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NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua hopeful about NHL; Addresses NFL, Olympics, pandemic and ratings

 

The story of Pete Bevacqua is one of immaculate success.

From his roots, through his formative years, schooling and early training, Bevacqua has been a man with lofty goals. He knew immediately that achievement requires dedication and hard work. So he started as a kid.

His dad Arthur was a dentist who loved the links. It didn’t take much for the love of the game to rub off on Pete. By age ten, the younger Bevacqua began caddying at Bedford Golf and Tennis Club near the family’s home in Westchester County. Dad hoped that Pete, the youngest of his five children and only son, would become a PGA pro.

Pete didn’t disappoint. He did better!

He attended Brunswick School, a Greenwich, Connecticut prep where he was honored as valedictorian, voted senior class president and was all-league in football, basketball and yes, golf. If you judge schools by their alumni, Brunswick produced actor Henry Fonda and sports columnist Bill Simmons. Not bad company.

Then, following in his dad’s collegiate footsteps, Pete graduated from Notre Dame in 1993.

Through it, his commitment to golf never waned. He spent his college summers caddying and helping manage Bedford Golf’s pro shop. If that wasn’t enough, he was a walk-on punter for Lou Holtz’ Irish football team.

Bevacqua (left, in sweater) thought about film school after his ND days, but he took a clearer and more-assured path, going to law school. He earned his juris doctorate in 1997 from Georgetown and was hired as an associate at the prestigious Manhattan law firm of Davis, Polk and Wardwell.

Not long after he embarked upon his legal career, dad Arthur was killed in a car accident, driving near the Bedford Golf Club, where he planned to get Pete his Christmas present, re-gripped clubs. As you could imagine, what followed was a challenging time for Arthur’s son and his family.

How does the saying go? Nothing bad happens without some good coming from it. Pete sought a change of the endless hours he put in as an associate at Davis Polk. So through a fellow Georgetown alum, he reached out to the USGA and was hired as an in-house counsel.

In 2011, Bevacqua went to work for CAA where he began to build the mega-agency’s golf business. In 2012, at age 40, his career was about to skyrocket. About 18 months into the CAA job, Pete got a call from a headhunter to gauge his interest in becoming CEO of the PGA. It would be a dream come true. I could imagine his thoughts. How proud would dad be?

After a series of interviews, Bevacqua was hired. But change is never easy. The Bevacquas had just purchased a dream home in Katonah, New York. While still unpacking boxes, they had to turn things around, move down to South Florida, near the PGA headquarters in Palm Beach.

Mark Lazarus, Chairman, NBC Sports and Broadcasting
Lazarus

It was during his six years running the PGA that Bevacqua interacted with NBC Sports Chair Mark Lazarus. The two men negotiated a long extension of NBC’s golf rights and Ryder Cup deal.

When Lazarus’ NBC role expanded, he reached out to Bevacqua who accepted an offer to join NBC Sports in 2018. Initially, he took responsibility for major units of the division including programming.

You’d think that fulltime television would be out of Bevacqua’s comfort zone, a seasoned golf executive. Yet, Pete’s apparently demonstrated that he’s quick on the learning curve, and on a fast track at NBC Sports. He was promoted to President in 2019 and to Chairman last year.

Talk of timing, renewal of the company’s NFL deal was coming up, while the league was under harsh criticism for life-threatening player injuries. Then, last year, Covid-19 struck. The broadcast and sports worlds faced their greatest challenges ever!

We posed ten pertinent questions of Pete, 50 this July, and here’s how he answered them:

Q&A with Pete Bevacqua, Chairman NBC Sports

Before joining NBC, your career was focused almost exclusively on golf. What was the learning curve like transitioning to NBC Sports, a network with a broad menu of programming and tentacles?

There’s always a learning curve when you start something new, but I’ve known and interacted with many of the leaders at sports leagues and networks in the course of business in my prior jobs. Over the past few years, I have enjoyed working more closely with each of our partners and further building those relationships.  Golf is still a major passion of mine, but all of our partners are crucial elements of NBC Sports.

You’ve moved along quickly. A couple years after joining the NBC Sports Group in 2018 you were promoted to Chairman. Once the pandemic hit a year ago, sports’ governing bodies, leagues, teams and networks faced their greatest challenges ever. How has NBC fared?

Our staff and the teamwork we’ve shown has been extraordinary. Producing these sports has been vastly different, with our team working in multiple control rooms, or from home. We quickly, but carefully, began getting our teams back at events safely. The technological learnings were meaningful and will lead to future efficiencies, but without question I am most proud of how we have come together and supported each other throughout the pandemic.

On the golf side, NBC has grown its portfolio. You picked up the U.S. Open from Fox last year at what looked like a reduced fee. What other new rights deals overall do your foresee NBC pursuing?

