(Updated on June 8)
The NBC Sports Group is in the midst of its "championship season" and Mark Lazarus is a man on the move.
Over the next week, Comcast’s sports programming unit is televising the French Open Tennis Championships, the NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers, the U.S. Open Golf Championship and the Belmont Stakes, where California Chrome is looking to become thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
“This is the sweet spot of our championship season. We’re televising the French Open championships in Paris and perhaps a Triple Crown Winner in horse racing. We’re covering the Stanley Cup Final and the U.S. Open,” said Lazarus in a phone interview from Roland Garros during the second women’s semifinal won by Romania's fast-rising Simona Halep over Andrea Petkovic. That sets up the championship Saturday contest against Maria Sharapova, followed by mega men’s matchup between eight-time winner Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, looking to complete a career Grand Slam and reclaim the No. 1 ranking, on Sunday morning.
It was a fitting time for Lazarus – who was flying back to New York for the Belmont on June 7; will attend Game 3 of the NHL championship series at Madison Square Garden on Monday night; and then head to North Carolina for the U.S. Open golf at Pinehurst No. 2 --- to look back over the past half year that has seen the programmer crown a number of achievements.
“It’s been an incredible six months," said Lazarus.
Over that time, NBC Sports Group, among other milestones, concluded its first year with soccer's Barclays Premier League; tackled a third straight TV season primetime triumph with Sunday Night Football; won 18 consecutive nights with the Sochi Winter Olympics, before grabbing the rights to another six-pack of Games; renewed its Kentucky Derby coverage for a decade; and saw NBCSN ring up its best-ever primetime performance in May, as the network is topping Fox Sports 1 with the Nielsens.
The discussion on Thursday, though, turned first to the Belmont,
With 15.3 million and 9.6 million viewers for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, respectively, NBC is expecting a big Nielsen finish for the latest run at the Triple Crown by the horse with modest bloodlines.
Asked if NBC might lose potential ratings appeal in the future if California Chrome wins on Saturday and ends a 36-year Triple Crown drought, Lazarus replied. “I don’t think you worry about that. Anytime there is potential for something great, you want to be part of chronicling history. That’s something NBC Sports has been doing over the past 50, 60 years.” (California Chrome finished fourth, but NBC averaged 20.6 million watchers, the second most for the race on record (since 1988) behind the 21.9 million viewers for Smarty Jones' Triple Crown attempt in 2004.)
Lazarus would also like to make sure the Belmont and the Preakness remain part of NBC’s rights stable past the 2015 races. After securing a 10-year extension with Churchill Downs on Feb. 26, NBC Sports Group has turned its thoroughbred intentions to the second and third legs of the Triple Crown.
“The Preakness and Belmont have been great partners. We’ve shown our capabilities around these events and are having good discussions,” he said.
On the ice, NBC is looking to cap a season highlighted by the 2014 Winter Classic tying for the best NHL regular-season rating in 39 years, the success of the Stadium Series and the top full-season viewership on NBC and NBCSN with the puck sport.
“Having New York and Los Angeles in the first championship series since 1981 [Yankees-Dodgers] is a great story,” said Lazarus. “We’re excited to be part of it, and are hoping for a long, action-packed series.”
While it may not have the pedigree as fervid puck markets like Chicago, Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh, “LA is waking up as a hockey town,” said Lazarus, who will be in the MSG crowd when the Broadway Blueshirts entertain the Kings on June 9.
The opening game – a 3-2 overtime win by the Kings at the Staple Center -- netted 4.78 million viewers, the second most since NBC began airing the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. It was down 25%,, though. from the 6.36 million for the triple OT match between the Bruins and Blackhawks last year. Airing out of the Belmont, the second game of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final averaged 6.4 million, up 34% from Wednesday's Game 1 and well above the 4 million that watched last year's second game, which aired on cable network NBCSN. S
NBC, which vaulted to the top spot in broadcast for the first time in decade during the just-finished TV season, was aided in large part by the medium’s top show, Sunday Night Football, which averaged 21.4 million viewers during its 2013 NFL campaign.
