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Volume 23 No. 23
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March of Dimes luncheon a lasting legacy

One of the joys of Cohen’s career has been the March of Dimes Sports Luncheon in New York.
Photo by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
Not to be ignored on Joe Cohen’s list of achievements is the annual March of Dimes Sports Luncheon in New York, which he helped start more than 30 years ago.

Former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson, whose son was born deaf, originally chaired the luncheon. Pilson recalls more than 200 people turning out for the original luncheon honoring figure skater Scott Hamilton and raising more than $100,000 for the charity, although Howard Cosell’s insistence on roasting many of those at the luncheon for five minutes each made it last until close to 3 p.m.

Now it’s a considerably shorter program and has become the Super Bowl of charitable sports gatherings, regularly drawing more than 700 people to the Waldorf Astoria in early December and recently breaking the $1 million mark in funds raised at a single luncheon.

Around 1980, ESPN offered Cohen the job as president. He turned down that opportunity in order to stay at MSG. However, both the McKinsey partner and the headhunter recruiting Cohen were on the March of Dimes board and they were successful in getting him to join. Work on the luncheon followed, and not surprisingly, so did a lifetime achievement award at the initial luncheon for Sonny Werblin, Cohen’s mentor.

“Neal and I sit together every year at the lunch and smile about how long it’s lasted and how much money it’s raised,” Cohen said.

No cause or event reaches across the sports media, marketing, advertising and broadcast talent businesses as broadly as the March of Dimes luncheon, which helps explain its influence and longevity. One of the other reasons: Cohen’s Rolodex.

“Joe was one of the first people I reached out to to start the lunch and he always delivered,” Pilson said. “If you wanted to reach an athlete, or really anyone with power or fame in New York City, Joe either knew them or knew how to reach them. When the luncheon fell on some hard times, he helped move it to the floor of the Garden, where we honored Marv Albert and sold it out, with Joe chairing that event.”

CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus has chaired the event since 1997. The 32nd annual event was held in December.

“Whenever we have any difficulty getting somebody to the luncheon, Joe always delivers them, whether it’s Bud Selig or Mariano Rivera,” McManus said. “And he has good ideas; when we decided to include an honor for the Sportswoman of the Year, he was very instrumental in championing that.”