Article image

by Andrew Lawrence

March 15, 2022

Swimming has helped the MGM Studios COO negotiate some of the biggest deals in the entertainment world

Chris Brearton grew up in Houston like many other Texas schoolboys: with hopes of a long football career. He held his own at free safety, but when he entered the ninth grade, he was just 5 foot 2 and 120 pounds. His chances of playing in high school were just as slim. You’ll get killed, his mother flat out told him. A paradoxical state of denial (Brearton’s words) consumed him, heavy stuff for a teenager.

But then Brearton watched Steve Lundquist, a Norse god lookalike with his piercing blue eyes, messy flaxen hair, and physique drawn from a Marvel comic, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It wasn’t just the ease with which Lundquist ate his rivals like gravlax that made him so irresistible to behold. He was also beyond eccentric—a high school defensive end who quit football as colleges started calling, an animal lover who rescued a lab mouse. He nearly ended his career picking up a copperhead snake in 1978, and he nearly cost himself a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team six years later after dislocating his left shoulder while water skiing barefoot.

Brearton watched Lundquist, a 6-foot-2, 183-pound superhero, stride into the University of Southern California’s natatorium at the 1984 Games wearing his trademark oven mitts for a showdown with fellow American John Moffet in the final heat of the 100 breaststroke. Lundquist made sure it wasn’t much of a race, jumping out to a half-body-length lead after the first pullout. By the turn, no one would reel in the 23-year-old Georgian, certainly not with Moffet hamstrung with a pulled groin muscle. When Lundquist touched the wall after barely a minute’s work, he claimed a gold medal and a world record.

Fifteen hundred miles away, the state of denial over Brearton lifted. “Lundquist was just a rock star,” recalls Brearton, who hadn’t seriously considered sticking with swimming until that moment. “In my mind, I was like, ‘If I could be like that, that would be cool.’”

Alas, Brearton didn’t go on to become the next Steve Lundquist. But that’s not to say that Brearton, 51, hasn’t had a sizable impact on the sport or that the sport hasn’t sizably impacted him. Nearly four decades later, it’s hard not to look back at Lundquist’s golden opportunity as the moment that set the trajectory of Brearton’s life. Instead of becoming an embittered high school football wannabe, Brearton found a lane for himself that led him all the way to Hollywood as an A-list sporting rights dealmaker and COO of MGM Studios. “That's why I think in our sport it’s so important to find a compelling hook,” he says. It’s that eye for story and passion for swimming that made Brearton the choice to succeed Bob Vincent as chair of USA Swimming’s board.

One of his biggest challenges is conditioning swim fans to tune in before and after the Olympics, not just during. Brearton attended FINA meetings in February as part of a subcommittee that discusses media rights and media sponsorship. “One of the things we talk a lot about is ‘How can we juice up the production value from a fan experience of all our aquatic sports?’” he says.

The answer is usually as simple as dialing up the drama, the love language of the casual American TV viewer. Few networks have a stronger command of it than NBC. The station’s soft-focus, personality-driven profiles help steer attention to athletes and sports that see precious little of it outside of the Games. But where track and field and gymnastics seem to regenerate colorful characters every Olympic cycle, even big fish like Michael Phelps come off as monks who’d much rather focus on the black line and the clock than posting to TikTok. When one swimmer a while back asked Brearton if it isn’t enough to be the greatest in the world, he responded, quite frankly, that it wasn’t.

That’s not to say he can’t appreciate where that swimmer was coming from. “When you look at [Team USA’s] Olympic results, the difference between us winning 30 medals and 18 medals is cumulatively a second, a second and a half,” Brearton says. “That’s the difference between a successful Olympic Games for the United States and an absolute, unmitigated disaster.”

It’s just that the other stuff makes the achievements in the pool resonate that much more.

“Unfortunately, you’ve got to be interesting,” he says. “You’ve got to be present. You’ve got to be on social.”

A year-round swim star has to have to have it all—the focus, the ability, and the charisma. Still, as much as Brearton would love to provide a showcase for another Lundquist, he better than anyone recognizes just how tough a role that is to cast.

Brearton was more of a workaday swimmer; a peripatetic family life (his father was a traveling CPA) made for inconsistent coaching. After a move from Houston to Sacramento, he found his way onto Mike Hastings’s famed California Capital Aquatics and trained alongside four-time Olympic medalist Summer Sanders and other standouts for two years. But after a move to Columbus, Georgia, before his senior year, Brearton suffered from lesser competition; nonetheless, he proved good enough, and big enough (after a 9-inch growth spurt), to walk on at the University of Georgia. “Georgia was not Georgia back then, but it was still pretty darn good,” recalls Brearton, who described himself as a so-so 200 breaststroker and 100 butterflyer. “We had a lot of Europeans back then, and it made for a really fun team. That was when the world was smaller, and we didn’t have ubiquitous information like we do now. Swimming brought the world to me.”

