After nine years of generating headlines for CNN, Jeff Zucker is giving new thought to testing his acumen for the world of sports.
The former WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal executive, who abruptly left his job as head of CNN in February after acknowledging he failed to disclose a romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s former chief marketing officer, is said to be mulling some offers from the sports sector, according to two people familiar with the matter. None of these conversations are believed to be in their final stages, according to one of these people, and Zucker is said to be having discussions around a wide array of potential opportunities.
Sports wouldn’t be a new area for Zucker. In 2019, he took oversight of WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports, in addition to running CNN. During his time as head of the bulk of the company’s live-programming assets, Turner Sports expanded its rights with Major League Baseball and launched a new relationship with the National Hockey League (that opened the possibility for some of those games to stream on HBO Max). Turner widened its reliannce on a new celebrity-golf tournament concept, “The Match,” that allowed the company to get into golf — of a sort — without having to score new rights from a pre-existing league. He inherited Turner’s portfolio that has long included rights to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which it shares with Paramount Global’s CBS Sports, and, perhaps most importantly, a large deal with the National Basketball Association.
A spokesman for Zucker declined to make him available for comment.
Moving from WarnerMedia’s sports unit to another one controlled by a major traditional media company might not be possible at this time. ESPN, NBC Sports, CBS Sports and Fox Sports have executives firmly at the helm, and envisioning a return by Zucker to NBC, which he left after Comcast took control, is difficult.
Still, a host of sports upstarts have begun to enter the field. Amazon has taken control of the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” and Apple has struck a deal with Major League Baseball to show a package of baseball games on Friday nights in the coming 2022 season. These companies also have executives overseeing their sports efforts, but others like them are working to gain traction as more consumers start to enjoy sports telecasts and related programming via streaming.
What most of the digital players lack is expertise in programming and production. Getting crews to cover sports games is no small feat, nor is devising concepts and recruiting talent to make the games more appealing to audiences. Many sports-media outlets have begun to focus on just that in recent weeks, with ESPN raiding Fox Sports to boost the next season of “Monday Night Football” with the team of Troy Aikman and Joe Buck, putting a new main telecast of the show alongside a second presentation led by Peyton and Eli Manning that gained a surprising amount of traction last season.
There are precedents for media executives to try their hand in other areas of the sports world. Steve Koonin, who spent more than a decade overseeing programming at WarnerMedia networks like TBS and TNT, moved to become CEO of the Atlanta Hawks in 2014. David Levy, the former president of WarnerMedia’s cable operations, founded the sports consultancy and investment vehicle Back Nine Ventures, iis chairman of Genius Sports, and had a short stint as CEO of the Brooklyn Nets.