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Boardroom Q&A: Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels

Since 2014, Daniels has spearheaded major growth for the network. Here, he discusses the next evolution — Charles Barkley, Draymond Green, NHL and MLB deals, and more.

Aside from football, it’s hard to find an arena Turner Sports and its president Lenny Daniels aren’t involved in right now.

Men’s March Madness dominates the month on TNT and TBS, with the latter getting the national championship game on April 4. During the winter, we had the NBA on TNT every Tuesday and Thursday, AEW wrestling on Wednesdays and Fridays, and the NHL on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Come April, Turner will begin its new weekly primetime Major League Baseball contract for Tuesday nights. Next year, WarnerMedia properties will begin a landmark eight-year deal to broadcast more than 20 men’s and women’s U.S. National Team soccer matches per year across TNT, TBS and HBO Max.

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“We look at every property and everything that comes up on its own merit and whether it makes sense and then how it fits into our portfolio,” Daniels told Boardroom from the NBA Tech Summit at All-Star Weekend in Cleveland last month. “It’s not about getting more events or quantity. We’re not about quantity. We’re really more about quality. Getting the playoffs are important. Getting things that matter in tentpole events are what we do.”

Turner Sports has increasingly innovative in building around the biggest leagues and most important events, including alternative megacast-style alternative feeds during the Final Four and one featuring the Hall of Fame Inside The NBA group of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal during the All-Star Game — one that was additive and enhanced the viewing experience rather than an ordinary stats-based overlay.

Photo credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for TNT

If you’ve watched Inside The NBA over the last couple of seasons, you’ll have noticed FanDuel betting segments on the show, something Daniels thinks is a great opportunity for the company.

“With betting, we’re seeing the intersection of pop culture, sports and innovation,” he said. “And if you can bring those together and innovate correctly around what people like and what they’re doing, you put that all together and you give an opportunity for people to play along.”

About two to three years ago, Daniels — who has been in his role since 2014 — said the company was careful about how it talked about betting. People like Johnson are still learning and getting more comfortable with it, and Daniels said discussing betting is a learning process for a lot of talent. But those betting-focused conversations have grown more authentic over time, which is good because we’re only going to see more talk about lines, props and parlays the more legal betting becomes more prevalent in the U.S.

In the world of NFTs, the metaverse and web3, Turner Sports has a team focused on new technologies like the Blocklete suite of games, its mobile golf product built on Dapper Labs‘ Flow blockchain. Daniels is taking the same cautious, measured approach here as he did three years ago with betting three years ago.

“We’re going slow, and we’re going to learn,” he said. “We’re going to innovate. We’re going to find different things. But you’re not gonna see something blasted on the air right away.”

Something Turner had to get on the air relatively quickly was the NHL, after signing a seven-year rights deal with the league worth a reported $225 million per year back in April — including the annual New Year’s Day Winter Classic and three Stanley Cup Finals.

“The hardest part about hockey was going from zero to 100 in about two months, but we did it very strategically,” Daniels said. “We did it smartly with the right talent and the right talent behind the scenes, and we’re seeing the results. Everybody I’ve talked to — and I’m obviously biased — is that our hockey coverage is better than anybody, from the studio and the games.”

When it comes to innovating its broadcasts and viewing experience, Daniels called the NHL progressive. The two companies, doing major business together for the very first time, are learning more about each other.

“They’re letting us try things or will let us try pretty much anything we want as long as it fits within their rules and regulations,” he said.

Along with its new slate of Tuesday night action on TBS, Daniels touted Bleacher Report’s B/R Walkoff accounts, which have 170,000 Twitter followers and 135,000 on Instagram. It’s part of Turner Sports’ efforts to accomplish what baseball has been trying, and mostly failing, to do.

“Baseball just needs to get young,” Daniels said. “That, to me, is their push, and that’s why we created BR Walkoff. How do you bring in that younger audience? How do you get my 13-year-old kid to watch a baseball game? He watches it on Bleacher all day long. He says he’s watching it, but he’s not watching the game. He’s just watching highlights.”

Aside from building around tentpole leagues and events, Daniels and Turner Sports love to own IP and build out brands and franchises.

Their wide-ranging partnership deal with Dwyane Wade— which includes NBA and NCAA studio work for TNT, hosting TBS game showThe Cube, serving as a creative director at Bleacher Report, and a development deal for his production company, 59th & Prairie— is a perfect example. So is their social justice-based program The Arena, AEW, and their deal to bring in Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green.

Sometimes with people like Green, Daniels said, it’s just about trying things and seeing what happens.

“Draymond, in our opinion, is worth every bit of effort that we have to see where it goes,” he said. “We saw how he interacted with Charles [Barkley]. It was incredible. We see how he interacts with the show [Inside The NBA]. We talked to him, and he’s one of these guys that actually does want to work and does want to be better and does want to get his brand out there. And to me, that’s all of the pieces to make something pretty special at some point.”

There’s been talk that Green could one day replace Barkley. At the time of this conversation, Barkley had recently said he’d retire when his contract expires in two years when he’s 61 years old. Naturally, Daniels was asked to comment on the possible departure of the greatest talent in the company’s history.

“We want Chuck to work forever,” he said. “You love Chuck. He often says he’s ready to retire. He’s gonna make his decisions, and when he does, we support him all the way through. The kind of impact he’s had is almost immeasurable. If you ask me, he’s the face of TNT. Him, Ernie and the Inside team.”

The NBA is still the company’s most popular and famous commodity, but Turner Sports is diversifying its portfolio by the year under Daniels’ watch. With hockey, baseball, soccer, and wrestling, the company has major sports programming year-round for its linear and streaming services with the foundation to build upon those now that new long-term contracts are entrenched aside from the NBA, whose media rights currently run through the 2024-2025 season. Daniels said the company has its head down focused on sports.

How it builds around its impressive list of IP, franchises, and brands, however, may very well define Turner Sports as Daniels approaches his second decade at the helm.

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