Mark Lazarus named chairman

Just days after representing NBC Sports at the network’s upfront presentation, Dick Ebersol, the longtime architect of the NBC-Universal sports empire and driving force behind the Peacock’s Olympic coverage, is stepping down.

Mark Lazarus, who was president of the NBC Sports Cable Group, will become chairman of the NBC Sports Group, the network announced.

Ebersol’s departure represents a major shock, inasmuch as he had been presented as a key member of Comcast’s new management team for the network, charged with organizing NBC Sports and Comcast’s Versus and the Golf Channel into a force in the sports business.

Ebersol, who had been negotiating for four months, was in the final year of a nine-year contract.

The timing of Ebersol’s exit also casts a shadow over NBC’s efforts to retain rights to televise the Olympics, which the exec had championed.

Ebersol, who has been at NBC since 1974, was reportedly unable to come to terms on a new contract. There had been suspicions that Ebersol had an uneasy relationship with his new Comcast bosses.

Some believe Ebersol wanted complete autonomy over the NBC Sports Group, which meant spending what was necessary to get a deal done. The company recently committed nearly $2 billion in a 10-year, multinetwork agreement for rights to the National Hockey League.

“What I have enjoyed most is working so closely with so many truly outstanding and incredibly talented people over decades of producing some of the greatest events in the world,” Ebersol said in a statement. “Those relationships are what I cherish most.”

Ebersol’s influence at NBC has extended well beyond sports, but he most personifies the network’s investment in Olympics rights. He was in the midst of putting together a bid for the next two available Olympics, the 2014 Winter Games in Russia and 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, as well as possible Olympiads beyond Brazil.

Negotiations with the Olympic committee will begin in June.

Comcast, which is investing heavily on the entertainment side, may not want to spend the extraordinary amount of money necessary. In 2003 Ebersol and NBC made a winning bid of $2.2 billion for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and next year’s London Games.

Ebersol was a huge proponent of Olympics coverage, saying that while it may be financially unattractive — NBC took a $223 million loss on the Vancouver Games — it was a plus for the network in that it brought NBC huge numbers of eyeballs and helped promote other programming.

Network insiders say, however, it would be a mistake to assume that Ebersol’s exit means NBCU won’t make an aggressive Olympic bid.

If not for Ebersol, NBC might not have acquired “Sunday Night Football,” which is, by far, NBC’s biggest primetime program. The network began airing NFL games as part of that package in 2006. If the contract dispute between NFL players and owners delays the beginning of the upcoming season, NBC will take a huge financial hit.

Last season “Sunday Night Football” averaged a five-year best 21.4 million viewers, ranking third for the season behind only “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

Lazarus, who was instrumental in building up the sports package at Turner, had overseen Golf Channel, Versus and Comcast sports networks, reporting to Ebersol. The two go back 15 years, when Ebersol and Lazarus worked together on a NBC-Turner NASCAR package.

While NBC spent heavily on Olympics coverage under Ebersol’s tenure, the then General Electric-owned company was able amortize costs because GE had extensive business dealings in countries such as China and Greece, home to a pair of Olympiads. Comcast doesn’t have as many international dealings and would likely have a more difficult time recouping its investment.

Whichever network lands the 2014 Games will have to endure frigid temperatures, time-zone issues and a viewership that is down compared to the Summer Olympics. Despite those factors, the pricetag for the 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games could easily exceed $2 billion.

The Vancouver Games started strongly but dipped as many Americans fell out of medal contention. Overall, the Vancouver Games averaged 24.4 million viewers per night, up 4 million from the Torino, Italy, Olympics four years earlier.

With NBC possibly scaling back its bid, Fox and ABC/ESPN may see an opportunity. ABC/ESPN has long been interested in televising the Olympics and bid $1.6 billion for the 2010 and 2012 Games. The two nets — bankrolled by Disney — may view Ebersol’s departure as a sign of retreat by NBC.

During the 1970s and ’80s, ABC took pride in being the preeminent Olympics network. With Roone Arledge at the helm and Jim McKay in the booth, the Alphabet televised many iconic Olympic moments, as well the tragedy in the 1972 Olympics in Munich when Israeli athletes were murdered.

Fox, under sports topper David Hill, may also be well positioned for a bid. While the network has never hosted an Olympiad, Rupert Murdoch has reportedly been very interested in doing so.

NBCU CEO Steve Burke said: “Dick Ebersol is an incredible talent whose contributions to the company over the last four decades in sports, news and entertainment are unsurpassed. … We will miss his intellect, experience and passion for the television business.”

Ebersol’s influence at NBC was widespread, and he was never afraid to interject his opinion. When Jay Leno returned to “The Tonight Show” last year following an ill-fated primetime run, Ebersol publicly came to his defense, attributing Leno’s return to “an astounding failure” by Conan O’Brien, and calling David Letterman — who had used his monologue to bash Leno — “chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings.”

Burke and his exec team wasted no time in promoting Lazarus, indicating that a deal might have been in the works for a while. Others that may have been considered were NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer and Jeff Shell, a longtime Comcast exec and ally of Burke who is currently chairman of NBCU Intl. and once oversaw Comcast’s sports group and Fox Sports Net.

(Brian Lowry contributed to this report.)

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