NBC Sports President: 2020 Will Be "Uniquely Combustible" as Olympics, Conventions Collide

THR - Pete Bevacqua - Photographed by Mackenzie Stroh - H 2019
Mackenzie Stroh

Pete Bevacqua also addresses the lack of diversity in golf and Colin Kaepernick's attempted NFL comeback: "You couldn't escape it."

Growing up in a "big, loud Italian-American family" in Bedford, New York, NBC Sports Group president Pete Bevacqua had two passions: golf and movies. The youngest of five and the only boy, his mother, Lee, was a nurse and his dad, Arthur, aka Doc, was a dentist and an avid golfer. He encouraged Pete to learn the game by becoming a caddy at the neighborhood club. With his sisters considerably older, by middle school, he recalls, “it was like I was an only child because they were in college or married. And then I did everything with my parents. We went to Manhattan for the Marlon Brando film festival. I saw Last Tango in Paris with my parents, which was a little bizarre.”

After he graduated from Notre Dame in 1993 — the alma mater of his father and two of his sisters — Bevacqua was at a crossroads. Should he go to film school or choose the practical path and law school? He chickened out and went to Georgetown Law. A grueling stint at the white-shoe Manhattan firm Davis Polk followed. Then on Dec. 14, 1997, his dad died in a car accident. (He was on his way to pick up Pete’s golf clubs, which he had re-gripped as a Christmas present.) It forced a reckoning. Unfulfilled with his legal career, Bevacqua sent an unsolicited résumé to a Georgetown alum at the U.S. Golf Association and eventually landed a job as its in-house legal counsel. He left in 2011 for CAA, charged with launching the agency's global golf business. He had been there 18 months, working out of New York, when he got a call from a headhunter that the PGA of America was looking for a CEO. He moved with his wife, Tiffany, and their two children to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (their third child was born there). He launched the KPMG Women's PGA Championship and worked out a landmark 15-year rights extension with NBC Sports chief Mark Lazarus for the Ryder Cup.

“I was not looking to leave [the PGA],” says Bevacqua. “Then [in 2018] I got a call from Mark who said, ‘Hey, I have this idea.’”

Bevacqua, 48, joined Lazarus at NBC Sports in September 2018 with oversight of programming, marketing, digital, NBC Sports Regional Networks and all golf businesses. In February, Lazarus expanded Bevacqua's purview to include the entirety of the NBC Sports Group portfolio, including the company's $12 billion Olympics business. He invited THR to his Stamford, Connecticut, office to talk about the future of football in the era of head trauma awareness, golf's diversity problem and why the Tokyo 2020 Games are perfectly positioned between this summer's political conventions.

There's been a loud debate about the future of football. You're comfortable letting your 9-year-old son play the game?

I think back to when I was playing football as a kid versus watching my son play. It's taught very differently, whether it's tackling techniques or the level of contact in practice. Football has done a very good job at making itself safer. There are risks of physical injury in any sport. Granted, football is a little more physical than most. But hey, I've thrown my back out and been laid up in bed for a week playing golf.

In the beginning, the NFL attempted to deny and bury the effects of head trauma on its players. How do you think they have done lately?

I think football in general is on top of it. The way they are teaching the game in the youth space, the rule changes [in the NFL], are making it a safer sport. But it’s a physical sport.

All three broadcast NFL rights packages are up after the 2022 season. Are you interested in more games beyond your Sunday night game and the Super Bowl every three years?

Our partnership with the NFL is as important as it gets for NBC Sports. Sunday Night Football has been the number one show in primetime TV eight years in a row — we're well on our way to nine years in a row. We’re pushing the envelope and experimenting with things, [including] our free-to-play game. The first week we had just north of 75,000 people participate. [By week 13] we had about 350,000. And now we’re digging into the data of participants: Are they watching the game longer? What are their viewing habits? We’re going to learn a lot from that and share that with the NFL. 

The NFL is asking the Supreme Court to review an antitrust decision that could call into question the league’s ability to restrict its 32 teams from individually negotiating cable, satellite and streaming deals. Are you concerned about that?

