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This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Sean McManus, 59, brought the NFL back to CBS in 1998 after a four-year absence. And he’s spearheaded a succession of significant rights deals since, including SEC football, NCAA men’s basketball, the PGA Championship and U.S. Open tennis. Here, he talks to THR about the NCAA and NFL concussion controversies, WME’s $2.4 billion deal for his old employer — sports behemoth IMG — and the scariest person he ever faced at the negotiating table.
Did you ever have aspirations to be in front of the camera like your dad, legendary ABC sportscaster Jim McKay?
I did a little bit. I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and I used to watch Yankee games — I was a big Yankees fan — and turn the sound down and do commentary and play it back to my father and he would give me little pointers. And when I got to be about 12 years old I thought, “Maybe I should do something different, this is a pretty big legend to follow.”
What’s the most important lesson you learned at IMG that you use in this job?
In a negotiation, both sides should feel like winners. When I was representing the Orange Bowl or the British Open or Wimbledon, there were times when we had all the leverage on our side because these were events that a lot of people wanted to acquire. And we would always convince our clients that they were better off doing a deal that maximized dollars but still left a reasonable profit for the other side. There were times that we could have squeezed a lot harder than we did. If you try to acquire every penny that you can it usually comes back to haunt you. That’s a lesson I learned from [IMG executives] Mark McCormack and Barry Frank. That builds relationships, so the next time you’re negotiating and you don’t have all the leverage, the person with whom you are negotiating will remember that.
The 2018 and 2022 World Cups are moving to Fox and Telemundo in a $1.2 billion deal. Did you have any interest in it?
CBS Sports Network isn’t at a point where bidding that much money for a property like that makes sense. But I think ESPN has done a terrific job promoting it. An awful lot of people were talking about where they were going to be at 6 o’clock [on June 22 for the U.S.-Portugal match]. In my town of New Canaan, Conn., they put up a tent right on the main street for a viewing party. Now if you had said to me even a month ago that this World Cup game was going to be so important that there’s going to be a viewing party in your hometown, I would have laughed at you.
Is there a rights package you would like that you don’t have?
There are a lot I would like, but there aren’t any that make economic and programming sense at the moment. I would love to be in a position to bid for the NBA, but with our college basketball and golf schedules, there’s no room. To have an opportunity to bid on baseball would have been fun also — but again, with the NFL and all the programming commitments we have during the summer, it just didn’t make sense for us. Plus, I work for a man, Leslie Moonves, who really believes that you should not lose a lot of money on sports rights.
So CBS makes money on the NFL?
Yes, the NFL has been a profitable franchise for us, and we anticipate that being true going forward.
Even though the increase for the current deal was more than 60 percent to $1 billion through 2022?
It’s a big increase. Even though we are paying more money in rights, it still makes sense because many advertisers need the NFL. They just can’t afford for almost six months every year not to advertise in the most successful and attractive programming on TV. Listen, the NFL got an enormous increase. Could they have extracted a bit more? Probably. But I think they understand that you don’t want to create a deal that is so onerous for a network that they are not actively coming back and negotiating next time around.
ESPN is launching the SEC Network in August, but you have 10 more years on your SEC deal. What if ESPN came to you and offered to buy out the SEC deal? You only pay $55 million a year for the SEC. I bet ESPN would pay more.
I can’t imagine why we would do it. We don’t do it strictly for the profit that we make. We also do it for the promotional value and the prestige that is inherent in having the No. 1 college football package four out of the last five years. And three of the highest-rated games in the regular season last year were SEC games. We’re very, very happy with it. And were we approached by someone who wanted to buy it, I think we’d give a pretty quick no.
What effect has the concussion controversy had on the NFL?
It hasn’t had an effect on our NFL business yet. I think we’ve been responsible in covering it. The last time we had the Super Bowl, we did two pieces on the issue of player safety. We had former players like Ray Lucas, Sean Salisbury and Charlie Brown come in and talk about the issue. When it is a story to be covered, we cover it. [Analyst and former player] Boomer Esiason has been very outspoken on the issue of player safety. So we certainly don’t ignore it. It’s a subject that deserves a lot of attention.
