Jeff Zucker Likely to Pursue Niche Sports Rights in New Turner Role

Ben Mounsey-Wood

With top-tier leagues like the NFL unavailable, the CNN exec may turn to under-the-radar events (arm wrestling?) to fulfill his new mandate to expand WarnerMedia's sports portfolio.

"My two passions in life are news and sports," CNN chief Jeff Zucker said during a March 9 keynote at SXSW. Indeed Zucker's entree into television began at NBC as an Olympics researcher for the 1988 Seoul Games.

And so the announcement on March 4 that his WarnerMedia portfolio will expand to encompass Turner's robust sports assets, including the NBA, MLB and San Francisco-based Bleacher Report, is a full-circle moment for the 53-year-old executive.

Zucker's mandate is to grow the company's live assets as WarnerMedia rolls out an ambitious direct-to-consumer play. And it comes amid a power shift in the $50 billion content market from traditional linear players to deep-pocketed digital behemoths.

Rights deals with the most popular league — the NFL — are coming up at ESPN after the 2021 season and at CBS, Fox and NBC at the conclusion of the 2022 season, while the league has also been experimenting with digital packages; Amazon pays the NFL $65 million annually to stream Thursday Night Football games.

Zucker has said that he reached out to the commissioners of the major leagues. Could WarnerMedia someday become home to the NFL? It's not impossible. But in the meantime, sports like bowling and competitive eating are far more likely. Said WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey on March 4, "Jeff's role isn't necessarily to go out and find the easy play — the existing major sports leagues. It will be finding the ones that haven't emerged."

Indeed, niche sports have become hot commodities in a direct-to-consumer arms race where live programming is prized and sports, which can generate loyal fan communities, ever more so. "Sports are the next frontier in streaming," notes WebBush analyst Dan Ives, adding that he expects a significant portion of the estimated $15 billion to $20 billion annually digital companies will spend on content to go to acquiring sports rights.

Turner Sports has a head start; Bleacher Report last spring launched B/R Live, a live sports streaming service that includes a pay-per-game option. And Turner Sports, like ESPN, has been forging deals with under-the-radar sports leagues including the Alliance of American Football, the World Armwrestling League and ONE Championship, the mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion that has lured fighters from UFC and Bellator. All three stream on B/R Live.

MMA content has proved to be a strong draw for OTT services — ESPN has made it marquee programming on its ESPN+ service, with deals for established promotions including UFC (with a $5.5 billion, five-year deal) that put fights on ESPN and ESPN+. MMA fans tend to be young, male and rabid; they’re also accustomed to paying for content because pay-per-view has long been a feature of MMA (and boxing).

Esports also are a growing niche in the OTT market that is expected to surpass $1 billion in revenue in 2019, according to analytics firm Newzoo. (Bleacher Report and ESPN+ carry esports content.) Bleacher Report CEO Howard Mittman said March 11 that former MGM executive Sam Toles would head up Bleacher Report's content division. Toles’ appointment follows a February pact between Turner Sports and Cesars Entertainment to develop sports gambling content and includes a new Bleacher Report-branded studio inside the sports book at Cesars’ Las Vegas hotel and casino.

Stankey's ambitions for WarnerMedia's direct-to-consumer products are to rival the scale of Netflix. And sports could be the one area where he has a competitive advantage. For WarnerMedia, says Ives, sports is "in their sweet spot."

This story appears in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.