We’re following it. I don’t want to comment on how I think that will end. We are planning for a world where it continues to be dealt with the way it is currently. I think that is certainly the best for sports fans.

Did you follow Colin Kaepernick's aborted NFL tryout? Do you think he has any future in the league?

I don't know. I think everybody who is a sports fan has followed it. You couldn't escape it. I'm not a talent expert. I think it's tough to be away from a sport for a series of years and come back at a competitive level.

The PGA rights are coming up. Golf Channel is obviously partially dependent on the PGA. What are your plans there?

Conversations are ongoing. We would love to retain the PGA Tour. Part of the real attraction of the acquisition of [European pay TV giant] Sky in the sports landscape is that we could join forces on golf and soccer. Certainly the PGA Tour and the [English Premier League] are two areas where we can march in the same direction. I think you’ll see more interaction between us and Sky Sports. But I think those two sports are where we can show some progress probably more rapidly than any others.

CBS Sports has had the Masters for more than 60 years. But it has always been a handshake deal between former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and Augusta National. Is it possible to wrest the tournament from CBS?

(Laughs.) I don't know. We have a great relationship with Augusta National. We think the world of [chairman] Fred Ridley and their team. And we do a lot there. One of the things we're the most proud of is the Augusta National Women's Amateur tournament. I think it was a powerful statement for Augusta; it was certainly a powerful statement for the women's game.

Yes, Augusta has not had the best record on inclusivity.

Golf hasn't had the best history. Golf needs more diversity. How do you get more minorities playing the game, how do you get more women playing the game? I think all of golf understands that, whether it's the LPGA, the PGA Tour, the USGA, the PGA of America, Augusta National.

NHL rights are up after the 2021-22 season. You’re paying $200 million annually, which is a bargain …

But we never discuss precise economics. I will tell you we think we have done a great job with [the NHL]. I think [commissioner] Gary Bettman and his team would agree. We have every interest in the world in moving forward with the NHL.

What is the plan for NBC Sports on Peacock? I assume we'll see some events from this summer's Olympics in Tokyo on the platform.

Yes. I am having constant con­versations with [Peacock chairman] Matt Strauss. We are still ironing out the plan of what we'll do with the Olympics on Peacock. There absolutely will be something.

You need live sports to boost Peacock, yes?

You need a combination of live sports and stories about the sport. Live sports on Peacock [is] something you’ll see us develop over the course of the next few years, starting pretty strong out of the gate with the Tokyo Olympics. But I don’t think the power of broadcast is going away anytime soon.

So you lost Jim Bell as head of NBC Olympics …

Yeah. Jim, as you know, departed NBCUniversal. But we couldn’t be more excited about [Golf Channel executive producer] Molly Solomon [promoted to head Olympic production]. She was such an obvious choice. The reception internally has been just off-the-charts positive. She is going to be busy. I’m excited to see how she will put her own touches on the Olympics.

New owners at Deadspin provoked a staff exodus with a "stick to sports" edict, and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has told his talent to avoid "pure politics." Do you give your people similar marching orders?

We do a good job of helping educate the talent; we don't like to censor. But be responsible, be smart. You're a professional, do what you do best, bring the sport to life. There is always potential for error, but I think we have a pretty decent track record. And our producers do a great job of helping our on-air talent navigate waters that can be tricky at times.

Sports has always collided with issues, or politics …

Sports can transcend politics. The Olympics are a perfect example. The [2020 Tokyo Games] are smack dab in between the two political conventions. That's a wonderful thing. Psychologically, it's going to come as a welcome relief to a very hotly contested political moment in time.

Bob Costas, the longtime Olympic primetime host, leaned into that the most.

I wasn't here when Bob Costas was here, but we have the consummate professional at the helm with Mike Tirico. And if anybody can navigate those waters, particularly in 2020, it's Mike.

Yes, 2020 will be …

Especially combustible, uniquely combustible.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.