The Year in Sports: CBS’ Man for All Seasons

Related: Sports Cable Power Has Eyes on NCAA Final Prize

Related: From Playoff Come Big Payoffs

From increasing Thursday Night Football ratings,to a creative deal to expand coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament, to helping mint a new wave of must-see golf stars, Sean McManus is one of sports television’s top innovators. As chairman of CBS Sports, he presides over an enviable batch of big-league properties that put up enviable results in 2015. According to Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. president and CEO, McManus is “a first-class guy and a great leader of the division” whose trademarks are strong relationships, savvy negotiating skills and stellar leadership.

A McManus pet project, CBS’ Thursday Night Football, averaged 15.8 million viewers this year, up 6% from last year, and several Sunday afternoon games vaulted into the fall’s roster of most-watched programs. The run of pigskin glory will culminate in February with Super Bowl 50. McManus took a time-out from big-game preparations to speak with B&C’s Michael Malone and Dade Hayes in his New York office. An edited transcript follows.

What are you most proud of in 2015?

At the top of the list would be Thursday Night Football. We had some really lofty goals in terms of promotion, branding, marketing, production and presentation. We’ve worked incredibly closely with the NFL and I think all of the expectations that we had have been either met or, in most cases, exceeded. The ratings have grown over last year. We have settled into a really good rhythm from a production standpoint and the marketing has been unprecedented—we’ve done more marketing for Thursday Night Football than any product in the history of CBS, and it has really worked out.

Give us some more specifics about the marketing.

In a 24-hour period before the first game was going to air on the NFL Network [Thursday games were simulcast on CBS and NFL Network during Weeks 2-8, then were exclusive to NFL Network, with CBS producing, starting Nov. 5. They will be simulcast again Dec. 3], Stephen Colbert did about a minute and a half on the transition in a lighthearted, funny way. CBS This Morning, that Thursday, did a big feature on the NFL and the matchup and the Golden Football promotion. The Talk, our syndicated show, did a football-themed cooking segment talking specifically about the NFL Network. [CBS] All Access did a major piece in its program. Then at 8:25 [p.m.] we did a promo for Thursday Night Football in The Big Bang Theory, our No. 1 show. Just in that 24-hour period, the quality and value of the promotion is unprecedented.

What’s the status for Thursday Night Football next season?

We’re talking to [the NFL]. I’d like to think the results we have shown will have a bearing on who airs Thursday Night Football next year. But the NFL was very open about the fact that they wanted to do a one-year deal and that’s what we have. But some time in the next month or two we’ll be sitting down with them. I’m sure there’s a lot of interest from other parties but we’ll make our case and do everything we can to keep it on CBS.

How will Super Bowl 50 look different than the 49 before it?

Other than a really creative pregame show and hopefully a flawless production, it won’t look tremendously different. I think it will feel bigger and will be bigger because it is the 50th. And as we like to say in our promotion, the Super Bowl is the biggest event, bar none, in all of television. Super Bowl 50 will be the biggest Super Bowl of all time.

Having said that, it will, to a large extent, be remembered for the quality of the game. And we have been incredibly blessed in recent memory that the Super Bowls have been really competitive, have come down to the final couple of minutes—in many cases the final play. If we get a good matchup and a close game, everybody will remember Super Bowl 50 as a high point in the history of Super Bowls.

We have been talking about it and planning for it for a year and a half. We constantly talk about what new technologies we can implement, how to make the broadcast better, and I think it’ll be terrific. I think it’s going to be one of the, if not the, biggest day in the history of the NFL and CBS, from a revenue and branding standpoint.

Jump ahead to April 4, and the NCAA basketball final is on TBS. Will that be weird after it’s been on CBS for 34 years?

It’ll be a little different. It won’t be quite as different because we will still, in conjunction with Turner, be producing it as we have in the past. Jim Nantz will be the commentator along with Bill Raftery and Grant Hill, but it’ll be a little different. But we knew going into this deal that the only way to keep the NCAA tournament on CBS was to find a really aggressive cable partner. And Turner was very upfront in saying they weren’t looking to be the cable partner in terms of programming—they were looking to be an equal partner.

