After more than two decades riding the roller coaster that is sports business, Scott O’Neil is heading to the world of actual amusement rides. This week the former Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment CEO will start as CEO of Merlin Entertainments, the world’s second-largest theme park operator—trailing only Disney.
Merlin operates numerous Legoland, Madame Tussauds, and Sea Life locations around the world among more than 140 attractions, including the London Eye.
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“I spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to be and what I want to do and I just kept circling around people, scale, and purpose,” O’Neil said in an interview. “Literally, this is as close to a dream-come-true opportunity as I could have imagined.”
O’Neil spent eight years at the NBA and four as the president of MSG Sports before joining what would become HBSE. The Sixers were worth roughly $415 million when he joined in 2013; the conglomerate was valued at approximately $2.5 billion by the time he stepped back in June 2021.
Now, O’Neil will look to deliver similar growth in a different, yet somewhat related category. He replaces Nick Varney, who recently retired after 23 years at Merlin.
“Scott has significant experience in the entertainment industry, a proven track-record of delivering business transformation, and the vision and ambition to lead Merlin through the next exciting stages of its global development,” Merlin Entertainments chair Roland Hernandez said in a statement.
Merlin was taken private in 2019 in a transaction that left the company 50% owned by Kirkbi, the Lego founding family’s private investment company, with private equity firm Blackstone also holding a significant share.
Merlin has recently opened attractions built around kids characters like Peppa Pig and Peter Rabbit. It is also opening three additional Legoland sites in China over the next two years. In addition to Lego, Merlin has created experiences with Dreamworks, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Hasbro.
“We’re one of the few places that can bring brands to life,” O’Neil said. “Having a platform this big to work from creates opportunity.”