After graduating in 1992 with an accounting degree, Brearton went on to law school at the University of Virginia. After taking a job with the accounting firm KPMG, Brearton seemed to be turning into his father. But as he explains it, his accounting career provided another education in how businesses are properly put together and run. It became the foundation for everything that followed.

Brearton left KPMG for the Los Angeles offices of O’Melveny & Myers, carving out a groove in the firm’s sports practice. In 2003, he scored his first major client when the International Olympic Committee approached the firm for help negotiating its U.S. TV rights and scored a $2 billion bid from NBC. The deal, a 47% bump from NBC's previous pact, marked Brearton as a go-to broker for TV sports properties. Brearton helped thrash out the NCAA’s eight-year, $8.8 billion extension with CBS and Turner for the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament, and he worked with Univision in securing its licenses for the 2010 and 2014 World Cup.

Around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Brearton engineered for basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, who died in 2020, a deal designed to capitalize on his Elvis-level celebrity in China. “The idea was to take Kobe’s Name, Image, and Likeness rights—an NIL before an NIL—and basically drop them into a joint venture in China against capital and then monetize it for everything from video games to credit cards to billboards and the like and create a vehicle that you deliberately take public on one of the exchanges there,” Brearton says. “Ultimately, what happened with that structure is that it was just too ahead of its time. You see it happening now more frequently.”

After the sports station YES Network launched in 2002 as the broadcasting home of the New York Yankees and what was then the New Jersey Nets, Brearton was inspired to put together a similar TV package for sports broadcasting in other major markets. He’s especially proud of the deal he negotiated with Comcast in the Bay Area, which may have benefited the San Francisco Giants most of all. “It really was an unlock as far as what you could do for a team,” he says. “The Giants had been struggling. They didn’t have the payroll that some of the other big-market national teams [have]. We came in and structured a long-term deal that not only brought in a steady flow of capital, but also what you saw literally after that is the Giants go on the run they went on, won some championships and from that day forward were really highly relevant competitively. It was almost like the Steve Lundquist thing all over again.”

Which is to say: That moment was like something out of a Hollywood script.

Early in his career, Brearton had no desire to be in the entertainment business. When he started with KPMG in 1992, MGM was an audit client. Over the ensuing decades, he’d shepherd the studio—famous for “Gone With the Wind,” Alfred Hitchcock films, and the James Bond and Rocky franchises—through a slew of acquisitions and two bankruptcy proceedings as a CPA, a young attorney at O’Melveny & Meyers, and a partner at Latham & Watkins. Finally, in 2018, he joined the studio as COO, overseeing the studio’s strategic growth. In his relatively brief time in that job, he has had to navigate the studio through a global pandemic that hit the entertainment industry especially hard. “Some of it is a zero-sum game in the sense that production costs went up substantially because we had to engage in all sorts of new safety protocols,” he says. And then, of course, when people stopped going to theaters, the studio had to pivot to pushing more content through Apple TV and other video-on-demand outlets.

As Brearton honed his focus on streaming, he couldn’t help but take notice of how water sports in other countries were thriving on the platform. “One of the things that was interesting was Amazon broadcasting the Australian swimming Olympic trials—and it was a huge hit,” says Brearton, who had another aha moment. “There are places, countries, pockets, regions in this world that are obsessed with aquatics in one form or another. Broadcast television was really limiting in the sense that you have a one-hour block to put something on that appeals to the most people so you can sell the most ads to a certain demographic. That’s out the window. With streaming, it’s an endless scroll, and you can appeal to niche audiences in a way that’s compelling.”

USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey drove the campaign to recruit Brearton to the board in 2017 as part of a massive governance overhaul. In Brearton, the organization not only has a leader who can expand the show business side of the sport but also one who appreciates the commitment to swim education and grassroots competitions. “There are 400,000-plus kids swimming in meets every day, every weekend of the year,” he says. “It’s a volunteer network of officials and meet marshals and timers and runners and people giving tons of their time to make this machine work. And they’re experts who take it seriously and make our sport better. They really are the backbone of our sport.” Now Brearton sits on a board with people like Olympians Natalie Coughlin-Hall, Tony Ervin, and Katie Meili. True rock stars of the pool, in other words.

USA Swimming doesn’t lack for blockbuster attractions in the Steve Lundquist mold. Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky just happen to be the biggest draws right now. They’ve proven they can capture the country’s imagination. Brearton’s magic can help them hold onto it. “I believe with everything in my soul that if you create true stories that are interesting and sexy and intriguing to the public,” he says, “if you can create a cult of personality in a positive or even interesting way, those niche audiences just get bigger and bigger.”


  • Human Interest


  • Profile