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Jeff Zucker: AT&T Could Try to Broaden Its Sports-Rights Portfolio

Major media companies like Disney, Comcast, CBS and Fox are always jockeying for the rights to broadcast America’s most popular sports. AT&T may join their ranks.

The telecommunications giant, through its WarnerMedia subsidiary “will certainly continue to be a significant player in the sports-rights arena,” says Jeff Zucker, who was just named chairman of WarnerMedia’s news and sports properties, in an interview Monday. “WarnerMedia will continue to be aggressive when appropriate and strategic,” he adds.

The company already enjoys a significant alliance with the National Basketball Association. The two are so close that WarnerMedia is an integral part of the NBA’s digital strategy. What’s more, AT&T has struck up an e-sports league with WME/ICM and shares the rights to broadcast the NCAA’s Final Four basketball championship with CBS. Zucker says he has already made outreach to the commissioners of the major sports leagues.

But there could be opportunities to add more in months to come. Many traditional and digital media companies are focused on the next cycle of rights to broadcast NFL football, which will start to come up for renewal, first at ESPN in 2021 and at NBC, CBS and Fox the following year. Might AT&T be interested? “We are not going to take anything off the table,” says Zucker.

In the meantime, there is much to focus on at the sports unit, previously part of Turner Broadcasting. In recent months, Turner Sports has turned to streaming and digital. It launched a streaming service under the umbrella of its Bleacher Report sports-news site and even tested a pay-per-view match-up between golfers Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

The sports role gives Zucker new heft in the programming world and at his parent company. He will now have oversight of the majority of WarnerMedia programs that consumers watch as they happen, rather than on demand (to be sure, sibling unit HBO also airs some live programs, such as “Real Time with Bill Maher”). At a time when more couch potatoes are turning to streaming services and mobile tables to binge-watch dramas and comedies on demand, sports and news have proven durable. Indeed, sports properties like NFL football games and other big matches command some of TV’s priciest ad costs.

“News and sports continue to be the only two types of programs whose viewership is increasing in television, and so I think there is a lot to be said for putting them together and managing them together,” along with the digital outlets associated with them, says Zucker. “Live programming remains the least impacted by the new forms of distribution and the way people consume today.”

Zucker does not expect to manage AT&T sports business day to day. He will rather have larger oversight of the business, and he likened the relationship to the company’s sports properties to the one he had with NBC Sports when he was CEO of NBCUniversal between 2007 and 2010.

And yet, he won’t be afraid to test new ideas. “I’m very comfortable with Turner Sports as it is today,” he says. At the same time, “we will always be open to trying new things and not be beholden to legacy ways of doing things. My philosophy has been always to respect what has come before but not be bound by it.”

Zucker had previously extended his contract with WarnerMedia through 2020, which would keep him in place until after the next presidential election. Asked whether he had agreed to stay with the company longer now that he had been given new responsibilities, he declined to comment.

Zucker says he doesn’t intend to shake up the unit or change executive roles there – though he expects to put more emphasis on Bleacher Report and CNN’s digital properties in the next while. “Turner Sports has been incredibly well run and incredibly successful, and I’d just like to make sure I don’t screw that up,” he told Variety. “I’ve very familiar with coming into an organization that has a proud legacy, and my goal is to figure out how to further enhance it.”

The executive’s clear reference is to CNN, which he joined as president in 2013. Since that time, the cable-news outlet, once known for a plain-vanilla positioning when covering the news, has at times taken a more aggressive posture.  Zucker will not be leaving CNN in any sense. When asked if he would continue taking part in the outlet’s 9 a.m. news meeting, he replied: “Every day.”

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