“We’re blessed to have a great schedule with the NFL. And I may be biased, but our presentation with [producer] Fred Gaudelli, with Al [Michaels], Cris [Collinsworth] and Michelle [Tafoya] is the best. That started with my predecessor Dick Ebersol; it was his brainchild,” said Lazarus. SNF has won six consecutive Sports Emmys for outstanding live sports series; no other show has placed more than three in a row on the mantle.
He said the appeal of the show crosses teams and genders: “Sunday Night Football is accessible. Not only is it the No. 1 show, but it’s the No. 1 show with women as well.”
Beginning next season, NBC will add a divisional NFL playoff game to its lineup and will televise Super Bowl XLIX.
Lazarus also talked about what the rest of the world calls football. He said NBC Sports Group's first season coverage of the Barclays Premier League, which featured 40 matches in 12 days around the turn of 2013-14 calendar, culminated on May 11 with “Championship Sunday.” That's when all 10 of the U.K. circuit’s matches appeared on NBCU networks, marking the first time all of those games were televised simultaneously on linear TV in the U.S. All told, NBC Sports Group's coverage of the campaign scored with a U.S. record 32 million viewers.
As is the case with the NHL, NBCSN stands as the Premier League’s primary Stateside outlet. Coupled with action from Formula 1 and Indy Car circuits, and a record-setting daytime run with the Sochi Olympics, the 83-million subscriber network has rung up nine consecutive months of year-over-year growth. “That defies media gravity in this day and age,” said Lazarus.
Over the course, those deliveries have boosted NBCSN’s fortunes in the battle for sports fans’ eyeballs with Fox Sports 1, behind cable leader ESPN. Since FS1 launched on Aug. 17, NBCSN has averaged 322,000 viewers in primetime compared with 278,000 for FS1, according to Nielsen data through June 4. It total day, NBCSN averaged 155,000 viewers to 111,000 for FS1. Bolstered by the second and third rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, NBCSN averaged 1.1 million primetime viewers in May, the most in its history and the first time it cracked the seven-figure average, according to live +same-day data from Nielsen.
Lazarus hopes to keep the audience needle revving for NBCSN, which launched weekday show NASCAR America on Feb. 24, when it adds Sprint Cup and Nationwide series racing during 2015, as the stock car circuit rejoins NBC Sports Group under a 10-year deal.
Acknowledging that NASCAR Nielsens have been “a touch down the past couple of years,” Lazarus noted that “they’re still big numbers.” He said fans/viewers are there on Saturdays and Sundays for the races, and with qualifying and practice throughout the week.
“This is a passionate, loyal fan base,” he said. “NASCAR is a great addition for us and we will look to add our big event culture to the coverage.”
Meanwhile, the Olympics will continue to be part of the Comcast-NBCU culture for 20 more years. On May 7, the company announced it had secured the rights for the six quadrennials starting in 2022 and ending with the Summer Games in 2032, for some $7.7 billion.
Lazarus called the Olympics “a melding of technology, platforms and media” for Comcast NBCUniversal. When asked about the Games' staying power/appeal a generation from now, Lazarus believes the event will still rise above the fray. “The Olympics are a very valuable global property,” he said. “It’s rare when something can unite people of all nationalities, and we believe that Americans will continue to feel that way."
Golf Channel, which has been on a three-year ratings run of its own, will be in the mix from Pinehurst with 57 hours of news and analysis, flanking the 19 hours of Golf Channel on NBC coverage of the U.S. Open. next week.(This will be NBC's last U.S. Open Golf Championship, at least for a while: Fox holed a 12-year rights deal, starting with the 2015 tourney.)
Golf Channel Films will set the stage with Payne, a remembrance of the late Payne Stewart on the 15th anniversary of his U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst. The doc, airing on Sunday, June 8 at 5 p.m. on NBC and Monday, June 9 at 10 p.m. on Golf Channel, comes on the heels of the critical and ratings success the cable channel enjoyed with Arnie, the three-part film about the legendary golfer and channel co-founder Arnold Palmer, whom Lazarus calls "a great friend of the network."
Lazarus said viewers can expect more docs from Golf: “We’re looking to things that make sense and where there are the right opportunities.”