Turner Entertainment Chief Steve Koonin Exits to Become CEO of Atlanta Hawks

Bryan Meltz
Steve Koonin

In his new role, Koonin will oversee all business, financial and strategic operations of the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena.

Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin is exiting the company to become CEO of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks.

In his new role, Koonin will oversee all business, financial and strategic operations of the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena. He will also acquire an equity position within the ownership group and represent the owners as the head of the organization.

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“I have a deep commitment to Atlanta: My family has been a part of this city for nearly a century," Koonin said in a statement. "I have watched the excitement and potential of the entire city growing together as our sports teams achieve success. I couldn’t be more excited to join the Hawks organization."

He added: "We have a lot of work to do, but I believe my professional experience, my passion for this team and the NBA, as well as the Hawks’ great existing executive talent, including our president of basketball operations/general manager Danny Ferry and president of business operations for the Hawks and Philips Arena president Bob Williams, make this organization’s future very bright.”

Koonin spent 14 years at Turner Entertainment Networks, most recently as the division’s president. In that role, he oversaw programming, marketing, scheduling, strategy and operations for TNT, TBS, TruTV, and Turner Classic Movies. In recent years, he became a chief cheerleader for cable, using his networks' mid-May upfront platform to push for parity with broadcast -- often knocking the latter in the process.

Having joined the company when it was merely a hodgepodge of wrestling, docs and Little House of the Prairie reruns, Koonin was integral in building networks around programming genres -- TBS became the comedy network, TNT became the drama one. With programming honcho Michael Wright based in Los Angeles and keenly focused on beefing up the networks' original programming offerings, the two saw ratings -- and CPMs advertisers were willing to pay -- soar.

More recently, Koonin was key to luring Conan O'Brien to TBS, and was the creative deal maker behind the original collection of 10/90 deals with Debmar-Mercury and creator/star Tyler Perry. The Atlanta-based exec often suggested his distance from Hollywood allowed him to think and operate differently. Additionally, Koonin has been instrumental in the programming and media-rights acquisition processes around the NBA and NCAA and has helped build the franchises Inside the NBA and NBA on TNT. 

His move to the Hawks comes less than a year after David Levy was upped to president of Turner Broadcasting, overseeing TBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, truTV, Cartoon Network, Boomerang and Adult Swim. Prior to that, Koonin reported to Phil Kent, who was out at Turner in 2013.

"Steve Koonin’s reputation as a game changer in both marketing and media makes him the ideal leader to usher the Atlanta Hawks into a new era," Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson said. "He has created a legacy as an expert in sports marketing, television, branding and digital media.”

Added NBA commissioner Adam Silver: "I have known Steve for more than two decades, and based both on first-hand experience and his stellar record of accomplishments, he is one of the very best executives and creative minds in the entertainment industry.”

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Before Turner, Koonin was at the helm of presence marketing and worldwide advertising at The Coca-Cola Co., where he spent more than a decade including as vp sports and entertainment marketing. Raised the son of a retail jeweler father and real-estate agent mother, he became known for his out-of-the-box marketing ideas, including the late-1990s move to try to shoot a pattern of laser beams featuring Coca-Cola's logo onto the moon for Y2K (the FAA ultimately quashed the bold idea).

Read his memo to the Turner staff, along with that of Levy, below.

Koonin's memo:

I set my guiding principle as a very young man that living in Atlanta, the home of my family and friends for multiple generations, was the key for lifetime happiness. For the past 28 years, I have been able to live and work in a senior leadership role in my hometown for two fantastic companies. I was very lucky to be a part of Coca-Cola's incredible global growth in the 80's and 90's. 

In February 2000, I walked into Turner Broadcasting after being invited to run TNT. I was 42 years old, had a full head of brown hair and dreams of taking the consumer lessons I learned from Coca-Cola and apply them to TV. I am truly gratified in saying that TNT, TBS, TCM and truTV have become familiar and beloved brands to TV viewers all over the USA. 

Building strong brands and a continual focus on building a culture at TEN are just two of the major accomplishments that occurred on our collective watch. In addition to our brands and culture, we collectively accomplished a 10 year plus vision of becoming "broadcast replacement". The dynamic combination of our relentless parity with broadcast messaging, hit original programming that won critical praise and record setting ratings, along with our best in class publicity and marketing has allowed us to plant our flag at the summit of this lofty goal. It is now an established fact that cable TV is every bit as good, if not better than, broadcast television. 

