SBJ/April 10-16, 2017/Media

The many hats of Sean McManus, on display at the Final Four

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Stopping by the outdoor set for a chat with Steve Smith and Jay Wright
Photo by: JOHN OURAND / STAFF (4)
The modern-day sports TV executive has changed a lot since the days when larger-than-life executives like Dick Ebersol and David Hill ran their networks. Ebersol and Hill were just as comfortable at the negotiating table as they were in a production truck.

Today’s network sports department heads are more specialized. Some are more adept at the business of sports TV. Others have a keener production eye.

Now in his 21st year running CBS Sports, Sean McManus is a throwback to the days of Ebersol and Hill, when sports TV executives would negotiate deals, then turn around and produce events.

“That’s how I’ve modeled myself,” McManus said. “Dick Ebersol was a real role model of mine.”

Shining up the Moment

The most interesting part of trailing around with the CBS Sports chairman in the hours before one of the network’s biggest events — the Final Four — was to witness the number of different roles he has to play and how effortlessly he moved from one role to another.

More than two hours before the Final Four tipped off in Arizona, McManus was in his producer role. He was standing in one of the network’s production trailers watching a rough cut of “One Shining Moment,” the highlight package that has aired after every NCAA championship game since 1987.

McManus is as comfortable in the production truck as he is at the negotiating table.
In many ways, the montage of highlights looked similar to previous years, with dancing mascots, cheering crowds, buzzer-beating shots, celebrations and tears.

The rough cut, though, included the video of Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox sobbing after his team’s loss to North Carolina. Fox’s words drowned out the song’s lyrics on screen. For McManus, the clip was a downer that came at a point when the song was ramping up with excitement.

McManus wanted that clip taken out of the montage.

A producer pushed back. He said that he had the same thought as McManus at first, but the clip had grown on him. He asked McManus to give it time.

McManus was unmoved.

“That may grow on you after a few views, but our viewers only get to see it once,” McManus said.

The clip did not make the broadcast on Monday night.

“Sean has a very rare and unique ability to skillfully run CBS Sports and handle long-term strategic vision, with short-term creative decisions in a production truck,” said CBS Sports President David Berson. “Few people ever try it, and even fewer can pull it off.”

The “One Shining Moment” edit was a small moment. But it also was one that showed McManus, the producer, at work. It also presented a window into how he runs CBS Sports.

Production trucks are not for the faint of heart. People yell. People curse. There’s no room for pleasantries. It is a controlled chaos that often seems on the verge of exploding.

What stood out from the “One Shining Moment” discussion is how gently and respectfully everyone talked to each other and how they calmly arrived at a solution. The calm atmosphere was no accident.

“At CBS Sports, we have what we call the ‘no asshole’ rule,” McManus said. “You can’t be an asshole and work at CBS Sports. Leslie Moonves has the same rule.”

‘A feeling of family here’

McManus left the production truck and immediately took on the role of a leader. He wants to make CBS Sports a good place to work with a healthy environment. McManus hopped in a golf cart and rode out to the outdoor set that was broadcasting the pregame show hours before the game.

McManus stood next to a camera, waiting for a break when he could say hello to the talent. He first went up to Villanova coach Jay Wright, who CBS picked up for the tournament.

“Jay could quit coaching tomorrow and walk right into a TV job,” McManus said.

McManus and Wright bantered about their golf games. Steve Smith, who was sitting next to Wright on the set, joined in the golf conversation.

Inside University of Phoenix Stadium with Ernie Johnson
McManus then walked to the other side of the set and exchanged pleasantries with Greg Gumbel and Seth Davis before getting back into the golf cart to go back inside University of Phoenix Stadium.

“I think they appreciate when I visit them like that,” he said. “I am trying to project a feeling of family here.”

McManus made his way courtside again, which is when he adopted his executive role. Just 45 minutes before tipoff, McManus chatted up sports business executives like SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and NCAA executive Dan Gavitt — executives who work for two of CBS Sports’ biggest partners.

Conversation stayed light — it was part schmooze and part business. They talked about how the tournament had progressed, and McManus congratulated Sankey on the SEC’s performance in both the men’s and women’s tournament.

“They are both good and incredibly important partners of ours,” McManus said. “I’ve been lucky to develop not only a professional relationship with them, but a really deep personal relationship also. That’s why I like to go on the road relatively often. Phone conversations are good. But a handshake and a face-to-face meeting trumps a phone call any day of the week.”

On his way off the floor, McManus was stopped by basketball hall of famer Bill Walton, who asked McManus to pass along his congratulations to “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert. Walton was excited that Colbert’s show had become the top-rated late night show.

“While Sean gets very well-deserved recognition for the success of CBS Sports, what really sets him apart is how he treats people, doesn’t matter who, but always, always, with class and integrity,” Berson said.

A viewer’s eyes

McManus ended up back in the truck during the games. Eating from a package of Ritz Bits, he stood off to the side of the truck next to Executive Producer Harold Bryant.

From a production standpoint, the first half of the Gonzaga-South Carolina game went flawlessly. McManus was quick with the compliments. After the national anthem, he said, “Great. Good job guys.” As the half drew to a close, he said, “Good job, everybody.”

Courtside conversations with executives like Greg Sankey of the SEC (right)
But that doesn’t mean McManus was static. After the first timeout, he suggested that Bryant tell the game announcers to talk about the pace of play, and which team was favored by the quick pace of the game.

When action returned, Bill Raftery talked about how Gonzaga liked to get out and run, which is what it was doing.

Ten minutes into the game, South Carolina star player Sindarius Thornwell had not scored. McManus reminded Bryant to get a graphic on screen that showed Thornwell’s season average, along with the fact that he hadn’t scored yet. When that graphic appeared on screen, McManus said, “Thanks, guys.”

“Sometimes much to their chagrin, I will sporadically and seldomly during a live broadcast give the producers some input,” McManus said. “I’m doing that as a viewer and a fan more than the chairman of CBS Sports.”

McManus is proud of the way CBS Sports is viewed in the business. While on the golf cart, McManus spoke about how he has worked hard to develop a culture of respect and collegiality at CBS Sports. As he was finishing his remarks, the golf cart’s driver, Phil DeMaddalena, could not stay silent any longer. DeMaddalena, who works in production support for CBS Sports, felt compelled to break in and affirm what McManus was saying.

“There’s no other network like this, and I’ve worked for them all,” DeMaddalena said. “We are treated here unlike any other place. You feel like you belong. At other networks, you feel like just a piece of paper. It starts from the top and goes all the way down through everybody.”

A smiling McManus appeared to be taken aback. He pointed at DeMaddalena and said, “Good man. Thanks for saying that.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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