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Not Your Average Nice Guy

He doesn’t fit the deal-maker stereotype, but Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, has closed some of the biggest deals in television

Dusk is settling in over the New York City skyline and Sean McManus is keeping an eye on the clock. It’s been the usual busy day for the television executive, beginning with breakfast with bankers about sports sponsorships and ending with negotiations with the NCAA about basketball. The most important appointment is still to come, though: racing back to New Canaan to pick up his young daughter, Maggie, from her squash lesson.

Sean McManus, dad, took a backseat for six years to Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports and president of CBS News, jobs that he held at the same time. Only one other person had ever pulled that off, Roone Arledge at ABC, back when television was the hottest medium around. Now there’s competition for viewers everywhere, although if there’s one thing McManus appreciates, it’s rivalry for supremacy. “I am very, very competitive,” he says from his office overlooking the corner of Fifty-third Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. But even the fiercest competitor can run out of gas. A year ago when CBS gave the news job to New Canaan’s Jeff Fager and promoted McManus to chairman of CBS Sports, McManus felt relieved. Slowly, he found his way back to normalcy—to being the best deal maker in sports, the person who returned football to CBS, the one who gave a whole new meaning to the term March Madness.

“I do not miss running two divisions,” he says. “Sports and news was very taxing, personally and professionally.” McManus’s candor can be surprising. He shifts his weight at his tidy desk, on which the report “Trends in Hours of TV Viewing” sits next to his iPad. He is polite and soft-spoken and takes a couple of seconds to gather his thoughts before responding. Running two divisions was hellish, he says. Weekday mornings began before 7 a.m., monitoring morning news programs and running editorial meetings. Then he’d run over to the sports studio to monitor ball games. Then he’d race back down to news and after that he’d bolt back up to sports. For his sports job, he often worked nights or weekends. Sports are predictable. News is not. “My biggest fear was they would finally find Osama bin Laden, and he would be in a cave and the Army rangers would be there, and CBS would be the only network without a camera,” McManus says. The day he learned he was dropping news was not an unpleasant one. Why, then, had he agreed to take it on in the first place? “Why did I do it? Because I was asked to,” he says.

Journalism in the Genes

In 2005 CBS News was listing after a 60 Minutes II scandal led to the departure of Dan Rather and the network needed a leader to right the ship. McManus, known for being even-keeled, levelheaded and calm in a storm, was asked to take over, but to retain his job as the head of CBS Sports. His first call was to his best friend­—his late father—the legendary broadcaster Jim McKay. “He couldn’t really parse it at first,” McManus says. “President of CBS News was a job for someone like Walter Cronkite.” But his father came around. He knew that McManus had news in his genes. McManus’s parents met in the newsroom of the Baltimore Evening Sun. McKay, then known as Jim McManus, was straight out of the Navy and had joined the paper as a police reporter. On his first day on the job, he grabbed the only empty chair there was in the newsroom. It belonged to a reporter named Dempsey who was out for the day. When the staffer returned—Margaret Dempsey—she reclaimed her seat and along with it McKay’s heart. After the two were married, she continued working as a reporter when the family moved to Westport. She would interview Judy Garland and Bob Hope, type up a column and send out copies to newspapers all over the country. “She would write it on her little blue Smith Corona typewriter,” McManus remembers. “She was a first-rate reporter.”

For more than twenty-five years McKay was a regular presence in many homes on Saturday afternoons, as the friendly, adventurous host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. He traveled from one obscure place to the next, bringing viewers to competitions as diverse as cliff diving and motorcycle jumping. Growing up, McManus often tagged along with his dad on assignments. He loved the buzz of the control room and the camaraderie of the production team. By the time he was twelve years old, McManus knew what he wanted to do for a living: produce TV sports. His mother had other ideas, though. The summer of his junior year at Duke University, she persuaded him to intern with Salomon Brothers. He realized then that he could make a bundle of money on Wall Street, and he realized that it wasn’t important to him. When McManus graduated from college with double majors in English and history, he took a job as a production assistant at ABC for $12,300.

