CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus has seen and worked through just about everything in his more than four-decade career as a TV sports executive, including a 25-year run as head of CBS Sports that started in 1996.
Yet no depth of experience or executive pedigree could have prepared McManus — or the television industry for that matter — for the unprecedented pandemic that has changed the face of the sports business and the world over the past 17 months. Yet McManus and CBS Sports absorbed the pandemic’s initial body blow in March 2020 and since then, he has steered the division’s ship through relatively uncharted waters.
“I don’t care how experienced a workforce may be, they still take their lead and any resulting calm from shifting sands from their leader,” said James Brown, the Emmy-winning host of CBS’s The NFL Today. “As part of the calm that Sean works with, he had [pandemic] plans so well-articulated, detailed and executed, that he gave all of us a sense of calm in what was a very fluid environment.”
Indeed, under the tutelage of McManus — and with great focus on safety protocols for employees and on-site production adjustments — CBS aired the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, in June 2020, just three months after COVID-19 shut down all pro sports events. In doing so CBS Sports became one of the first major TV sports distributors to offer live programming, and it would go on to televise nearly a dozen consecutive weeks of golf events that provided a sense of normalcy to a very uncertain marketplace.
“In an industry that is constantly evolving and shifting, Sean has been a constant — always thoughtful and committed — in helping us grow our business while promoting our players and tournaments and the positive impact they make in our communities,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “Sean McManus has been a tremendous partner and friend of the PGA Tour for more than 25 years at CBS and a close friend and confidant to me personally.”
In March of 2021, McManus and CBS Sports focused attention on March Madness, the NCAA Division I men’s college basketball tournament. CBS Sports teamed with WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports to televise every game from within a bubble in Indianapolis, after the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.
“Sean’s influence on the sports media industry has been profound and I greatly value our relationship as we work in partnership on the NCAA tournament each year,” WarnerMedia News & Sports chairman Jeff Zucker said.
McManus also kept his eye on the business side, expanding CBS Sports’s already vast live sports rights portfolio by securing rights deals in July 2020 for the UEFA Champions League and the Europa League that are expected to drive avid soccer fans to CBS as well as Paramount Plus, parent ViacomCBS’s streaming service. He also sought to reach out to new and diverse audiences with a March 2020 deal to televise National Women’s Soccer League games on CBS, CBS Sports Network and Paramount Plus, to go with the company’s WNBA deal for CBSSN completed in 2019.
“They didn’t take the pandemic as a chance to stop and hold stock; they took it as an opportunity to figure out how to grow from here,” said sports analyst Lee Berke. “[McManus] had the foresight to go after content that would draw younger audiences, international audiences and tech-savvy audiences. As a result, they’ve been able to integrate and exploit streaming as part of their overall sports programming offerings.”
In March 2020 McManus oversaw a reported 10-year, $2.1 billion extension of CBS’s deal with the National Football League. The pact keeps the NFL on the CBS broadcast network through 2033 and provides valuable content for other ViacomCBS properties, including Paramount Plus.
As part of the deal, CBS will air the Super Bowl — the most-watched television event of the year — three times, on the heels of the network’s successful presentation of a pandemic-challenged Super Bowl LV this past February.
“Sean and CBS have a love and respect for football and the NFL brand that spans decades,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Sean understands our history and our partnership and recognizes the unique and important role the NFL plays for CBS, and our entire country.”
Son of the longtime ABC’s Wide World of Sports host Jim McKay, McManus’s reach and influence goes beyond the field and the rights bargaining table. During his run at CBS Sports, McManus has not only garnered accolades from the sports world, but also within his own ranks as a hands-on leader who values relationships with his colleagues and peers.
“He’s as well-respected and as classy as anyone you’ll find in the industry,” said CBS Sports president David Berson. “Everything he does is with the utmost integrity, and he really prioritizes relationships, internally and with all of our partners.”
Added Goodell: “Sean is always professional, and his long successful career always provides a unique and important perspective. More than anything, what has always impressed me about Sean is his focus on our partnership. He always works to construct solutions that benefit both of us.”
McManus, who also has a five-year run as CBS News president on his impressive resumé, is the B+C/Multichannel News Sports Executive of the year for 2021. McManus recently spoke about his decades-long run in the TV sports business, the challenges of dealing with the pandemic and the future of the sports television business in a wide-ranging interview, an edited transcript of which follows.