So the deal was that in some of the years, they will get the Final Four and the championship game. We knew that was the best deal for the partnership and we accepted. Would I prefer that it be on CBS? I probably would. But there is so much interest and passion about this event that that bleeds over to CBS, whether [the final] is on TBS or CBS in any given year.

Who among the CBS Sports personalities knocked it out of the park this year?

A lot of them have. I think Jim Nantz, just because of the variety and the volume of the work that he does—to do two NFL games in one week eight or nine times a year is incredibly difficult. To do the research and do his spotting boards…I was actually up in the booth with him on [a recent] Thursday night; he probably spends 14-16 hours on each of his spotting boards. He has to do that twice, eight or nine times in the season.

The fact that Jim can seamlessly go from NFL football and the Super Bowl to golf and the Masters to the [NCAA basketball] Final Four, that’s a remarkable stretch. And Jim continues to excel on each one of those three different sports. So if I had to pick somebody who has really crystallized what I like to think CBS Sports represents, I would say Jim Nantz.

How are the golf properties looking?

With the “young guns,” as people like to call them, golf is a really positive story right now. Everybody was waiting to see what happened when Tiger [Woods] wasn’t the dominant figure. And he hasn’t been the dominant figure for a number of years. But the ratings have been strong, our sales have been terrific and the stars—whether it’s Ricky Fowler or Jordan Spieth or Rory McElroy or Jason Day—there seems to be a real enthusiasm in the sport that I haven’t seen or felt in a long time.

We have the largest PGA tour package; we’re the only network to have two major championships. So I feel really good about the sport—I think we are poised for a sustained period of growth. If Tiger comes back, great. Everybody hopes he does. But if he doesn’t, I think we’re going to be really strong with a new crop of stars.

There have been layoffs at Turner Sports and ESPN. Is CBS Sports the right size, staff-wise?

I think we have the right size. I work for a man, Leslie Moonves, who believes you should make money on sports programming. Other networks have a different philosophy, which I wholeheartedly respect. They have deficit-spent on properties like World Cup Soccer, Olympics, Major League Baseball, where they may not be making a pure profit on it. But from the position of building their assets, whether it’s cable companies or cable networks, they have been good deals for them. We have chosen not to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in our 24-hour sports network [CBS Sports Network]. We’ve taken a different approach. So when there is a bit of a downturn, we haven’t had the need to downsize. I never like to see it when other companies announce layoffs, but I think we’re positioned pretty well for the future and our properties work for us financially. We are not, by and large, losing money on our sports properties.

Back to football. Any concern that NFL programming loses its novelty when so much is available on TV?

Oversaturation is something we all worry about. The fact of the matter is, we haven’t reached that point yet because Monday night’s ratings are still very, very strong, Sunday nights are really strong, Sunday afternoon continues to be strong and Thursday night is growing year after year. There is still an appetite for the amount of football that’s programmed. If anything, the interest seems to be greater in the sport than it has ever been.

I would think the success of Thursday Night Football on CBS has driven up the price of the package.

Well, the price of NFL programming is always pretty high. So the fact that we have drawn the kind of ratings that we have obviously means it's a very attractive property. And when you have that kind of property, especially if it's on maybe the most important viewing night of the week, the price is going to be steep.

Ratings outside of football are down. Why are people tuning in to NFL content in such giant numbers?

First of all, it’s such a great sport for television. The players really are gladiators out there. And the way the sport is played and the way it's covered, it's just incredibly visually dynamic. And there's always all sorts of storylines—the NFL is now a 12-month a year product; it is always in the news, sometimes for bad things, a lot of times for good things. The fact that there are only 16 regular season games, every game is important and it generates a lot of interest.

Fantasy football has had an affect, especially on the younger viewers.

And I think the new ways in which the NFL is consumed, whether it be on mobile, on the DirecTV package, NFL Red Zone, all feed into this general level of interest. It just seems to get bigger and bigger every single year.

The NFL has some very successful cable distribution, both on the NFL Network and on ESPN. But I believe strongly in the broadcast platform and I think it's been proven that for certain properties, like Thursday Night Football, that network television is still really, really important.