Although grateful for the opportunity, McManus couldn’t help but wonder if he was any good at his job, or if his father’s reputation was paving the way. Though he had more or less interned his entire life alongside one of the best broadcasters in history, the truth was he didn’t know. So he changed networks to find out. He moved to NBC, where he had to develop his own street cred. He became a wunderkind there and by 1982, at age 27, he was the youngest vice president in network history. In time, McManus left NBC and learned how to make deals at the TV sponsorship and management group IMG. He returned to network television in 1996 when CBS Sports named him president. McManus was hired with one goal in sight: to woo back the National Football League.

Art of Negotiation

Television often portrays the deal maker as a slick, double-talking and disingenuous character. Maybe he’s got one arm tucked around the target’s shoulders while the other reaches into his billfold. By many accounts, McManus, 57, is a master deal maker. For proof of that, one only needs to check the channel to realize how often they’re tuned to CBS for top sporting events, like the U.S. Open in tennis, the Masters Golf Tournament, football on Sundays, and for three weeks in mostly March, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament known as March Madness. Slowly, surely, McManus helped line them all up for CBS, in deals that many in the television industry credit with saving the network. McManus, however, doesn’t fit the wheeling-dealing stereotype. Colleagues call him trustworthy, direct, honest—a man of character. He was the guy who CBS counted on to bring back football. CBS hadn’t broadcast football since 1993, when FOX snatched away its portion of the rights. When that happened, more than a dozen affiliates fled to FOX as well, and CBS continued to slide, losing upwards of $50 million to $100 million a year and furthering its reputation as the network of the senior-citizen set. McManus needed to act fast. In theory, that seems like a simple proposition: Offer the NFL more money than the other guys do, and you get to broadcast the games. What’s there to negotiate? But execution is another matter. “The odds were very long against us,” McManus recalls.

NBC had been an NFL partner for thirty-three years, yet there was McManus offering $500 million a year over eight years, more than double what NBC was paying. And money wasn’t the only issue. McManus needed to convince the NFL that CBS could assemble a top team to deliver the programming. Then CBS needed to persuade advertisers to pay more than they had been paying. Mostly, CBS had to convince viewers to tune in. Yet in the end, it was a matter of trust. McManus’s eyes sparkle when he remembers that coup, but he offers humble, measured commentary. “We convinced the NFL we could treat it well,” he says. “We did our deal early and quick and we were able to take it away from NBC.”

FOX and NBC executives at the time scoffed at the deal, mocking McManus for bidding too high out of desperation. They predicted a long and painful death for the network known as the Eye. But the opposite happened. McManus named himself the executive producer of NFL football, assembled a team of on-air talent led by former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, Greg Gumbel and New Canaan’s Jim Nantz, lined up promotion and tinkered with advertising fees. As a result, young male viewers, who were pretty much non-existent at CBS before football, returned in 1998. While they munched nachos and cheered for their teams, they apparently paid attention to promos for prime-time programming that CBS aired during football games. Eventually, the network not only covered its bets on football, it regained first place in the prime-time slot as sports fans proved eager to stick around for The Amazing Race or Survivor, highly rated reality shows on CBS. McManus contends the two are more related than you might think. “Sports is the best reality programming on television. That’s why it’s becoming more valuable. It’s TiVo-proof,” he says, adding that a true sports fan wants to watch the action unfold in real time.

Early Education

McManus got a heavy dose of sports reality TV as a youngster while beside his father working in the booth. There’s a photo of him standing behind his dad, wearing mittens, ear warmers and a ski jacket, as McKay called the action. Little Sean looks enthralled. “Oh, yeah,” he says, “I remember that.” Turns out he keeps the photo on his iPad and he’s determined to find it. Suddenly it’s quiet in the office as he searches from one picture to the next. On the walls around him is a photo gallery of sorts, a Who’s Who of sports stars in action: golfer Tiger Woods at the Masters, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Denver quarterback Tim Tebow in his college days. There’s a collection of his heroes: his father, Walter Cronkite, Muhammad Ali and Keith Richards. At his desk, McManus finds the picture he’s looking for: the world barrel-jumping contest from Grossinger’s in the Catskills. There’s one television experience McManus says he’ll never forget. In addition to hosting Wide World of Sports, McKay covered the Olympics. During the Munich summer games in 1972, McKay had a rare day off. He’d planned to pack the family in the car and drive around Bavaria. First, though, he would go for a swim in the hotel pool followed by a respite in the sauna. “He’s in the sauna in his wet bathing suit and he gets a call from Roone Arledge,” McManus says. “Arledge tells him that something’s gone wrong in the Olympic Village. Would McKay mind checking it out?”