B+C: When the sports industry was in the midst of the pandemic last summer, did you think that we would be where we are today with regard to the return of live sports events?
Sean McManus: In early March, when sports were first stopped, we thought we might be out of the office for three months or so. Nobody thought it was going to be 14 or 15 months later that we were eventually going to be back in the office. But during the pandemic we did some remarkable television. We were the first ones to come back with major live sports coverage with the PGA Tour in June of 2020, and we did 11 straight weeks of golf from there. It was difficult and it was costly. We have all sorts of protocols but we got it done and we were proud of what we did this year during a pandemic. We completed a full season of NFL football and college football, and we did a Super Bowl. We produced a Final Four. We did The Masters and we did hundreds of hours of live and studio programming on both CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network.
We’ve learned a lot of lessons — we’ve learned to be very agile and efficient, and we’ve changed the way we did a lot of our programming. In all the years I’ve been involved in television sports, the run that we had really starting when the pandemic began in March of 2020 to today, I think we’ve done some of the best work that we’ve ever done. And I’m as proud of the performance of the CBS team as I have been of any team that I’ve worked with, going back to 1977 when I started in this business at ABC. It’s been the most challenging, but also the most satisfying, run that I’ve ever been able to be involved in.
MCN: Let’s fast-forward to today. How important is sports content to the legacy, success and future of the CBS network brand?
SM: Sports is playing an increasingly more important role in the world of media. It’s the highest-rated programming; it’s the most demographically attractive programming, and in many ways it is what is holding the traditional pay TV ecosystem in place. When you own a television network, it’s almost impossible for that network to be successful without major sports — with the NFL being the most important sport — but everything else, including college football and basketball and golf, is also incredibly important. As we are continuing to fight to try to aggregate an audience, whether it be on streaming, direct-to-consumer or whether it be on traditional television, sports is driving that distribution. It’s what gives us the most leverage with the cable, telephone and satellite operators, and as we move forward with ViacomCBS, it’s going to be increasingly more important. It’s also the No. 1 driver of sign-ups and retention for Paramount Plus, which is an enormously important priority for ViacomCBS. So, sports are going to continue to be important. It’s why we completed the recent NFL deal that we did, which will take us into the next decade. You do not want to have a broadcast network without NFL football.
MCN: Let’s talk about the new NFL deal. The content distribution landscape has changed since CBS’s previous NFL deal was struck. How does the new NFL deal reflect the market changes going forward and will we ever see exclusive NFL games on Paramount Plus?
SM: Well, already the NFL is carried on the [Paramount Plus] main and less-expensive tier, so the NFL already plays a really important part on Paramount Plus. But I don’t foresee right now a scenario where there’s a lot of other NFL content or exclusive NFL content on Paramount Plus, but the door is always open. We’re committed to working with our partners at the NFL and with our affiliates to make sure that we protect the exclusivity in every market, but also hopefully find ways to expand that distribution onto Paramount Plus, but there are no plans right now. The exclusivity is still a very important element for all of our affiliates and all of our owned-and-operated stations.
Quite frankly, the broad distribution is important to us and to the NFL. I’ve often said one of the reasons the NFL remained so popular is that it is so broadly distributed. Every NFL game is seen live in the home markets, even when the games are on ESPN; the two markets that are involved in the game have those over-the-air broadcast rights in the individual markets. So the broad distribution is still driving the business for us.
MCN: Will we see similar sports offerings like last year’s NFL game on Nickelodeon across other ViacomCBS brands?
SM: I will say that we’re a very different company than we were when we were just CBS. We had a great portfolio of events, but we weren’t able to program them and promote them and brand them as effectively as we are now with the incredible assets that ViacomCBS has.
The Nickelodeon game is a great example of that. We did a separate telecast in the late afternoon wildcard game last year, which was met with unbelievably rave reviews. It was enjoyed by older fans and younger fans alike.
I think that’s just the beginning of scratching the surface of how we can use the various ViacomCBS platforms to really take better advantage of the great sports properties that we have. When you look at the promotional opportunities, whether it’s to young kids on Nickelodeon, or whether it’s to a slightly older audience on a VH1 or MTV, or to an African-American audience on BET, we have remarkable assets that I think are going to enable us to be even more aggressive in the sports marketplace going forward.
