AT&T to be a ‘significant player’ in sports under Jeff Zucker

New WarnerMedia chair of news and sports to be aggressive in TV rights pursuit.

by Tom Bassam

AT&T to be a ‘significant player’ in sports under Jeff Zucker

Jeff Zucker, the new WarnerMedia chair of news and sports, has said that owners AT&T may look to join the likes of Disney, Comcast, CBS and Fox at the top table of US live sports rights.

Speaking to US broadcast outlet Variety, Zucker revealed that the telecommunications giant, through its WarnerMedia subsidiary, is looking to expand its operations in sports broadcasting and that he had already reached out the major sports league commissioners.

Following the recent company restructure in the wake of AT&T’s 2018 completed purchase of TimeWarner, Zucker is now in charge of live programming for all of its properties - Turner Sports, Bleacher Report and the AT&T Regional Sports Networks - under a new division name, WarnerMedia News & Sports.

WarnerMedia was already closely linked to the National Basketball Association (NBA), forming a key part of the league’s digital strategy through its Turner Sports arm. AT&T is also invested in the WME/ICM esport ELeague - again through Turner – the vessel by which it also shares the rights to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) March Madness Final Four basketball championship with CBS.

Zucker says that under his watch the company will be a “significant player” in the market.

“WarnerMedia will continue to be aggressive when appropriate and strategic,” he said of its sports rights strategy.

In reference to the upcoming National Football League (NFL) media rights renewals in two years’ time, Zucker added: “We are not going to take anything off the table.”

In recent months, Turner Sports has turned to streaming and digital. It launched an over-the-top (OTT) sport streaming service under the Bleacher Report brand last year and even tested pay-per-view golf with ‘The Match’ featuring Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

“I’m very comfortable with Turner Sports as it is today,” he said of the division. “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.”

Adding: “Turner Sports has been incredibly well run and incredibly successful, and I’d just like to make sure I don’t screw that up.”

With enduring resistance of live sport to ratings dips, the new brief gives Zucker greater influence in the programming world and at his parent company.

“News and sports continue to be the only two types of programmes 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,” he said.

“Live programming remains the least impacted by the new forms of distribution and the way people consume today.”

He reportedly does not expect to manage AT&T's sports business day-to-day, instead having an overview of the business, telling Variety that he envisions his relationship to the company’s sports properties akin to the one he had with NBC Sports when he was chief executive of NBCUniversal between 2007 and 2010.