Sports Executive of the Year: Game on, Says Luis Silberwasser, TNT Sports Chief

 TNT Sports chairman and CEO Luis Silberwasser.
TNT Sports chairman and CEO Luis Silberwasser.
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When Warner Bros. Discovery-owned TNT Sports last November announced it had reached a seven-year media rights deal with NASCAR beginning in 2025, the company was preparing to telecast the final rounds of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament while producing its weekly Wednesday-night NHL doubleheaders  — not long after the division produced 14 Major League Baseball postseason games.

Many TV sports executives would find managing the above scenario daunting at
best. For Luis Silberwasser, chairman and CEO of TNT Sports, it’s par for the course.

Silberwasser, the former Univision Television Networks Group and Telemundo president who took over TNT Sports — the overall Warner Bros. Discovery Sports business, including the U.S. piece known as Turner Sports under prior ownership — in 2022, oversees one of the deepest and most diverse portfolios of live premium sports content rights in television. The TNT Sports lineup includes games from three of the four major U.S. sports leagues, as well as the U.S. women’s and men’s national soccer teams and the NCAA men’s March Madness college basketball tournament, in a partnership with CBS Sports.

The strength of this group and division is that we are not playing the volume business. We don’t have a 24-hour sports channel. We don’t have to have 1,000 hours of sports. We really focus on a few very big things.”

Add five summer NASCAR races to the mix next year, and Silberwasser, who grew up in Colombia as an avid soccer player, has quickly established himself as one of the busiest executives in sports TV.

“Luis has seamlessly stepped into his new role at WBD Sports and brought to bear his many years of experience in media and business,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “Additionally, he has embraced our longstanding partnership with enthusiasm and a forward-thinking vision for the future.”

Under Silberwasser’s watch, the TNT Sports portfolio — which distributes most of its live sports content on WBD-owned linear cable networks TNT, TBS and truTV — increased viewership across its premium sports properties in 2023, amid what the programmer called an otherwise challenging television marketplace:

• TNT posted its most-watched NBA regular-season and postseason coverage in five years;

• Live NHL on TNT telecasts on Sundays delivered a 52% increase in average audience in 2022-23, compared to the prior season, and TNT Sports delivered the most-watched Stanley Cup playoffs coverage ever on cable;

• TBS’s coverage of baseball’s National League Division Series and National League Championship Series averaged 4.6 million viewers, up 8% over its 2022 coverage of the American League playoffs.

• Men’s March Madness games on TBS, TNT and truTV were up by double digits in 2023 compared to the year prior, and TNT Sports and CBS sold out advertising opportunities for the tournament for the 12th straight year, according to WBD Sports.

“Since joining WBD, Luis has moved quickly and decisively to transform and grow our world-class sports business for the future,” Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said. “Simply put: He is a true All-Star.”

Silberwasser also ushered TNT Sports into the streaming arena in October with the launch of the Bleacher Report Sports Add-On tier on Max. The free service, which will convert to a subscription-based offering later this year, offers simulcasts of TNT, truTV and TBS live sports events, and will offer exclusive content from NASCAR next summer.

“Luis and his world-class team at TNT Sports have a proven track record of creating engaging content for each of their sports properties,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said. “Joining TNT’s portfolio of premium sports content is a huge win for NASCAR fans, and under Luis’s leadership, we know NASCAR broadcasts across TNT on linear television and the B/R Sports Add-On on Max will offer fans innovative and interactive viewing experiences.”

Even with all of its acquired sports portfolio, Silberwasser remains bullish on TNT Sports’s homegrown sports properties, including The Match exhibition golf events. Since The Match launched in 2018, it has drawn high-profile participants from the world of sports celebrity, including Tiger Woods, Charles Barkley, Aaron Rodgers, Travis Kelce, Rory McIlroy, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. The ninth iteration of the series, which teed off February 26, will feature the first female participants in LPGA players Lexi Thompson and Rose Zhang.

“Luis Silberwasser is a smart and passionate executive and a terrific person who genuinely cares about the people with whom he works,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “He has assumed the leadership of WBD Sports and reorganized the company with remarkable speed. During that short time, we have developed a great relationship and he has been an excellent partner.”

TNT aired a semifinal game in the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament.
TNT aired a semifinal game in the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament.

In 2024, Silberwasser will lead TNT Sports through the NCAA Men’s Final Four and Championship Game, to air on TBS, and the U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer team friendlies leading into the Paris Summer Olympics. (The 2026 FIFA World Cup TV rights in the U.S. are held by Fox and Telemundo.) Also on the horizon are negotiations to retain its NBA TV rights, which expire after the 2024-25 season.

