CBS confirms its commitment to sports following departure of Moonves
When CBS lost the rights to the U.S. Open tennis tournament to ESPN in 2013, Les Moonves wanted CBS to keep access to the huge luxury suite located on one baseline — opposite the President’s Box — at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Moonves had CBS executives reach out to their ESPN counterparts to see if they’d be willing to negotiate for access to the suite during the tournament, which goes to the host broadcaster. Not surprisingly, CBS’s executives were quickly rebuffed.
But Moonves’ rare move for premium access to an event the company had lost to a rival wasn’t surprising to those who knew him. It merely underscored the former CBS head’s love of sports and his love of big events.
Following his resignation amid sexual harassment allegations, the initial question among sports insiders was about CBS’s future commitment to sports programming that Moonves championed.
Those commitment concerns already have been laid to rest. CBS Sports brass has spent the past two weeks visiting league partners to assure them that the network’s sports strategy will not change, even with Moonves no longer around. The message has been resonating, according to some of the league executives.
CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, who’s been with the network since 1996, and CBS Sports President David Berson, hired in 2011, have a reputation as a rock-solid management team who have some of the strongest relationships in the business. Those relationships can be seen from deals CBS has with the Masters, which it has carried every year since 1956, and the PGA Tour, which it has carried since 1970.
McManus and Berson are viewed as loyal partners who listen and collaborate behind the scenes.
Moonves presented himself as a larger-than-life figure in the sports community. He often was seen watching NFL games from various owners’ boxes, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. He would hold meetings on the grounds of the Masters. When CBS would carry the Super Bowl, he would spend an afternoon on Radio Row, conducting interviews with local stations across the country.
It was clear that he loved the spectacle and the platform that sports’ biggest events provided.
Meanwhile, McManus spends most NFL Sundays in CBS’s Manhattan production facility overseeing the network’s production of games.
Moonves gave McManus a lot of autonomy to run the sports division. Along with Berson, the two have taken the lead on negotiations for each of CBS’s current sports rights deals, which run well into the next decade. CBS’s PGA Tour deal ends in 2021; its NFL deal runs through the 2022-23 season; the SEC will remain on CBS at least through 2024; and its NCAA Tournament deal goes until 2032. McManus and Berson currently are negotiating a renewal of the company’s PGA Championship deal. Again, CBS Sports stresses long-term partnerships developed over decades.
Another sign that CBS’s sports strategy will remain intact comes from the person picked to replace Moonves on an interim basis. Joe Ianniello also is a big sports fan — a New York Jets season-ticket holder who played football in college, at Pace University.
More importantly, Ianniello was Moonves’ right-hand man and has bought into CBS’s sports strategy. He has been in the room for CBS’s biggest sports deals over the past several years and likely will have a central role next February in Atlanta when CBS carries Super Bowl LIII.
In an email sent to CBS staff when he took over as interim CEO, Ianniello stressed the importance of keeping a focus on quality content. You don’t have to read between the lines to see that sports will remain a key part of that strategy.
“We now spend $7 billion a year on programming, which is on par with some of the largest companies in our industry,” he wrote. “Looking ahead, as consumption continues to evolve, so will we. But content will always be at the core.”
During a recent industry conference, CBS Chief Advertising Revenue Officer Jo Ann Ross referenced Ianniello’s email when saying that her staff was trying to maintain a business-as-usual demeanor in the days following Moonves’ exit.
“We have to go on,” she said. “We have an obligation to bring in revenue. We have an obligation to provide audiences. And we have an obligation to ourselves to do the best that we can do. My team and the people who work at CBS get that.”