After more than two decades of riding the roller coaster that is the sports business, Scott O’Neil is moving into the world of real amusement rides. This week former Sports & Entertainment CEO Harris Blitzer will become CEO of Merlin Entertainments, the world’s second largest theme park operator, behind only Disney.
Merlin uses many Legoland, Madame Tussauds and Sea Life locations around the world among its more than 140 attractions, including the London Eye.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to be and what I want to do and I kept circling around people and scale and purpose,” O’Neil said in an interview. “This is literally as close to a dream-come-true opportunity as I could ever imagine.”
O’Neil spent eight years in the NBA and four as president of MSG Sports before joining what would become HBSE. The Sixers were worth about $415 million when he joined in 2013; By the time it went back in June 2021, the conglomerate was worth $2.5 billion.
Now, O’Neil will deliver similar growth in a different, but somewhat related, category. He replaces Nick Varney, who recently retired after 23 years at Merlin.
“Scott has extensive experience in the entertainment industry, a proven track record of delivering business transformation, and the vision and ambition to lead Merlin to the next exciting stages of its global development,” Merlin Entertainments president Roland Hernandez said in a statement.
Merlin was taken private in 2019 in a 50% transaction by Kirkbi, the private investment company of the Lego founding family, in which private equity firm Blackstone also had a major stake.
Merlin has recently opened attractions built around children’s characters such as Peppa Pig and Peter Rabbit. It will also open three more 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 such a large platform to work on creates opportunity.”