To most viewers, the 2019 NCAA Tournament will appear to be business as usual on TV relative to the past eight editions.
Behind the scenes, however, things have changed in a major way. Three weeks ago, David Levy, Turner President since 2013, announced he would be leaving the company after 33 years. When CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus took his spot at March Madness Media Day last week, Levy was noticeably absent, replaced this year by WarnerMedia Chairman of News and Sports Jeff Zucker.
Levy’s resignation came just a few days after an appeals court upheld AT&T’s acquisition of WarnerMedia, which initially was approved in June 2018. Levy is credited with putting Turner at the forefront of the sports world. On the NBA side, he helped grow “Inside the NBA” and negotiate the joint management of such assets as NBA TV, NBA.com and NBA Mobile. Turner’s NBA deal runs through 2024-25.
With MLB, Levy negotiated Turner rights that include one league championship series and two division series during the postseason. That deal runs through 2021.
But Levy’s crown jewel was March Madness. In 2010, Turner Sports beat out ESPN to join CBS on a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with the NCAA. In 2016, Levy and McManus signed an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension with the NCAA that goes through 2032.
Levy didn’t even make it through half the deal at Turner, but his legacy will continue to loom large over March Madness.
“David Levy’s always been an innovative thinker,” said Ernie Johnson, host of “Inside the NBA” and NCAA March Madness. “For him and Sean McManus to hatch this plan to bring Turner and CBS together and, ‘Hey, suddenly we’re going to bring March Madness to folks in a different way’ was game-changing. I don’t know that we’ll see that kind of a partnership again for that long a term that they struck.”
Johnson also expressed admiration for Levy as a person. It was a common refrain among Turner’s talent, who view Levy as a friend far more than a boss.
“He texted me this morning,” said Kenny Smith. “We were at the Super Bowl together. We go on vacations together. He was at my mom’s funeral. It’s a different relationship.”
“He trusted me,” added Charles Barkley. “There are times I say something, I know there is gonna be blowback. I told him, ‘I’m going to go after a player. I’m pretty sure the agents are going to call.’ They always want to talk to these guys. There have been several times where players say, ‘I’m not talking to you guys because of something Charles said,’ which I don’t give a s***. But he said, ‘Just do your job.’”
The NBA on TNT, the MLB relationship and the CBS Sports March Madness partnership are left in the hands of a highly experienced media executive in Zucker, who also served as president and CEO of NBC Universal from 2007-2010 and then became president of CNN Worldwide in 2013 before receiving his new title earlier this month.
The transition should be a smooth one. As executives within WarnerMedia, Zucker and Levy worked side-by-side to a degree over the past six years.
“I was aware of everything that David was doing, if not the minutiae of the day-to-day relationship,” Zucker says of the March Madness partnership. “But I was certainly in the meetings and aware of what was going on. David has been terrific to work with and has been incredibly helpful to me in this transition.”
With a deal signed through 2032, March Madness is perhaps the least of Zucker’s concerns at the moment. Other aspects of the sports world are more pressing.
“We will continue to be a player in the premium sports area in the major sports packages,” Zucker said. “Obviously, there’s not a ton of them that are available, but we will be there. That’ll continue to be a part of what we’re doing. But I think the area for growth really is in the newer, emerging sports that are not at that level. That requires some business development that we have the opportunity [to grow] between having the cable network outlets and Bleacher Report. I think the combination of those two gives us an opportunity to foster growth there. Obviously, Bleacher Report is incredibly important to us, and we’ll continue to invest there.”
To that end, Zucker continuously weaved B/R Live, Bleacher Report and Turner Sports’ OTT platform, into conversation during his pre-March Madness media availability. B/R Live currently carries parts of Turner Sports’ NBA, UEFA Champions League and National Lacrosse League rights, along with other digital content.
The Match: Tiger vs. Phil match was also carried on B/R Live in November, and Zucker confirmed that events like the newly-created pay-per-view exhibition are the “kind of things we’re interested in.” When asked about a potential NFL deal, Zucker was quick to mention that he has experience with the league through acquiring the rights to Sunday Night Football in the mid-2000s during his time at NBC.
Sports fans pick their favorite teams, decide what to watch and, nowadays, place their own bets. But one thing sports fans can’t dictate is where their sports live and when they go on air.
March Madness – and other Turner Sports content – won’t look much different this NCAA Tournament or in the near future. But behind the camera and in the board rooms, it is clear: WarnerMedia is entering a new era.
David Levy finally gets to have a spring break. But his fingerprints on Turner Sports won’t be gone for a long time.