Terrorists armed with machine guns had invaded the Israeli athletes’ dorms, taking eleven athletes, coaches and trainers hostage. Most Americans hadn’t heard of terrorists back then. Relying on his reporter’s instincts and working without a script, McKay filled us in. He talked for sixteen straight hours, looking more tired as the day wore on. Reuters reported that the hostages were freed, but McKay couldn’t get a solid confirmation, so he wouldn’t announce it. He fielded reports from Peter Jennings, Howard Cosell and colleagues throughout the village and relayed the updates to viewers. He’d heard that the parents of one Israeli weightlifter were Americans from Ohio, who were relying on McKay to tell them whether their son was dead or alive. When he learned the awful truth, that the hostages had been shot and killed at the airport, he looked straight into the camera and said, “They’re all gone.” McManus was at his father’s side during the broadcast. “I was literally next to him, in the cocoon of the little control room the entire time.” Even though that tragic memory remains a vivid one for him, McManus seems happiest when hard at work in the control room. He can put on headphones, look out over a sea of monitors and supervise his creation. In the control room he helps bring it all together.

Mad For March Madness

Every March since 1939, the top college men’s basketball teams in the country have faced each other for the national championship. There were eight teams in the 1939 tournament; last year, there were sixty-eight. During this annual showdown, many people who don’t know a thing about basketball toss $5 or $10 into their office pool and for the next three weeks become fanatics, staying up well past bedtime to watch obscure teams like the Butler Bulldogs take on the Wisconsin Badgers. Never mind that they don’t even know where Butler is. A few years ago, following the tournament on television proved quite frustrating. There were so many games and so few channels. When some fans were doing the happy dance watching their beloved Huskies up by twenty points, the rest of the viewing public was bored to tears, prompting producers to change the game they were broadcasting. Switching drove basketball fans crazy.That doesn’t happen anymore though, thanks to another deal of McManus’s. These days, the viewer at home plays producer with the remote control.

In 2010, with the economy in a tailspin, McManus and his boss, CBS President Leslie Moonves, crafted a $10.8 billion deal with the NCAA for broadcast, Internet and wireless rights that will span fourteen years. Every game in the tournament is broadcast in its entirety, spread out across four networks: CBS, and three Turner channels (truTV, TNT and TBS). All games stream live at www.CBSSports.com. Moonves is in Los Angeles when I reach him by phone. He seems to enjoy talking about McManus, especially his ability to make deals. “Sean is at the forefront of the biggest deals CBS is making. What distinguishes him is his relationships with all the various groups we have to do business with. When Sean’s dealing with these guys, they know his word is his bond. He has a great deal of integrity. He’s somebody they can count on.” In 2010 Moonves and McManus were going through one of the most complex negotiations ever, renewing the NCAA tournament and doing it with Turner, a partner they’d never had before. “We were down at the Masters at the time,” Moonves recalls. “We were on the phone at 1 o’clock in the morning, and we both started laughing—all of these pieces and it’s literally over ten billion dollars! It was an unbelievably difficult assignment. There was a lot of poker being played. But Sean knew what was important. He’s one part deal maker, one part producer. He’s got a lot of people reporting to him so he’s got to be a top-notch executive. He handles it with great aplomb.”

That’s what most people seem to think. But every now and then there’s a critic. McManus is in the control room during football season and CBS is airing a Jets game when the phone rings. McManus picks it up. On the other line is his son Jackson, age nine. Jackson is watching the game from home in New Canaan. “Any other teams playing today, Dad?” Jackson wants to know. Of course there are, and Jackson is very aware of that. “You’d never know it from watching this broadcast,” he tells his father. In addition to cut-aways to other games, the boy thinks it would be a good idea to show some more crowd shots. Broadcasting, it seems, is in this McManus’s genes, too.