the heavy stuff.
Safe in Stamford, he looks out his window at a long building stuffed with production units. “We have a few hundred more than we did in June ’13. And a lot of our people are creating digital product that’s not necessarily going on television. We’re already pretty close to full, a lot faster than we thought.
“I don’t think people understand how much we do out of here. Even people who live in the area. Every night, the hockey I’ve been watching comes out of Stamford. People don’t get that.
“On a broader scale, most people don’t understand how media works. They understand advertising, but they don’t really get how their cable bill is divvied up and sent to different networks.”
A wry smile scrunched up his face. “Where I live, nine out of ten people are in finance, so I’m an interesting kind of mascot. What I usually get is, ‘My cable doesn’t work, can you help me?’ ”
He laughs an easy laugh and walks his visitor past the glass walls of a media colossus built on the bones of a long-gone shampoo factory. Such a funny, old world.
As part of the Comcast family, NBC Sports Group has participated in Comcast Cares Day, an annual corporate volunteer effort that brings together employees and their families and friends with non-profit partners around the world. Since moving its headquarters to Stamford in 2013, NBC Sports employees have turned out by hundreds to lend a hand at the Boys & Girls Club of Stamford (2013 and 2015), New Covenant Center (2014) and Mill River Park (2016). It’s a day that helps reinforce the company’s corporate citizenship philosophy to help where needed throughout the year, Mark Lazarus has said. “The feedback we get is that people want to help and give back where they work and live,” he emphasizes. Here is what he also had to say.
Do a lot of employees participate in Comcast Cares Day?
It gets bigger every year. This past [April], we had more than 100 employees from the NBC Sports Group family and friends volunteer to clean up Mill River Park. We took our son, and we mulched and weeded. It was so gratifying to see employees and their friends and families come out on a day off to be together and work alongside each other for such an important cause.
Comcast Cares Day is the nation’s largest single-day corporate volunteer event, and this past April was the company’s fifteenth running.
Since 2001, Comcast Cares Day has mobilized more than 700,000 volunteers who have donated more than 4 million hours of service at 6,800 projects in the United States and abroad. Last year, more than 100,000 volunteers contributed more than 600,000 hours of service at 900-plus projects in the U.S. and twenty-one other countries around the world. So it keeps growing.
What do you see happening at the New Covenant Center?
I see a lot of growth, expansion and compassion. There is a certain dedication you see that NCC shows in serving the hungry in our community. It’s inspiring.
When we moved our offices and were new to the Stamford community in July of 2013, [former ESPN President] George Bodenheimer had initially reached out and introduced us to NCC. When we learned about what they do and the great need in Fairfield County, we got involved. Over the last few years, we have hosted several organized volunteer events with the soup kitchen, and held food drives, both physical and virtual.
You’re the chairman and you get to have an influence. What personal ambition in the realm of community events have you been able to put forward?
I’ve tried not to make it about my personal interests or causes. but my view on this is that we should focus our outreach on kids with various needs. Some of the partnerships we’ve developed over time include Boys & Girls Club of Stamford, Kids in Crisis and Special Olympics Connecticut.
Since we are in the business of sports media, our employees’ work schedules vary. Therefore, we offer our employees opportunities to volunteer during and after the work day. In February, our team volunteered at Kids in Crisis, where they cleaned and painted the teen residence during the day, and then another group of employees arrived after work and prepared dinner for the children who are staying there. It was a very meaningful and fun day.
In March, we volunteered at Domus, where a group prepared and delivered dinner to the residents of the group home.
In May, we sponsored and volunteered at the Special Olympics Connecticut Southern Time Trials in Weston. Our team was responsible for managing the track and field events as athletes competed, and those whose times qualified to advance to Nationals and the Global Games. The Olympics is deeply engrained in the fabric of our NBC Sports Group heritage, so it was especially meaningful for us to participate with a special organization that also has the Olympic name.
You’ve worked with the Boys & Girls Club for some time. What aspect of their work is satisfying to see?
It’s incredibly satisfying to watch the dedication of the staff at local clubs. That’s why the goal of our board is to see more resources reach more kids.
A few favorites, highlights and memorable moments in the life of Mark Lazarus
Brad Park, defenseman for the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings
Hockey and football in high school; lacrosse in college
BEST MOMENT PLAYING SPORTS
Winning intramural fraternity football title against our archrivals
MOST OVERLOOKED PROFESSIONAL PLAYER
All offensive linemen
Love too many to list
BEST SPORTS MOVIE
FAVORITE GAME OF ALL TIME
Super Bowl XXV: Giants over Bills
FAVORITE OLYMPIC MOMENT
Securing the U.S. broadcast rights [through] 2020
LOOKING AHEAD TO PYEONGCHANG IN 2018 AND TOKYO IN 2020…
We are now deep in planning and we anticipate taking advantage of synergies due to relatively close geographies.