In terms of fantasy sports, New York’s attorney general has ruled that DraftKings and FanDuel are gambling services. Any thoughts about putting some distance between CBS and some of these outfits?

We're looking at it very carefully. Right now it's illegal in five states and not illegal in the rest. We’re accepting advertising from both companies and we're monitoring it very closely. And they deserve their time in court and their point of view and the states and the attorney generals and Congress deserve theirs. It will be, at one point, determined what is legal to do. And as long as it's legal for us to accept the advertising, we're going to accept the advertising. We'll do whatever it is that is the right thing to do legally.

Are there aspects of CBS’ Super Bowl production that might add to the viewer experience?

Basically the field is still 100 yards long, the goalposts are still 10 yards into the end zone. So the game itself won't look all that dramatically different.

We’ve gotten to the point where the technical advancements are so remarkable that it's really tough to outpace what was done the previous year. But I think you'll see more high definition cameras, more 4K cameras. I think it will look and feel every bit as big, if not bigger, than any previous Super Bowl. We are constantly working on improving the audio. We'll have our two-point, 4K camera that goes up and down the sideline, which is unique to Thursday Night Football and to CBS.

We've been very aggressive in mic-ing players—on Thursday Night Football we try to mic at least two and integrate that into our broadcast. So we'll be as aggressive as we can be in terms of live player audio. But again, it all comes down to the quality of play and the quality of the game and how close it is.

Five years in, how is the Turner partnership for the NCAA basketball championship working out?

It’s unprecedented to have two media companies with different sales teams, broadcast teams, production teams, marketing teams. We really do come together on a yearly basis and produce what is, from a fan's and viewer's standpoint, one of the best products on television. So the fact that we share the games with TBS, I look at it as an extension of the partnership, not just that CBS is losing the Final Four or the championship game. Because the overall partnership works so well, it's successful for CBS as a corporation.

Turner has been great partners of ours. The ratings have been off the charts, the sales have exceeded any expectations. The quality of production is as good as anything on television. So it's hard to point to this partnership as being anything but wildly successful. The beneficiary really has been the viewers. To be able to flip between the most exciting games, and have Jim Nance or Marv Albert actually say, this game is not all that competitive but over on TNT there is a barnburner… The fact that we have made it so easy for the viewer to navigate the four different games during those first two days [of the tournament] is, I think, one of the great accomplishments in television history.

Do you see more of these hybrid rights models happening in the future?

They’re in existence pretty much for every sport. There are two networks carrying NASCAR [NBC, Fox] and within those two networks there is a cable and network component. Turner and Fox share the baseball playoffs and Fox does the World Series. So there are similar types of deals in all sports. The difference is, in our partnership, we're doing everything together—marketing it, producing it, promoting it.

What’s happening on CBS Sports Network?

It’s basically live events—live football, live basketball. We've got some really good studio programming, such as Boomer & Carton, which is simulcast in the morning. We have Adam Schein [host of Time to Schein] that airs every afternoon. We do Monday QB, which features people like Phil Simms and Trent Green and Steve Beuerlein and Dan Fouts giving a quarterback's perspective on what happened that week in football.

We have a lot of really good studio programming with Inside SEC Football and Inside College Football. We have a three-hour Sunday morning show, which is an adjunct to NFL Today, and We Need To Talk, which is the only female-hosted show. That should've happened a long time ago; I’m proud that we were the first ones to do it.

We are trying to build the network from the ground up and I think we're doing a really good job. But we haven't, as I said, gone out and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on properties because we believe we should be making money in the cable sports business. And eventually we will be competitive for the marquee properties. Right now we are doing it in a more conservative, more measured way.

You ran CBS Sports and CBS News from 2005-2011. Do you miss working on the news side?

I miss parts of it. To cover an election and a convention is really exhilarating. It's a lot like covering a Super Bowl or The Masters. But the day-to-day grind of doing two jobs was pretty intense. I miss some of the people. I mean, I got to know people like Bob Schieffer and Scott Pelley and earlier on, Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt and Ed Bradley and Leslie Stahl. To work with those men and women was absolutely terrific.

