Mark Lazarus has the No. 1 show on television — NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” which confusingly debuts on Thursday with a match-up between Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots — but that doesn’t make him a satisfied executive.
“We were the first sports show to be No. 1, and we’d like to keep that crown,” the NBC Sports chairman told TheWrap. “We take nothing for granted. Every other show on television is trying to beat us and knock us off.
Lazarus started his career at an ad agency before an 18-year run at Turner Broadcasting, where he ended up as head of Turner Entertainment. He joined NBC Sports in 2011 and was soon named to succeed the legendary Dick Ebersol as the division’s head.
Under Lazarus, NBC Sports has committed upwards of $40 billion for programming. “We’ve made some big bets, [but] we’ve been strategic in what we’ve done,” he said. “We believe in the power of sports. We believe in what it does — not for only our just straight sports businesses, but our portfolio of businesses.”
In his interview with TheWrap, Lazarus addresses pro football controversies, the prospect of an NFL team in L.A. and the future of former “Good Morning America” anchor Josh Elliott at NBC Sports.
When do you expect an NFL team to come to L.A.? Do you have discussions with the league about it?
It is the second-biggest market, but the league has done pretty well without having a team there. I’ve actually never engaged with the NFL specifically about a team being in L.A. Do I think it would be good for the league? Yes, but I’m also not a big proponent of team’s leaving cities and fan bases that exist.
When the “Sunday Night Football” contract is up, will the existence or nonexistence of a team in L.A. impact those negotiations or make the package pricier?
I actually think that it doesn’t really impact the negotiations, where the teams are. If you look at the teams that have national popularity, some of them are from very small markets — look at the Green Bay Packers. The [Pittsburgh] Steelers have broad appeal — their fans travel well. Football [itself] is very valuable, it will have its price and value, but where the teams are, I think the way they’ve created the league and the scarcity of games and the popularity of the league — I don’t believe [L.A.] will be part of the calculus as it goes into negotiation.
The NFL had a rough season last year — from the Ray Rice controversy to Deflategate and everything in between. Will there be any long-term impact on the game?
Most people just want their football. There are factions of people who get bothered by some of these — I mean, listen, everyone was bothered by the Ray Rice video and what took place. Society should be bothered by that taking place. Its long-term effect on the game of football I don’t think exists. If it brings more awareness to a problem … that’s hopefully something that’s good that come come from sports — even if it starts from an awful place.
If it can bring awareness and hopefully maybe help curtail some more of these issues in the broader society — and that’s a lofty goal and I don’t pretend to believe it’s sports’ responsibility — it is part of the what comes with the territory of being in the public eye.
Did you foresee how important and valuable live sports would be as event programming?
I definitely believed that sports was increasing in value. I am surprised by the pace and the rate of change and how consumer behavior is changing so fast.
Can you walk us through how and when NFL flex-scheduling changes get made?
Roughly two weeks prior to a game, after we get to the ninth week — there are some modifications to the contract where we could do it earlier — but really, we look at the game and if the game is not of the ilk that is was intended to be when it was originally scheduled, we can make a request of the NFL of another game.
Now, the other networks — Fox and CBS — have the ability to protect a game each week. Then there’s also — we can’t request a game that’s on another primetime platform [“Monday Night Football” and “Thursday Night Football”] because there’s only one game. So we can make a request and the league makes a decision of whether they want to alter the schedule. Last year, we didn’t make a single request, and that was the first time ever in the history of flex.
Does that ultimately come down to you personally making the decision?
Yeah. Really it’s [producer] Fred [Gaudelli] and I who think and strategize about it.
What’s going on with Josh Elliott, who seems underutilized since joining NBC Sports in April 2014?
We’re working on schedules now. Josh is still at this point a part of the company and we’re working to see what kind of schedules can work.
Does that mean there’s a good chance he won’t be part of the company in the near future?
Don’t know. While the future is still being determined, the relationship that he has and had with the Sports division was very positive for both sides, I believe.
What sport do you not have the rights to but you wish you did?
The NBA is a great property… We do have relationships with six NBA teams with our regional sports networks. So we are involved, we just don’t have a national contract.
If I had to tell you that there’s one thing I wish we still had in the portfolio, I wish Wimbledon was still part of our portfolio. That was a disappointing loss early in my tenure here. But we bounced back and won a lot of other things. We have a discipline about what we’re willing to do on any individual property based on our analysis.
What is the one sport that you have that doesn’t get enough coverage or eyeballs?
There’s nothing more exciting to me than playoff hockey. The intensity, the passion, the fans in the crowd, the noise.