Zaslav believes Silberwasser is more than up to the task. “Luis is a fantastic leader and a uniquely thoughtful executive whose drive, passion and ability to build and lead strong  teams with heart I have long admired,” he said.

Silberwasser, who is the B+C Multichannel News Sports Executive of the Year for 2024, discussed the TNT Sports strategy of offering premium sports programming to both hard-core and casual fans across multiple platforms. (Silberwasser was interviewed before WBD Sports, ESPN and Fox announced their joint sports app. For more on that development, see Lead-in, page 4.) He also looked at the future of the TV sports business in a lengthy interview, presented with edits for clarity and space.

B+C: TNT Sports is coming off a year where all of its major sports franchises — Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL and men’s NCAA March Madness — posted year-to-year ratings gains. How were you able to accomplish that in an otherwise turbulent television landscape? 

Luis Silberwasser: In many ways, it’s our No. 1 priority. The strength of this group and division is that we are not playing the volume business. We don’t have a 24-hour sports channel. We don’t have to have 1,000 hours of sports. We really focus on a few very big things, including the sports you mentioned in baseball, basketball and hockey, as well as U.S. soccer. In many ways, it allows us the bandwidth to really focus on making those productions the best they can be.

So when we talk about what the goals are for the division, No. 1 is that we want to serve the fan. By fan, I mean not only the real fan that knows everything about sports but also the casual fan. We believe that we can do a better job than anybody else with the casual fan to bring more diverse and younger people into the fold. So our production, marketing and digital teams are all focused on making our events bigger. That’s how, in a challenging linear environment, we were able to increase ratings. We were also able to increase our partnership with the leagues to make these events better and more exciting. While there’s no magic bullet, it’s really a philosophy of taking care of these events and doing the best job of storytelling.

B+C: You came from an entertainment background, so did you have any perceived expectations about how a sports-based organization should run, and did your first year at TNT Sports meet or exceed those expectations? 

LS: It has more than met my expectations. Even though my background wasn’t 100% exclusive to sports, as someone who had experienced managing networks, sports was a big part of my portfolio in other companies, so I knew the value of sports. In an environment like today which is more challenging, the value of live programming and live sports is immense. So coming in, my philosophy was to let them go and create and I’ll support them.

At the end of the day, probably what I added to the table is the idea of empowering the team to move faster. A lot of the changes that we did as a division were to become more agile and lean and trust the people we have to make the right decisions and support innovation. We’ve done a lot of things over the last year that were different for the company, whether it was to make Bleacher Report and the linear TV group work more together, or to try some different marketing approaches to our content. I think part of our MO for the last year was to really embrace what we do and just have fun.

B+C: In 2023, you added a seven-year NASCAR racing package to the TNT Sports portfolio, and before that the company picked up U.S. National Soccer Team rights. While not as broad as the NBA or Major League Baseball, how do those properties play within the TNT Sports brand? 

LS: Our strategy is to offer premium-tier sports. With U.S. soccer, even though the volume of matches compared to maybe some of the other leagues is not there, from a premium standpoint, having the U.S. men’s and women’s national team’s games is tier one, and it captures the imagination of the people in the United States as they get behind those teams.

I think it’s the same thing with NASCAR.

TNT Sports is revving up to cover NASCAR in 2025, having secured the rights to five major races to air on TNT, plus additional coverage on truTV.
TNT Sports is revving up to cover NASCAR in 2025, having secured the rights to five major races to air on TNT, plus additional coverage on truTV.

The audiences behind NASCAR are very passionate and very large. We used to have NASCAR and now it is a huge sport. We don’t have the volume of races that some of the other distributors have, but we wanted to become part of the NASCAR ecosystem and add our value from the production side, how we market the sport and the way we talk to our viewers.

Also, NASCAR was a little different because it provided us with sports during a time of year in the summer that was light for us besides baseball. With the NASCAR deal, we were able also to get programming for TNT, which is where the five big races are going to be, but also for truTV, where we’re going to have a high volume of practices and qualifying races. We’re going to have something exclusive for Max, which we’ll let the market know later.

B+C: Another big move for TNT Sports in 2023 was the launch of the Bleacher Report Sports add-on service on Max. How does the introduction of live sports programming to the streaming platform balance with linear distribution? 

