How an Ex-Turner Chief Reinvented His Career in the NBA
Former Turner Entertainment president Steve Koonin (who helped bring Conan and Tyler Perry to TBS), now CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, translated his skills from running a network to managing a basketball team: "I've been able to outlive my wildest dreams."
Steve Koonin has come full circle. The lifelong Atlanta resident, whose family has been a presence in the southern capital for nearly a century, had always wanted to make his civic mark on the community. An opportunity arose in April 2014, a few months after the then-president of Turner Entertainment was invited to be an investor in the Atlanta Hawks.
During conversations about the NBA team's future growth, "I was asked if I could recommend somebody" for the CEO position, Koonin tells THR, "and I did: I recommended me."
Koonin, 60, may have traded upfronts for draft days, but as he told his Turner colleagues in a letter announcing his departure, he considers the move "a transfer to another division." It was the third such "transfer" for the marketing whiz, who before Turner served as head of marketing and worldwide advertising at Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, where he created one of the first movie tie-in campaigns, between Batman and Diet Coke. "I'm in the entertainment business as much today as I was with Turner," says Koonin. "If we do a Gucci Mane concert postgame, it's the same thing as having a great guest on Conan."
Still, there are differences, from the national versus hyper-local focus to going from multibillion-dollar budgets to a privately owned franchise with "a fraction" of that (Forbes estimates the team's value at $800 million). Also, Koonin notes, "if a show doesn't work, you don't have sports radio talking about it for five days."
More intense public scrutiny aside, Koonin loves the higher level of passion in sports. "I found television to be high creative intellect, but low emotion: 'That pilot didn't go — we'll try a different one,' " he says. "With sports, we live and die by what happens on the court. People tattoo our logo on their body. They didn't do that for The Closer."
In Atlanta, Koonin has kept things creative, overseeing marketing plays that saw ratings up 14.4 percent since he joined the team and a franchise record in ticket revenue this season. His daring campaigns have included a Tinder-themed "Swipe-Right Night," hiring team spokespeople named Ashley Madison to promote a flexible ticket plan during the adultery site's infamous data leak, and issuing a handwritten tardy note for fans to give their bosses after a particularly late tip-off the night before. The letter offered employers a free seat to a subsequent game. "We thought 30 people would show up," Koonin says. Instead, 1,000 bosses turned out outside Phillips Arena in 12-degree weather. "We were running up and down the street handing out tickets."
Koonin doesn't envy today's TV execs who have to deal with industry disrupters — "that's not my problem anymore," he laughs — but they might envy him. Koonin hasn't had to leave his beloved Atlanta, and turned down big offers in L.A. and New York because "I can't imagine being happier anywhere else," he says. "From Turner Broadcasting to running a major sports team, I've been able to outlive my wildest dreams."
A version of this story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.