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Volume 22 No. 19
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Forty Under 40: Peter Nelson

Photo: will hart / hbo

It’s clear from even a short conversation that HBO Sports’ Peter Nelson is not your typical sports executive.

During a recent media interview, Nelson quoted the author Helen Gardner’s description of the poet T.S. Elliot to illustrate the scope of his job at HBO Sports. “He created the taste by which he is enjoyed,” Nelson said.

Executive Vice President, HBO

Age: 37

Born: Newton, Mass.

Education: Harvard (transferred from Oberlin), B.A. (magna cum laude), ancient Greek

What gets you fired up? New ideas.

You wish you knew 10 years ago: That this award comes with an extensive questionnaire.

Profession you’d most like to attempt: Competitive eater.

Guilty pleasure: Staying off social media.

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Not tweeting.

Could not go a day without: Brave news reporting.

Cause supported: American Ballet Theater.

Sports industry needs to do a better job of … : Elevating women’s stories.

Ideal day off: Without a phone.

Most thrilling/adventurous thing you’ve done: Jumping out of a moving car when I was 2 years old — my parents still have no explanation.

Later in the interview, Nelson quoted the cult novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” when discussing a career path that took him from the art world to freelance journalism to an executive suite at HBO.

A Harvard graduate with a B.A. in ancient Greek, Nelson got his media start in college writing for the Lampoon. He joined HBO Sports in 2011 and was promoted to run the division in 2015.

While shepherding HBO Sports, Nelson has continued backing its biggest brands, like “Real Sports” and “Hard Knocks.”

But he also has worked on projects that are “a little further afield,” he said. Essentially, he has been looking to overhaul the way HBO Sports tells stories. He signed a deal with Bill Simmons to partner on an Andre the Giant documentary; he rolled out a talk show called “The Shop” that lists LeBron James and Maverick Carter as executive producers; and he produced a five-part docuseries on Serena Williams. 

He cut content deals with the WWE; SpringHill Entertainment and Uninterrupted; IMG Original Content; Endeavor Content; and filmmakers Jason Hehir and Michael and Jeff Zimbalist.

“We’re constantly looking for stories that are high profile and high access, but also seeks out a greater ambition in terms of the story that it seeks to tell or the point it’s trying to make,” he said. “The word storytelling is used so much these days so as to almost begin to lose its meaning. We really have a deep respect for the storytellers themselves and we really take seriously our job in terms of empowering them to go make art.”