LS: Being able to create a viable and significant digital strategy for us was a major objective. We need to have a really strong digital strategy for us to be able to reach consumers, but also for the partnership with the leagues. So the internal debate was, ‘OK, how do you do it?’ Max is a fantastic, entertainment-focused platform that has incredible penetration, about 50 million subscribers or more in the United States. So do we add sports in the same way that other people are doing it, where you basically splinter your rights and have some content on streaming and then some other content on linear, which in many ways is frustrating for the viewer because they don’t know which platform my favorite team is on?

We decided to be more consumer-friendly and focused on providing it on both platforms. We adopted what we call a simulcast strategy — we didn’t want people to make a choice based on whether you had the game or not. It was more of a choice of a platform. If you were comfortable in a more portable environment with Max and being able to watch it on your phone, or on your iPad or on connected devices, that’s the right platform for you. But you get the same level of sports as somebody who is watching TNT or TBS or truTV as well.

So we launched the Bleacher Report Sports add-on in October of last year, which is basically a section inside Max that has all the sports that we have.

B+C: You mentioned that TNT Sports might develop an exclusive package of NASCAR content for Max. Could we eventually see more exclusive content for the streaming service outside of what’s airing on the linear channels? 

LS: It’s TBD. I think we’re all learning in this new environment and we want to follow the audience. It’s very important for us that we don’t stay behind. We’re really happy with our strategy right now because we don’t want to compromise a level of reach on one platform just to grow another platform, so that’s the right strategy for the rights that we have. In the future, we may have different rights or something that is more niche-oriented, which may become more exclusive to one platform because we know there may be a passionate audience that will follow that where reach may not be as important.

So again, it’s TBD … I think it’s too early to say.

B+C: Let’s expand this topic to the broader television universe. Clearly sports continues to be a main viewership driver for linear television, but now we’re seeing a large migration of live sports to streaming services. Do you see this trend continuing and if so how much does it hurt the linear television business? 

LS: I think streaming will continue to be a very big part of the landscape, and I think more and more people will feel even more comfortable watching it on the digital platform. There’s no doubt that streaming television and sports included will become a big part of it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have a reduction. I think you’ll have an environment where cable and the traditional bundle continue to be available, and at the same time, sports through other bundles or on different platforms will continue to be available. That’s why it’s so important that we keep committed to a healthy, traditional linear environment, but at the same time have our sports very present and available in a streaming environment where people can access the same amount of sports.

TNT Sports reporter Matt Winer interviews members of the Arizona Diamondbacks after they clinched the National League pennant with an NLCS win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
TNT Sports reporter Matt Winer interviews members of the Arizona Diamondbacks after they clinched the National League pennant with an NLCS win over the Philadelphia Phillies.

B+C: The TNT Sports NBA deal expires after the 2024-25 season. There’s been a lot of noise about other distributors bidding for the league’s television rights. How important is the NBA to TNT Sports and how aggressive will the company be in trying to secure those rights?

LS: The NBA is a premier, tier-one set of rights. It is an integral part of TNT. We have a more than 30-year history with the NBA. We love the NBA and we love what we do with them. We partner with them in producing the NBA TV channel and we partner with them on NBA.com and NBA League Pass. The NBA is a fantastic partner for us, so we’re very committed to being aggressive and retaining those rights.

A lot of the things that we’re focused on [with sports betting] is creating unique content in partnership with the betting companies to be able to give something to the consumer that is looking for something really, really targeted to his or her betting experience.

We recognize that there are other people who are interested in those rights — who wouldn’t be? — but we feel good about our proposition, what our assets are and what we can do with the NBA. All the decisions that we made last year to strengthen our production capabilities, to strengthen our talent capabilities, to hire new talent, to retain talent, were made with the objective to make ourselves invaluable for a league, and in this case, the NBA is the one that’s up for renewal.

But I’ll say that for every league that we are partnered with, we want to be a preferred broadcaster. We may not have other things that other partners may have, but we have other things that others don’t have. And I think we’ve been very deliberate about what we do with Bleacher Report, what we do with [social media network] House of Highlights, what we do with our decisions in terms of personnel and talent and our investment in production, as well as our move to Max. When you look at all those things, it is in many ways strengthening ourselves to continue to be a preferred partner to the NBA.

B+C: One of the things that has come out of your long relationship with the NBA is Inside the NBA, which has really transcended basketball and become more of a cultural phenomenon. How does content like Inside the NBA help TNT Sports position itself with its league partners? 