MCN: CBS Sports has aggressively pursued international soccer rights, including the UEFA Champions League. How do those rights fit into a broader multiplatform strategy?
SM: A couple of things — one, we want Paramount Plus to be a must-have for the soccer fan in this country, and I think we are a long way towards that goal. That includes the UEFA Champions League; Serie A; the U.S. soccer games that we have rights to; the Brazilian Soccer League, where we have rights; and CONCACAF, where we have rights. If you’re a soccer fan and in this country, you’re pretty frustrated if you don’t have Paramount Plus. It shows up in the numbers in terms of sign-ups and retention. It’s been a remarkably successful strategy in retaining and attracting audiences to Paramount Plus.
Could I see us finding other sports that would serve that role on Paramount Plus? I do, but the soccer audience is in some ways uniquely complimentary to Paramount Plus. It’s a young, very diverse avid soccer fan that will find some big-time prestigious soccer programming on Paramount Plus. So we’re very happy with the results of our international soccer properties, and it’s going to remain a high priority of ours going forward.
MCN: Also in your portfolio are women’s sports with the WNBA and National Women’s Soccer League. What value does women’s sports offer to a live sports distribution company like CBS Sports?
SM: We want to have as wide a funnel as we possibly can, and women’s sports fits into that strategy. The NWSL and the WNBA are very important for us. We’re the only network that does a female-hosted and produced talk show, We Need To Talk, which airs regularly, both on CBS broadcast network and CBSSN. So it’s part of our strategy to be a full service organization that attracts a large and diverse group of sports fans, including young people, older people, men and women — we’re trying to appeal to everybody and I think it’s working. We’ve been very strategic in the way we’ve gone about this plan and it’s really showing dividends right now. People are starting to notice the aggressiveness that we have in our programming across all of our platforms.
MCN: In terms of on-air talent, how important is diversity in front of and behind the camera from your perspective?
SM: It’s critical. We want our on-air talent to reflect the population of America. We’ve done a good job so far, but we have a lot more work to do for sure. I’m proud of the fact that we have some amazing female talent across all of our sports, whether it’s golf with [CBS golf reporter] Amanda Balionis or football and basketball with [CBS Sports broadcaster] Tracy Wolfson. [CBS Sports reporter] A.J. Ross is terrific, as is [We Need To Talk co-host] Katrina Adams — I could go down the list of women who really are fantastic broadcasters. We’ve made a lot of progress in the area of Black on-air talent for our shows and we’re well-represented, whether it’s JB (James Brown), who I think is the best studio host in America; Nate Burleson, who has been an enormous success on the NFL Today show; Charles Davis is now our No. 2 NFL game analyst; Greg Gumbel, who is the first Black man ever to call a Super Bowl and still has a prominent position at CBS Sports. I say that to say that we’ve made some progress but we have to do a better job going forward.
MCN: CBS Sports over the past year or so has been aggressive in securing deals for live sports content, but recently you walked away from a potential IndyCar deal. What was it about that property that didn’t allow it to fit into CBS Sports’s portfolio?
SM: I love IndyCar racing. I grew up working on the Indy 500 and I was very involved with CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) when it was launched on NBC in the early 1980s. We simply didn’t have room in our programming schedule for it. We have so much golf, college basketball and other programming that we just couldn’t find the windows on broadcast television that were necessary to do the deal. We never really even ended up talking economics or any other elements only because we just didn’t have the space for it. We’re committed to golf as an example on the weekend of the Indy 500 — we just can’t pre-empt our golf schedule because it’s a programming obligation we have.
I had a couple of really nice conversations with [retired race car driver] Roger Penske who is a good friend who I’ve known since the early 1980s. It just wasn’t a deal that we could accommodate from a programming standpoint.
I am very excited about SRX [Superstar Racing Experience], our primetime series that recently concluded. It was met with rave reviews in the racing community. The drivers love it, and the shows were incredibly well-produced. It marked the first time that we’ve done major live car racing in a couple of decades, and it worked out really well for us. So we’re excited.
MCN: We talked a little about televising sports during the pandemic. How difficult was it to make the necessary adjustments from a production standpoint while negotiating the many date changes that pro sports leagues were forced to make due to the pandemic?