It is no secret that I have a passionate love of sports, particularly for our local teams. In the past few months, I was invited to become an investor in the Atlanta Hawks. During our investor conversations, it became quickly apparent that the Hawks needed local leadership as well as a face and voice for the franchise. I have accepted the position of CEO and Part-Owner of the Atlanta Hawks. The job is consistent with my desire to make a difference in my community and finish my career in Atlanta.

I learned many lessons in my 14 years at Turner that I will take with me to my new position as CEO and an Owner of the Hawks. I look at this new opportunity as the chance to be a steward of another Ted Turner legacy. As a native Atlantan, I vividly remember being at one of the first Hawks games after they made the move from St. Louis. The Hawks came to life when Ted took over the team in the 70's. Over time and under Ted's leadership, the Hawks were the class of the Atlanta sports scene. I am hoping that we can reignite that spark and help the Hawks bring an NBA Championship to our hometown of Atlanta. I keep telling myself that I am not leaving Turner, but rather I have chosen a transfer to another division. 

Now comes the hard part. I am very glad my iPad is waterproof. Absolutely none of my success would be possible without the amazing talents of the people that worked with me day in and day out for the past 5156 days. I have watched my direct report leadership teams grow into world class strategy, finance, PR, business affairs, on-air, marketing, programming, business operations, sponsorship, digital and brand-building executives of all four of our networks.

I have also been so incredibly lucky to watch you grow in your personal and professional lives. Every day, you display the values of integrity, community, family and company that make you so successful today and will continue to in the future. I have watched you recruit and grow the next generation of leadership and I am sure they will keep these wonderful networks growing and thriving for years to come.

One of my favorite songs is Green Day's "Time of Your Life":

Another turning point
/A fork stuck in the road
/Time grabs you by the wrist
/Directs you where to go

So make the best of this test
/And don't ask why/
It's not a question
/But a lesson learned in time

It's something unpredictable
/But in the end it's right
/I hope you had the time of your life

Here at Turner, I have certainly had the time of my life and I hope you have as well. I wish all of you lots of love and good wishes for the future. Please root for the Hawks, and rest assured that I will always be cheering for our networks and you.

Levy's memo:

By now you’ve heard Steve Koonin’s news that he is leaving Turner Broadcasting for an opportunity outside our company. I imagine your feelings on his decision are like mine: mixed. On one hand, I’ll miss Steve’s vision, creativity and leadership at TNT, TBS, truTV and Turner Classic Movies. Their success is a direct result of his professional and personal investment. I know that many of you would use those same words to describe his influence on you and your work. There’s no better tribute than that.

On the other hand, I am pleased for Steve that his next challenge is so right for him now. Most of us are lucky to claim one dream job in a career. Steve is going to a third one (after Coca-Cola and Turner) that will leverage his passion, experience and hometown Atlanta roots in a very exciting way. So while it’s a big change, it’s a good one — for Steve and, ultimately, for the Turner businesses he has led.

Change is happening across our company now. In the rapidly evolving media business environment, it’s imperative that we embrace and lead change in order to drive growth across our businesses. We have industry-leading profitable brands with potential for upside and results that will outpace our competitors. These changes reflect a larger plan to evolve Turner for next-generation success and profitability. We have an opportunity now to reinvigorate our core entertainment networks and brands at a pivotal time. We can look with fresh eyes at positioning and programming choices; at how we are engaging with audiences; and at how we want to develop and grow these important assets. This effort will bring new voices to the conversation and reveal things we can and should do differently. It’s an exciting prospect for us all to build the future success of our great brands.

At the same time, we have to ensure that these vital components of the larger Turner portfolio continue to run smoothly for our consumers, distributors, advertisers and business partners. I’ll work closely with the Turner Entertainment Networks leadership team to sustain our momentum through the critical Upfront season while engaging longer-term thinking on our entertainment networks and the qualities and fit required of the next executive leader of Turner Entertainment Networks. That process, including an internal and external search, begins immediately.

Turner’s entertainment networks are leaders, and the people at TNT, TBS, truTV and Turner Classic Movies are some of the best in the industry. We have Steve to thank for that, and I have. I know you will share your thanks and best wishes with him. He’ll have a great next chapter, and so will we.