You played football as a child. Would you let your son play?
I did let my son play football. He chose hockey, baseball and golf, but he played football for one year as a seventh grader. And he was playing against the eighth and ninth graders. So that might have had something to do with his initial lack of interest in the sport. But on a Sunday afternoon, unless he has a hockey game, he’s watching the NFL. And some of my fondest memories were as a 10- and 11-year-old playing football. And I’ve loved the game since then.
Should college athletes be paid?
That’s a very complicated question. For college athletes, who spend an enormous amount of time playing their sport, the college experience should be made easier from an economic standpoint, whether that’s a larger stipend, help with transportation, an insurance policy. I do think you change the dynamic when they are employees instead of students. And I understand that a lot of them are students in name only. But the vast majority of student athletes are just that — they are not the football players and the basketball players. They are swimming and diving or doing tennis or wrestling. And trying to figure out which college athletes should share directly in the enormous revenues that are generated is not easy. Do you pay just the starting lineup? Do you pay the top performers? And if you’re going to pay the quarterback on the football team, do you pay the nationally ranked gymnast on the women’s gymnastic team? I think everybody believes that the system needs to be adjusted in terms of how athletes are taken care of. But what’s good and fair for the starting quarterback at Alabama is very different than what’s good and fair for the kid on the volleyball team. It’s not as simple as a lot of people like to make it.
There is a lot of pressure on the Washington Redskins to change their name. How will CBS analysts address that controversy this fall?
We haven’t talked to them yet. Generally speaking, we do not tell our announcers what to say or not say. Up to this point, it has not been a big issue for us. Last year, it was simmering; now it’s reaching a hotter level. But we probably will not end up dictating to our announcers whether they say Redskins or don’t say Redskins. We leave that up to them and our production team. There are times when something becomes important enough that we talk to them, and between now and the start of football season we’ll decide what is the right thing to do.
WME recently bought IMG, where you used to work. Any tips for Ari Emanuel?
It would be presumptuous of me to give Ari Emanuel advice on any subject. But if I were to give one piece of advice, it would be respect your clients because in the end they are your business.
Who is the toughest negotiator you’ve ever faced?
I would say Don King was the scariest person with whom I’ve negotiated, especially when I was in his townhouse at about 8 p.m., just him and me negotiating a deal for a fight. I was a 28-year-old vp of programming for NBC Sports, so sitting across from Don King and having him pound the table was frightening. The most intimidating was that same year, 1981, with Primo Nebiolo, the head of the International Amateur Athletics Federation. He looked exactly like Benito Mussolini. I was told that shortly into my presentation he would start reading the newspaper. And so when Nebiolo picked up the newspaper, I stopped talking. And for about 30 seconds he kept reading. Then he looked over the top of the newspaper, and I still wasn’t talking. So he put the newspaper down and he never picked it back up.
Did you hear from rival TV sports executives after the Thursday night deal?
I did. I heard from a number of them — “Congratulations, happy for you, but we’re not going away,” that sort of thing. And that’s not uncommon. We’re all good friends. I count [NBC Sports Group chairman] Mark Lazarus, [Fox executives] David Hill and Eric Shanks, and [ESPN president] John Skipper as good friends. I sent John Skipper a note on the World Cup. I sent Eric Shanks a note on the Super Bowl this year. And I sent Mark Lazarus a note on the Olympics. We’re all incredibly competitive, but we also root for each other because in the end, if one of us is doing well, all of us are doing well. But I did, I heard from a number of them.
Did you hear from all of the people you just named?
I’ll just say that I heard from a number of them. I think people were surprised that we got it because most believed that as a network we probably needed it the least. In the end, what people learned was that we may have needed it the least, but we wanted it the most.
What’s the best life lesson your dad taught you?
I would say to be yourself because the camera never lies. That was something he said all the time, and it applies more directly to his profession than mine. But in the end, the person that you are is going to come out. And if you’re a phony, you’re going to be found out.
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