LS: It’s interesting. When I go back to when I was about to enter Warner Bros. Discovery and take this job, I’d watched basketball before, but I wasn’t an expert. I’m not saying that I’m an expert now, but I know more now than let’s say a year ago. [Laughs.] You don’t realize the impact that a show like Inside the NBA can have in the marketplace. People would tell me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t mess that up.’ [Laughs.] Then once I was inside and started working with the team and started getting the feel for how special that franchise is and how magical the production and the talent behind the franchise is with EJ [Ernie Johnson], Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal], Kenny [Smith] and Chuck [Charles Barkley]. We’ve had a lot of internal conversations about what the show is and it’s not just one thing — it’s a multitude of factors that create that show.

The 2023 Stanley Cup Final, where the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Florida Panthers, was TNT’s first run with the Cup.
The 2023 Stanley Cup Final, where the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Florida Panthers, was TNT’s first run with the Cup.

You can see us now taking that show’s DNA and trying to apply it to other things we do, like the new [NHL on TNT pregame] show once we got the NHL franchise. I think that show today is a fantastic show and it’s on its way to becoming as important for the NHL as Inside the NBA is for the NBA. I also think that the DNA of talking to the casual fan as well as the super-informed sports fan is in every show we try to do. Sometimes we get it, sometimes we don’t, but I think more times than not, we are distinctive in the marketplace because people say, ‘Hey, the way you do it, it’s different.’

B+C: TNT Sports also created The Match charity golf tournament exclusively for TNT. Will you continue to look to create exclusive sports events in the future? 

LS: Yes, it’s one of our objectives. We like the fact that The Match is our own event. We own it, we’re able to customize it and we’re able to try different things. It allows us to reach a different audience. We want to develop more of our own [intellectual property] because I think it’s important — not to replace what we have, but to add to the equation and to make sure that we’re tapping into sports we don’t have now or to bet on things for the future. So we really love The Match and we love it for what it does, but also for the fact that it’s our own thing.

B+C: This year TNT Sports has the March Madness Final Four and championship game. How has your partnership with CBS for the tournament benefited both brands and built a sports franchise that dominates the sports calendar for a month in March and early April? 

LS: I’ve been a fan of March Madness for a while, but when you are inside the world of sports, you see the importance of March Madness on a national scale and how the whole country stops for three weeks to see who makes it to the Final Four. Every game is a do-or-die situation. It is such a special tournament that our team is extremely proud of and looks forward to it every year.

I don’t want to be repetitive, but we do it the way we do it. We try to add our expertise, we try to make it special, we try to talk to the casual fan — all the things that I’ve said before. The one thing that makes it also very special is our partnership with CBS, which, at the end of the day, putting the business terms aside, we’re both focused on the fan. We’re all focused on that person enjoying the tournament from the MML [March Madness Live] app or through the linear channels, whether it’s CBS, truTV, TBS or TNT. We have that commitment to that fan, and we work seamlessly with CBS to make sure that the tournament is bigger and better every year.

B+C: The March Madness tournament is also a huge draw for sports betting. What is TNT Sports’s philosophy and strategy towards sports betting content? 

LS: We are involved in many ways because we have a very strong partnership with FanDuel and with DraftKings. But I think the idea of becoming what they call a sports book is not something that we’re that keen on doing, at least not at this point in time. We do think that betting is an integral part of sports and the sports ecosystem. Bleacher Report, for example, has a very big betting vertical where we do a lot of things revolving around sports betting, so we embrace it.

A lot of the things that we’re focused on is creating unique content in partnership with the betting companies to be able to give something to the consumer that is looking for something really, really targeted to his or her betting experience. If you watch Inside the NBA, Charles actively participates and gives out picks during the show, so we see it as part of the content that we need to provide. We did something interesting for the [NBA] in-season tournament where we had an alternate cast really focused on betting. So, you could watch the game on TNT and you could go to truTV and see the same game, but with commentators who were really looking at the game through the eyes of somebody who’s betting. We want to do more of those kinds of things, because it’s part of what today’s sports-watching experience is all about.

B+C: Is there a sport that you would love to have in the TNT Sports portfolio? 

LS: It’s hard not to say that you would love to have the NFL and that you would love to have college football. Those are two big, big sports that capture the imagination of the viewer when they’re on. I personally love soccer as well — that’s where I grew up. We love our partnership with the [U.S. Soccer] Federation, but there may be some soccer tournaments out there that we at some point take a look at.