It was really hard running two divisions but it was also really challenging and incredibly satisfying. We’ve got a great guy running news now [David Rhodes is president] and I'm perfectly happy being back where I am. That was a very intense part of my life.

How do you find that balance of delivering the sports action and also maintaining the integrity around the sports news that's coming out?

We look at it from two different perspectives. One is covering the football game, which I think we do a really good job of. And our commentators are free to talk about any news issues that are pertinent to the game. They tend not to focus on them in the game, but if there is a player who has been suspended or who has legal problems, we are the first to point it out. It's not belabored in the game telecast because people primarily want to see the game that we are producing. But in the studio programming, we cover the news a lot. This past Sunday is a really good example. Our entire first segment of NFL Today was on the Greg Hardy situation. [Hardy was signed by the Dallas Cowboys after being found guilty of assaulting a woman last year.] Each of our analysts and hosts had really strong opinions ranging from, he has no business playing in the NFL, to the union is not living up to what it should be doing in terms of trying to reduce the suspension.

We don't put limitations on what our guys say.

Who was your sports idol growing up?

My father, since he was about as good a mentor or idol as you could have, both personally and professionally. [McManus’ father is the late Jim McKay, former host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports.] The fact that he was so well respected across the board and that he was so good at his craft, whether it was live commentary or writing or hosting, he was in many ways the best there was. In terms of the value of storytelling and how you cover sporting events, so much of that I learned from my father, starting at the earliest age.

Did your father ever try to push you into a different line of work?

No.  My mother subtly did. She thought I would be a really good doctor and, having watched my father get on airplanes 48 times a year, she thought maybe a more stable existence would be better. But since I went more on the management side, my life in terms of traveling has been a little better than our production guys’, who are on the road all the time. In the end my mother realized this is what I really wanted to do. And she saw that it was going to be the most fulfilling and challenging way for me to make my way in the world.

At what age did you realize you were going to work in sports?

I always thought I was going to. I had a summer internship on Wall Street. And I enjoyed it, but I realized when it was over that I wanted to make my living in sports television. Covering and being involved in producing major sporting events was just so exhilarating and so much fun that, to do a regular job, whether it be in law or finance or some other field, was not going to hold my attention.

I grew up in production trucks and I started working, despite the child labor laws, at about 12 years old, sweeping out trucks and doing graphics and running. And I was working for the men and women of ABC Sports, who at the time were the absolute epitome of sports broadcasting. By the time I graduated, I probably had done 75-80 events for ABC Sports. So I pretty much knew what direction my professional life was headed.

Are sports rights problematic in terms of being a strain on the bundle?

They can be. You have to do the analysis of how much you're going to make on an advertising basis and how much you're going to make in your distribution fees and sub fees and growing your asset, which is your channel. My boss has been very, very vocal about the fact that we don't have 25 cable networks that we're trying to get distribution for. It's hard to imagine any bundle, no matter how skinny it is, not including CBS. And if you're going to include CBS, we are going to try to make sure that you also include our very select number of cable properties.

So in some ways you could make the argument that the skinny bundle is going to be advantageous for CBS and that we're going to get at least as much, if not more, distribution. And the fact that we have such incredible content that people really can't live without, NFL being at the very top of that list, it's hard to imagine a scenario where we wouldn't be included in every package or every bundle out there.

Leslie [Moonves] has been terrific in not looking at Amazon and Netflix and Sony and Roku as competitors, but as customers. We have protected our content and also done a lot of deals that have been very successful financially and haven't hurt our main product.

Leslie has been so incredibly involved in everything we've done in sports. When I am in there negotiating for Thursday Night Football, whenever that is, I'm gonna be sitting with Leslie Moonves and David Berson [president, CBS Sports]. And Leslie is going to know as much about that negotiation as we do. To work with somebody who is as engaged and as supportive of sports, it's a real luxury.

Whenever I think about slowing down or retiring, I look at this situation that we have and it's tough to imagine a better situation. So Berson is going to have to wait a few years.

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.