Colgate Maoron-News Interviews NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer

Michael McMasterContributor IIIJune 9, 2009

This article was originally published in the Colgate Maroon-News in December 2008. 

Last spring, Ken Schanzer ’66 was invited to come back to campus and speak to Colgate seniors as a part of Colgate’s “Real World” program. For weeks before his speech, Schanzer agonized over why Colgate had wanted him to speak to seniors. But suddenly, it struck him. He decided that Colgate was interested in something other than his position as President of NBC Sports for the last ten years.

“I am here to give you hope,” he told the seniors. “Because 44 years ago I graduated from Colgate with a 2.2 average, and I’m here giving this speech today.”

This week, Mr. Schanzer spoke to the Maroon-News about that speech and his career with NBC Sports.

Recalling his opening lines, Schanzer laughed and remembered, “I had a great time. Colgate is a great place to go to school.”

While at Colgate, Schanzer was a Political Science major and a member of the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, and he described his participation in the Greek system as a “terrific experience.”

Phi Kappa Psi is no longer a registered fraternity on campus, but Mr. Schanzer did not feel strongly about its absence at Colgate. He described himself as, “ambivalent about it,” and admitted that while he understands some alumni are upset about the number of houses on campus, he does not know enough about the situation to be affected by it.

And although Colgate had fifteen registered fraternities on campus in 1966 compared to today’s six, Schanzer was quick to point out that the largest difference between then and now is much more obvious.

“I am on the cultural divide because I graduated in ’66,” he said, “For people on that side of the divide the starkest difference is the addition of women.”

However, while Colgate has changed over the years, Schanzer stressed that all Colgate alumni share a unique relationship, regardless of what year they graduated.

“The thing that is interesting about Colgate is that you know that someone went to Colgate very early in your relationship with them,” he said. “Some schools are schools that people wear on their sleeves, others are places that simply become a part of the mosaic that it is their lives. Colgate is the kind of place that people wear on their sleeves.”

Mr. Schanzer went on to say that his connections to Colgate have followed him throughout his career. From the time that he graduated from law school at Columbia in 1970, he has worked with fellow Colgate alums to the present day. He mentioned one alumnus in particular, United States Golf Association Executive Director, David Fay.

Fay works with NBC Sports during the USGA championships, and they have developed a close friendship over the years. Schanzer and Fay keep a close correspondence, and on the morning of his interview with the Maroon-News Schanzer e-mailed Fay to express his excitement about contributing to his alma mater’s publication.

Colgate has followed Mr. Schanzer to what he believes is the “greatest job in the world.” For Schanzer, there really are no average days. For the last ten years, he has worked closely with his associate Dick Ebersol, Chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, solving problems and making deals at NBC.

He struggled to describe an average day, but said, “The bottom line is this. I get up in the morning, I get on a train, I buy a couple of papers, and I turn to the sports section and I am working. Most of the other guys on the train flip to the sports section because they can’t wait to get there, but I am working.”

Of course there are things about the job that he doesn’t like. Schanzer was quick to point out that he runs a business just like any other business, and for that reason there are parts of the job that he sometimes doesn’t enjoy. “But it just so happens that my business is sports,” he said. “So it’s pretty cool.”

Schanzer admitted that he knows plenty of men who make more money than he does. He recalled a particular golf tournament that he plays in every year.

The tournament has 88 players, and he supposed that he was, “the poorest guy in this tournament by a factor of ten.” But, he said, “I don’t think there is a guy in this tournament who wouldn’t give his right arm to do what I do for a living.”

The evidence for this comes to Schanzer every year after the tournament when men call him asking for things that they cannot buy that he earns by virtue of his job.

Schanzer loves his job, and by virtue of his work with NBC Sports, business meetings have become sporting events that he dreamed of attending as a child. His job has allowed him to meet people and do things he could only dream of.

He recalled one story in particular from several years ago. He was skiing with several associates, and one afternoon they brought along world-famous Austrian skier, Franz Klammer, who won a gold medal in the downhill at the 1976 Winter Olympics.

After four or five runs, Schanzer found himself sitting on a chairlift next to one of the single greatest alpine skiers of all time, and he sighed and said, “I’ve now skied with Franz Klammer and played golf with Jack Nicklaus. I could die now and it would be okay.” Klammer then turned to him and said incredulously, “You played golf with Jack Nicklaus?”

But Schanzer’s career didn’t start on the eighteenth green with golf’s greatest player. After getting his law degree, Schanzer began a career in politics working on campaigns in Washington.

For years before he began his career at NBC, Schanzer worked on campaigns and as a lobbyist. His career as a lobbyist led to him to NBC, and he was offered the position of Vice President of Negotiations. When he retires, Schanzer will be the longest serving executive member at NBC Sports.

“I’m one of the lucky people on the face of the earth,” Schanzer said, “When I was growing up, I had two passions, politics and sports.” In his professional life, Schanzer has had the opportunity to work on both.

His recent work at NBC brought Sunday Night Football to his network in 2006. Hosted by John Madden and Al Michaels, Sunday Night Football on NBC is the beneficiary of much-needed “flexible scheduling,” which allows the NFL to move attractive match-ups into the coveted Sunday night prime time slot.

While Michaels and Madden are responsible for calling the games, Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann are two of the co-hosts for Football Night in America, the 75-minute pre-game show before Sunday Night Football.

Patrick and Olbermann famously worked together on SportsCenter in the 1990s, and Schanzer worked hard to get them back on the set together. Of the reunion, Schanzer commented, “We thought the idea of pairing the two of them would be magic. They’re the original deal. And that will be on display.”

While Sunday Night Football has been a huge success, Super Bowl XLIII will be NBC’s largest event this year. This year the halftime show is featuring Bruce Springsteen, and while the NBC Sports President admitted he has no idea what the Boss is going to play, and said that he would not speculate on that topic, but he did concede that he’s hoping for “Thunder Road.”

And for the main event? Schanzer said the Giants look tough to stop, but that there are no clear favorites in the AFC. “It’s a dartboard,” he said. And when he threw the dart, it arrived in Pittsburgh. Schanzer expressed no confidence in Tennessee, and predicted a Giants-Steelers Super Bowl.

Schanzer says that his story is one of hope. Some parts of his career were more difficult than others, and he admitted that when he arrived at NBC as Vice President of Negotiations, he had never negotiated a deal before in his life.

“For the first three to five years, I felt like I was faking it,” he said. But Schanzer was working in an industry he loved, and his perseverance ultimately paid off. At the end of the day, Schanzer said, “I spent my life in politics and sports, and that’s a pretty good run.”