After more than two decades riding the roller coaster that is the business of sports, Scott O’Neil is heading into the world of real rides. This week, the former CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment will start as CEO of Merlin Entertainments, the world’s second-largest theme park operator, behind only Disney.
Merlin operates numerous Legoland, Madame Tussauds and Sea Life locations worldwide among 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. “Literally, this is as close to a dream come true opportunity as I could have ever imagined.”
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 roughly $415 million when he joined in 2013; the conglomerate was valued at roughly $2.5 billion when it stepped back in June 2021.
Now, O’Neil will look to deliver similar growth in a different, but somewhat related, category. He replaces Nick Varney, who recently retired after 23 years at the Merlin.
“Scott has significant experience in the entertainment industry, a proven track record in business transformation and the vision and ambition to guide Merlin through the next exciting stages of its global development,” said Merlin’s chairman Entertainments, Roland Hernández, in a statement.
Merlin was taken private in 2019 in a transaction that left the company 50% owned by Kirkbi, the private investment company of Lego’s founding family, with private equity firm Blackstone also taking 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 additional Legoland locations in China over the next two years. In addition to Lego, Merlí 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 with creates opportunities.”