We’re very excited about our USGA deal, and we can’t wait until June when we get to cover the U.S. Women’s Open from The Olympic Club followed two weeks later by the U.S. Open from Torrey Pines. I’m sure you saw our recent long-term agreement which secured Sunday Night Football for NBC well into the next decade, and renewing our PGA Tour deal in 2020 just before the pandemic was crucial for us . Regarding additional properties, we’ll continue to be appropriately and strategically aggressive, and will look for every opportunity that can help us and our many platforms.

While we all hope that the vaccine will mitigate the pandemic’s effect in the shortest order possible, what are the measures that NBC is taking to protect its investment in the Tokyo games?

We have been following Comcast and NBCUniversal security protocols as well as those of our league partners, venues and local governments. Our operations team has been second-to-none in implementing safety precautions to keep everyone on our team healthy as best we can. Specific to the Olympics, we have made adjustments to have a smaller footprint in Tokyo, as well as to spread out staff across multiple NBCUniversal locations in the U.S.  We’re very confident in our plan for safety and for presenting viewers with the best possible experience of enjoying the games via our platforms.

How have ad sales gone? The insurance and financial categories seem pretty healthy. How about other industries?

The market has been stronger than expected, but certainly we need to continue to be focused on all efforts in order to maintain and hopefully exceed previous Olympics, given the pandemic.  But we feel very good about where we are as we approach 100 days out from the start of the Tokyo Olympics.

Now that the NHL has sold ESPN a healthy chunk of its network rights going forward, where does NBC stand? Will you be happy with something less than what you had in the recent past?

We continue to discuss our future with the NHL. We have a terrific relationship with the League, and we’ve helped drive major growth in the sport in the past 15 years. Our NHL production team—led by Sam Flood, who is as engaged and knowledgeable about the sport as anyone in the business—is passionate and innovative.  We’ve delivered unprecedented promotion across NBCUniversal properties, and we’ve helped develop tentpole events like the Winter Classic. So, of course, if there’s a package that makes sense for us and our business and platforms, we want to remain long term partners with the NHL.

Ratings for the four major sports have sagged in the last year. The NFL was down but not nearly as much as other sports. How long will it take for these ratings to rebound?

A lot of what you saw last summer and into the late fall was an unprecedented glut of sports, with more competition for viewers and ratings. Sunday Night Football faced NBA and NHL playoff games head-to-head and still maintained incredibly strong ratings, and will once again be the number one show in primetime. The Kentucky Derby went up against college football. U.S. Open Golf competed against the NFL. It appears that viewership has begun to normalize in the first quarter of this year. Our golf coverage, for example, and the NHL, have shown significant viewership increases. I’m very optimistic as we head into our Championship Season coverage this spring.

There’s a lot that television has learned from the pandemic. One positive is that advanced technology has produced efficient conveniences. Home studios enable talk shows to originate from talents’ homes. Mike Tirico did an NFL game from his home. How much of a carryover effect will these production efficiencies have?  Do you see a vast increase in remote broadcasts once the nation has regained its collective health? 

Our engineering, operations and production teams, to name a few, have learned a great deal from what has been accomplished over the past year. This is largely a result of advances in technology. In-person interaction definitely adds to any telecast, and we are getting back to that type of production in many ways now.

At the Kentucky Derby next month, we’ll have more than a dozen on-air talent on-site at Churchill Downs. For last year’s event, on Labor Day Weekend, we had our main set at our International Broadcast Center in Stamford, five reporters on-site, Eddie Olczyk in the hockey bubble in Edmonton, and other talent at home. That said, there will still be parts of our production that can be done remotely, from Stamford for instance. So instead of traveling people to an event, there will likely be some portion that we can more efficiently and economically handle remotely.

Talking of Tirico, he has a full schedule. Are you concerned that he’s overexposed?

We think Mike is the most versatile sportscaster working today. He’s a tremendous storyteller and is a star play-by-play announcer, host, and interviewer.  His presence makes an event more important for the viewer.

Mike’s knowledge and interest in all of the sports across our portfolio make him an ideal Olympic primetime host who is also a top football play-by-play announcer, can easily shift gears to host Football Night in America, the Kentucky Derby or Indy 500, and call an NHL playoff game in between. And I haven’t even mentioned golf, which he’s excelled at for decades.

The network is doing away with NBCSN. What limitations will this cause and how and where will NBC compensate for the loss of this platform?

We’re more committed than ever to live sports—our recent long-term NFL, PGA Tour and USGA deals are examples.  We also have long term deals with the Triple Crown races, NASCAR, Notre Dame and of course the Olympics. Putting higher profile sports on a bigger stage like USA Network is good for our partners as well. USA’s great strength is the wide reach of their scripted and unscripted content, so blending sports into their schedule is a perfect fit and makes USA Network even stronger, long term

In addition, Peacock, as you saw in our new NFL deal, is a major part of our plans moving forward. In less than a year, Peacock has become a destination for sports programming. Our Premier League live, encore and shoulder programming have been a big hit on Peacock, and in the coming months it will be home to Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics elements, as well as INDYCAR action.

 

 

 

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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