SBJ/20080616/This Week's News

An American Original

Sean McManus was watching his son’s Little League game on a warm June Connecticut morning when he got a call on his cell phone.

That wasn’t unusual for the CBS News and CBS Sports president, who is always in demand.

But this call was different. The voice on the other end told him that his father — sports industry icon Jim McKay — had died in his sleep early that morning, June 7, while lying next to Margaret, his wife of nearly 60 years.

McManus immediately drove to his New Canaan home, packed his things, and jumped on an Amtrak train for a two-hour trip to Baltimore.

McManus spent much of the trip lost in his thoughts, reflecting on his father and the strong bond they shared.

Once at Baltimore’s Penn Station, he grabbed a taxi to make the 30-minute trip out to the family’s horse farm. When McManus said he needed to go to Monkton, Md., the taxi driver, who appeared to be about 60 years old, turned and said, “You know, we lost Jim McKay this morning.”

“It was so touching and I think so appropriate,” McManus told SportsBusiness Journal late last week. “He didn’t say that Jim McKay died. He said that we ‘lost’ Jim McKay. I think people felt a great sense of loss, that something is missing in the world now that he’s not here.”

For the people who gathered at McKay’s funeral on a hot and humid Baltimore morning last week, however, the kind of connection that McKay had with viewers, like that cab driver, is something they don’t believe will ever be duplicated in the fragmented media landscape of today.

As a number of sports media titans from the past decade, like Bob Iger and Dick Ebersol, gathered at Baltimore’s Cathedral of Mary Our Queen last Tuesday, they mourned their friend and former colleague, someone who was universally described as a kind-hearted, courteous, all-around good guy.

But they also mourned the loss of what McKay represented — an era when broadcasters commanded the airwaves, and someone with McKay’s calm, gentlemanly demeanor could become an understated and comforting TV personality.

Given today’s landscape of 500 channels, broadband networks and mobile content, no sports anchor will ever again command the audiences that flocked to watch McKay as he hosted various events.

Just like Walter Cronkite delivered the news to all of America, these executives pointed to McKay as someone who took all of America on his journeys when he hosted ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

It’s a platform that no broadcaster will ever have again.

“The world is too fragmented,” said Steve Bornstein, the NFL’s executive vice president of media and the NFL Network’s president and CEO. “Those days are long gone. They’re never coming back.”

If he were of this generation, McKay might never have been allowed to have his defining moment, when he broadcast details of the tragedy from the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and later killed.

NBC Universal Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol, who called McKay “the greatest wordsmith who ever worked in the sports field,” said McKay would never be the one to tell America of the deaths if the tragedy were to happen today. Rather, all the news networks would be competing with each other to be the first to break the news.

“If Munich were to happen today, whoever had the rights might have the exclusive rights to what’s going on inside the Olympic venues, but everybody else would have access to a satellite,” Ebersol said. “There was only one satellite in those days, and we had it blocked at ABC.”

James Fontelieu, one of McKay’s grandsons,
said one of his favorite memories was when
McKay would inhale helium and recite the
opening to “Wide World of Sports.”

It was those times at ABC, in the 1960s and 1970s, that many of the mourners remembered. Before the funeral Mass, a former ABC executive producer, Geoff Mason, recited a list of members in what he called the “ABC Sports Alumni Memorial Hall of Fame,” which featured the likes of Roone Arledge, Howard Cosell and Curt Gowdy, who all worked in the network’s sports department and have now passed away.

Doug Wilson, a former producer at ABC Sports, provided a glimpse of the tight bond that still exists from those ABC sports days, when he said, “We were so proud of working on ‘Wide World of Sports,’” Wilson said. “We were all living under the reflected glory of Jim McKay’s words decade after decade.”

McManus said the bond from the early days of ABC Sports would be almost impossible to replicate.

“That camaraderie doesn’t exist today like it did because there was a relatively small group of men and women who traveled together a lot, and they were at a sports network that was dominant in every way,” McManus said. “It was a unique time in history where this small group of men and women traveled everywhere.”

While much of McKay’s career is defined by Munich, the executives who gathered in Baltimore barely mentioned it. They preferred to remember the days when McKay held court over American TV audiences, spinning tales, reciting poetry and even occasionally singing songs.

“Then, we just had over-the-air networks. We didn’t have cable,” said Sandy Montag, IMG senior corporate vice president. “On the weekends, there really was a ‘Game of the Week.’ Today, there’s a game of the hour. As a fan, you don’t have the affection to the broadcaster that you did.”

ESPN announcer Mike Tirico, who worked with McKay for three British Opens on ABC in the late 1990s, agreed that sports broadcasting is unlikely to see the likes of McKay again.

“We don’t have the time in our business to be a Jim McKay today,” he said. “We have to get in, give our opinion, and get out, as opposed to telling stories.”

McKay also broadcast during a time when American audiences had never seen video from behind the Iron Curtain or Cuba, two places where McKay traveled for various broadcasts.

CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz said that today’s viewers have become numb to pictures “spanning the globe” that brought amazement during McKay’s heyday.

“We don’t have that anymore,” Nantz said. “The world has shrunk. He was a modern-day world explorer.”

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