One of the most powerful people in media made his first visit to CBS/Turner’s annual pre-NCAA Tournament media breakfast on Tuesday. No, it was not Charles Barkley. He comes every year.
It was Jeff Zucker, who is president of CNN but recently was assigned to oversee Turner Sports as part of the reorganization of WarnerMedia. Longtime Turner Sports head David Levy left the company in the process.
Levy had worked with CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus in fashioning the partnership that radically changed the way the NCAA Tournament has been covered this decade.
Zucker did not signal any major changes at Turner in the immediate future. The network is one of the most important outlets on the sports rights stage, notably with its NBA and Major League Baseball packages.
“I think Turner Sports is in terrific shape, and I feel really good about it,” he said. “I think it’s a combination of terrific premium sports packages, combined with some new and emerging business opportunities, combined with a fantastic digital outlet in Bleacher Report.
“I think it’s the combination of the three that will continue to be the strategy. We just want to make sure we’re playing in all three pieces.
“We will continue to be a player in the premium sports area in the major sports that have packages. Obviously, there are not a ton of them that are available. There’s great expense. But we will be there. That will continue to be a part of what we’re doing.
“But the area of growth is in the newer, emerging sports that are not at that level and that require some business development.”
Zucker is no stranger to sports. He got his start as a researcher for NBC at the 1988 Olympics, and later rose to power at that network, working closely with Dick Ebersol when NBC regained rights to the NFL.
“This is not new to me in that respect,” he said. “It’s obviously a passion of mine beyond professional. So in all of those contexts, being around sports is something that excites me, interests me and is somewhat of a natural progression as well.”
Zucker and McManus did not rule out future CBS/Turner partnerships, including for NFL rights.
Barkley, Turner’s most visible analyst, said he would miss Levy, who talked him out of retiring a couple of years ago and who was supportive of his sometimes controversial persona.
Barkley was part of a group that said farewell to Levy Sunday night at what he called “a very emotional” dinner at a New York steakhouse.
“I have to have complete faith from my boss, because I’m willing to go places guys are not willing to go,” Barkley said. “I’m not afraid to go out there without a net. I have to have 100 percent support of the guy that’s at the top, because I know what I’m doing and he has to trust me.
“It doesn’t mean I’m not going to screw up. When I screw up he has to tell me.”
Barkley said he hopes to build the same trust relationship with Zucker that he had with Levy.