SM: It was remarkable. We had to do a Masters in November — no one had ever seen the course on television in November. We had to work out a deal with the NFL to clear out a window early in the afternoon for The Masters, but it was so much fun. Since we knew we weren’t going to have any patrons, we were able to introduce some new technology that just blew people away. The fly cam on the 16th hole showed not only the 16th hole in a way that had never been seen before, but it also showed the relationship between the 15th green and the 16th hole. We had live drones flying around which, again, showed the course as it’s never been seen before.
After The Masters we went into the Super Bowl, which is one of the most difficult events to produce to begin with just because of the magnitude of it. Then we had to socially distance everything from our edit suites to our studios. We built a little city in Tampa, but it was built to the specifications of a pandemic, which was incredibly complicated. It took a lot of space, and money. Our control trucks and our mobile units had to be totally reconfigured again, and you’re not talking about two or three mobile units … you’re talking about numerous mobile units for videotape and audio and everything else. But we made it work. The only thing we didn’t get was a really good, exciting, thrilling game. It didn’t live up to expectations — if you were to ask at the beginning of the year what match up you wanted to see in the Super Bowl, it would have featured Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. That’s what we got, but unfortunately, we didn’t get a close game, but the production was remarkable.
Then we went into the college basketball season and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which was obviously contested all in Indianapolis. Again, very stringent safety protocols for both CBS and Turner Sports, and it came off without a hitch. We had a bubble that was effective and safe for our production people and our announcers and management personnel. The [Final Four] semifinal games were as good a semifinals as we’ve ever seen. Once again, the championship game, unfortunately, didn’t live up to expectations. I worry about things I can control, and everything that we could have controlled in the NCAA men’s tournament and the Super Bowl I couldn’t be more proud of. And then we went down the following week to Augusta National with our 50 mobile units and all the different feeds. In terms of complexity of production, The Masters is probably the most complex.
MCN: How do you see CBS Sports evolving now as we move closer to some sense of normalcy within the TV sports industry?
SM: I think our strategy and our goal is to make sure that our content can be consumed anyway the customer wants to consume it. If he wants to watch it on broadcast television, he can do that; if he or she wants to watch it on a streaming service, they can do that with Paramount. Plus. If somebody wants to do it on a laptop or an iPad we want to make sure they can watch it on that platform also. So making sure that we’re reaching as much of the audience as we can is a high priority of ours. There’s no higher priority at ViacomCBS right now than Paramount Plus, and we’re going to continue to invest in sports to grow that platform. It’s also incredibly important for us to reach the widest possible audience that we can, and broadcast television is still the best way to do that. We are big believers in broadcast television — we think it’s a really good business from a financial standpoint and a programming standpoint. The NFL likes being on America’s most-watched network, as does the NCAA, the PGA Tour and PGA Championship. So we need to be a full-service broadcast network that is also reaching what is generally a younger and more diverse audience on different kinds of platforms. We’re trying to thread the needle. The most revenue is still coming from broadcast television, with the sale of commercial units and sponsorships, but that’s beginning to tip a little bit also, the other platforms are quickly catching up.
MCN: Is there room in that distribution model for CBS Sports Network? One of the network’s cable sports competitors, NBCSN, is shutting down after this year. How does CBSSN fit into the overall business strategy?
SM: It’s a great companion to the broadcast network. I’m proud of the programming we put on there. We have resisted spending hundreds of millions of dollars in rights for major sports properties, but we have excellent programming whether it’s college basketball, college football the WNBA, some of UEFA games or other soccer programming. Studio programming is very successful for us — it gives us a live presence five days a week. So we’re fully committed to CBS Sports Network, and I think our strategy is the right one, which is to gradually improve the quality of the events which we are doing on a regular basis.
MCN: If we’re sitting here a year from now talking about the TV sports industry, does it look more like 2020 or 2019?
SM: I think a lot of that depends on what happens to the country with respect to the pandemic, but all the arrows that I see are pointing up toward a return to normality. I can’t predict what’s going to happen with the virus; I’m hoping that the widespread vaccinations will continue so that we can really get a handle on moving forward in a regular way. So I think a year from now I’m hoping and I’m confident that we are going to be much, much closer to the way we’d been traditionally with our CBS Sports productions across all of our platforms.
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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