In the sports world, there is no doubt that ESPN leads in sports programming. While Fox Sports just recently launched their competition for ESPN with Fox Sports 1, NBC has had a little bit of a head start to compete with the sports media giant. The NBC Sports Group is headed by Mark Lazarus. Before he was president of NBC Sports, Lazarus was the President of Sports and entertainment at Turner Sports. In 2011, Lazarus took over for longtime Chairman Dick Ebersol, who resigned due to arguments with upper management.
During his brief tenure at NBC Sports, Lazarus has already accomplished many successful things. In the sports world that we live in, the National Football League dominates everything. Lazarus helped extend NBC’s Sunday Night Football contract for nine years up until 2020. Lazarus and NBC only had to pay $950 million each year. Lazarus also helped extend NBC’s Olympics deal until 2020 for $4.38 billion.
While those two contracts have come easy to Lazarus, there are still plenty of challenges that he faces if he wishes to put up a fight against ESPN. One sport that Lazarus has put at the forefront of NBC Sports is hockey. After the NHL had its lockout in 2004, ESPN dropped its hockey coverage, and NBC took over in 2006.
In January of 2012, Lazarus helped rebrand the Versus Network into the NBC Sports Network. Today, the NHL is slowly digging itself out of a hole when it comes to ratings. On opening night of this year, the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins combined for 956,000 viewers. That was the most watched opening night game since 1993, and was the highest watched program on NBCSN ever. Lazarus has a plan in place to return the NHL to its glory, and it looks like it is in motion.
The second sport that Lazarus is trying to help dig out of a hole is NASCAR. From 2001-2006, NBC shared its NASCAR television rights with FOX. At the end of their contract, NASCAR’s popularity was at its highest. However, in the eight years that NBC has been out of the game, NASCAR has seen its ratings drop. Now, Lazarus and NBC are back after they signed a 10 year/$4.4 billion deal.
Starting this year, NBC will once again split the NASCAR coverage with FOX, as NBC will take over when the series returns to Daytona in July. NBC has already started their return to NASCAR with their daily NASCAR news show “NASCAR America.” Lazarus has also made some great hires along the way, as he signed former FOX play by play man Rick Allen, former race winning crew chief Steve Letarte, and 21 time race winner Jeff Burton. I can tell by some of the NASCAR personalities that were hired that Lazarus wants NBC’s return to NASCAR to be a huge success.
While the ratings for the NHL and NASCAR are still above water, Lazarus’ biggest challenge will no doubt about be NBC’s new deal with boxing. It is no secret that boxing is long past its glory days. From the battles between Ali and Frazier, to the superstars of Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, boxing certainly has been a thing of the past.
To try and resurrect boxing, Lazarus and boxing will be carrying their first fights in almost 30 years as “Premier Boxing Champions” comes to NBC. PBC is where not only some of boxing’s best battle, but also some of the up and coming stars. While the boxing talent alone may not give NBC its ratings, Lazarus is hoping that having storied voices Al Michaels and Marv Albert, as well as boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, will be enough to start to revive boxing.
After one week, PBC gives some hope to the future of boxing. “Premier Boxing Champions” had 3.4 million viewers, which translated to a 2.5 overnight rating. That was most viewers for a boxing event on cable television since 1998. PBC also won the 18-49 age demographic, which is the age range that the UFC has lived on. While it is just a small sample, Lazarus looks like he might be the one that can save boxing.
The task for Lazarus is not small by any means. To compete with ESPN will take a lot of time, but if he is able to bring back the popularity to the NHL, NASCAR, and boxing, I don’t see why he can’t bring a challenge to ESPN.
Here are a few questions for you: Do you think this strategy by Lazarus will be enough to challenge ESPN? In what ways could you see this potentially backfiring on Lazarus? If you were Lazarus, would you do anything different?
– Andy McConnell