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Mark Lazarus, New NBC Sports Chief, Engineers Upset Olympics Win

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NBC OLYMPICS

NEW YORK — The news conference to announce NBC's victory over two rivals to broadcast Olympic games in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 was notable for the name left unsaid.

That would be Dick Ebersol, the television executive whose name has been synonymous with Olympics telecasts for two decades. Ebersol abruptly left NBCUniversal last month after failing to agree on a new contract with the company's new corporate owners, and the trendy theory was that future Olympics broadcast rights would go with him.

The emphatic rejection of that theory on Tuesday was due in large part to Ebersol's successor, Mark Lazarus. The former Turner Networks executive joined NBCUniversal to run its cable sports properties shortly after Comcast Corp. took over management of the company this winter. He stepped into the role of chairman of the NBC Sports Group upon Ebersol's departure.

Lazarus played a prominent role when NBC's 17-person delegation made its presentation to the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday. Comcast chief Brian Roberts opened and closed the presentation in Lausanne, Switzerland, which also included longtime Olympics anchor Bob Costas.

NBC stressed its Olympics heritage and comfort factor with the IOC. That helped, though it no doubt helped more that NBC's $4.38 billion bid for four games beat Fox by about a billion.

ESPN, thought by many the favorite given its widespread sports reach, bid only on the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and finished well out of the money. Sites have not been chosen for the 2018 Winter and 2020 Summer Games.

In the days after Ebersol's departure, Lazarus had met privately with many people in NBC Sports' Olympics apparatus, driving home the point of his corporate bosses that they were still serious about winning the Olympics rights.

Roberts said after the IOC's decision that it was "exciting and invigorating" to be part of the NBC presentation.

"They are professional, passionate," he said. "It was the finest presentation I've had the privilege to be part of."

The 48-year-old Lazarus grew up in a sports family where his father was an advertising salesman at ABC Sports. He had a nearly two-decade career at Turner, leaving three years ago after losing a corporate power struggle and joining Career Sports & Entertaining, a marketing firm where his consultancy work brought him in contact with Comcast executives.

During his time at Turner, he was head of the cable group's sports department and responsible for negotiating programming rights deals with the NBA, NASCAR, Wimbledon and the British Open.

"Mark is a product of the business," said Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president who runs his own media consulting firm. "He's a very solid citizen, well-liked, well-respected. People like to work with him and for him. He's really a good fit with the Comcast people. Dick wasn't a good fit."

Comcast has a lot of confidence in Lazarus, and put him in place as a kind of insurance policy in case things didn't work out with Ebersol, Pilson said. Lazarus has the confidence of Comcast executives to make fiscally prudent decisions, he said.

Ebersol also left behind a strong team that was well experienced in the Olympics world, Pilson said.

"The Olympics are much more important to (NBC) than they are to the other two guys," he said. "That much became clear."

What's unclear is how much of the Switzerland game plan was drawn up before Ebersol left and how much of it was organized by Lazarus.

At the news conference following the IOC's decision, Lazarus held fast to the long-held Ebersol view that the main Olympics show comes in prime time for NBC, where marquee events will be broadcast, even if on a tape-delayed basis from Olympics sites in other time zones.

What was different was Lazarus' promise that every Olympics event would be carried live in the United States. Besides NBC, that could mean on cable networks such as MSNBC and USA, or newly acquired ones such as the all-sports Versus network and the Golf Channel, or streamed live over the Internet.

"It's good for the super sports fan, but doesn't necessarily change our strategy with how we build our prime time," Lazarus said.

The NBC deal encompasses broadcast and cable television, as well as streaming coverage on computers, tablets and mobile devices, he said. Anticipating the frantic pace of technological change, NBC also has rights to show the Olympics through 2020 on devices or formats that haven't been invented yet.

Comcast and NBC are happy now, but whether Tuesday's IOC decision represents the coup of Lazarus' career won't be known for several more years. Because the economy and advertising market tanked, NBC lost more than $200 million showing the 2010 Winter Games and some projections have them losing money in London in 2012, the results of rights deals made many years in advance in different economic times.

"We are confident that we will build value for shareholders and have a profitable relationship," Roberts said.