How Jeff Zucker Lured Rachel Nichols to CNN’s ‘Unguarded’ With $12 Pancakes

CNN’s first sports show in over a decade premieres on Friday at 10:30 p.m.

Nine months after Rachel Nichols joined CNN to host a new sports-focused show, “Unguarded With Rachel Nichols” is set to premiere on Friday at 10:30 p.m. on CNN and CNN International. The weekly half-hour show will focus on broader narratives in sports news rather than the “Xs and Os” that dominate hardcore sports shows. Nichols spoke with TheWrap about “Unguarded,” CNN and how Jeff Zucker used pancakes to lure her to the network.

TheWrap: Are you excited for the show to start?
Rachel Nichols: Absolutely! I signed on with the Turner company overall at the very end of January and the design was always to do this show starting in the fall … We thought launching during football season and during the baseball playoffs would take advantage of the corporate synergy within Turner Sports, and it’s a time in sports where there’s a lot happening and it’s a great time to launch a sports show. So that was the goal. Of course, that means that you spend months waiting and planning. Now we’re just a few days away after all of this build-up. It’s great that it’s finally happening.

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There are a lot of sports shows out there. What will “Unguarded” have that they don’t?
I think a lot of the sports shows are on sports channels and they’re aimed at hardcore sports fans, which is great. I did that for a very long time, I am a hardcore sports fan myself. But one thing, in talking to Jeff and coming over to CNN, that we were talking about was how big sports and sports news is. Sports connects to other people … whether it be the sense of community of 60,000 people being in a stadium all at once being happy or sad, or the way sports helps people recover.

Just in my office right now we were talking about a segment we’re going to do about how the Boston Red Sox are in the World Series right now and the role that’s played in healing the city after the Boston marathon bombings and the very active things that team has been doing to involve the community in their games and take them on this ride with them to the World Series. It’s about the bigger picture issues and the bigger picture moments that sports touches that we want to hit on the show.

And then also, some of our biggest celebrities are athletes, right? Kobe Bryant’s walking around, LeBron James or Tom Brady who’s married to Giselle. The people that people are curious about are athletes. So part of the show we want to be one on one interviews with some big name athletes. Talking about what kind of people they are, the human side. We keep saying “the human side of some of the superhuman people, most extraordinary human beings on the planet.”

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Who will we be seeing?
For our first show, the centerpiece of the show is LeBron James. LeBron just recently travelled to China — he actually spends a couple weeks of his year in China, every year for nine years. He grew up in Ohio and he goes to China more often than he goes to neighboring states in the Midwest. This is a regular part of his life.

Here is a guy who, when the “save the date” card from his wedding leaked online it caused this crazy internet buzz … People know the tiniest details about his life, but they’ve never seen this trip that he takes every year, and he for the first time allowed cameras access with him on this trip and we went along with him. It’s really a very visual piece. The title of the show is “Unguarded” and it’s a great unguarded look at one of the most documented athletes in the world.

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A lot of people were surprised when you left ESPN for Turner and especially CNN. How did Jeff Zucker convince you to come over?
He and I first talked over breakfast — which was really good eggs and pancakes at a diner, so I’ve got to put that in — I was wooed by $12 pancakes.

Was there orange juice? That can be pricey.
I did get an orange juice out of it. It was actually a really smart thing of him to do because I think if he had taken me somewhere very formal that would’ve left a different impression on me. He hit it exactly right.

His pitch to me was this idea of the larger definition of news and how sports played into it, and that was very appealing to me because I’m a big believer that sports is not just for “sports people.” I think that the ratings on television will tell you how popular sports is in this country and how much it’s wound into our lives … You don’t have to be a hardcore pro sports fan to have sports touch your life in some way. And since I actually believe that, it was very appealing to hear somebody else say that and sort of bring what my world is into the larger picture.

And then Turner as a company, for me, was certainly appealing. Turner owns TNT. “The NBA on TNT” is a really highly-rated show. I get to be a part of that, which is a big lure for me. I just finished up doing the Major League Baseball playoffs on TBS, which is owned by Turner. And Turner has a deal to broadcast the NCAA tournament, which is a joint deal with CBS. I was on the CBS broadcast as part of the Turner family for the NCAA tournament. So getting to be part of all those great Turner properties was certainly appealing, getting to do this show on CNN was appealing and working sports back into the CNN language was appealing.

The show is once a week on Friday nights but I’ve already been on almost every single program on CNN for different stories throughout the nine months, or however long it’s been that I’ve been here, because we’re trying to bring sports not just into this isolated island on 10:30 on Friday nights but throughout the network.

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How will you compete with timeslot rivals Alec Baldwin and Sean Hannity?
I should say I’m starting my own credit card commercials or something, right? (laughs) I just think it’s such a different marketplace than what Fox or MSNBC are doing that night … it’s three very different shows.

Then how do you compete with sports-focused shows that might be on at the same time?
I think that we are going to have our own lane. That more sports-oriented lane, that’s a different highway. There are going to be cars that want to come in our lane as well.

I hope that every single person who owns a television watches it and they turn on CNN at 10:30. But it will serve a purpose: Just by being on the air and giving CNN that dimension will be a win. It’s gonna be a win and something that CNN likes to have there just because it’s there. And then all the – I’m just gonna say hundreds of millions of people who will watch it (laughs) – that will be a cherry on top. You never know, it could be that all 350 million people are watching!