After the Super Bowl CBS Sports Division is headed for the ‘agony of defeat’

Baltimore – Three-quarters of a century ago, a young fellow named Jim McManus gave up his job as a news reporter at The Evening Sun newspaper to stand at the finish line at Pimlico Race Course one afternoon and usher in the brand new medium of television.

Shortly thereafter, he changed his professional name to Jim McKay. Then, over the next half-century, he changed the history of television itself.

Now the story – of TV sports coverage, and of the McManus/McKay family legacy – comes full cycle, as McKay’s son, Sean McManus, prepares to step down from his long-time position as chairman of the legendary CBS Sports Division.

He does this in the midst of profound changes in TV sports which no one could have foreseen on that distant afternoon when Sean McManus’ dad was helping launch television itself.

On that October afternoon in 1947, Jim McManus was uttering the very first words ever spoken on Baltimore television. He did this for WMAR-TV, which was owned by The Baltimore Sun back then, and affiliated with CBS-TV.

This was the very birth of Baltimore TV.

Now comes the changing of much of TV sports as we’ve come to know them. For nearly four decades, as host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, McKay reminded viewers of “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

But, as CBS prepares for Sunday’s Super Bowl – the 22nd time the network has broadcast the big game, which is the most of any network –  is CBS’ sports division heading toward long-distance defeat, as McManus takes his final bows and heads toward spring retirement?

As The New York Times reported on Friday, “The storied CBS Sports division, the broadcasting home of marquee events like the Masters and March Madness, is confronting a wave of change.

“Its longtime chairman, Sean McManus, is departing in April. The division has lost the rights to one of its signature properties, Southeastern Conference college football games. Deep-pocketed tech giants are getting aggressive about live sports programming, with companies like Amazon and Netflix entering the field. And Paramount is widely considered an acquisition target, with a number of suitors circling the company.”

What gives the story a sense of history beyond the McKay/McManus connection is the importance of sports at a time when the old network dominance of TV finds itself squeezed so severely by so much 21st-century competition.

And it makes sports more important than ever, since America’s obsession with games – especially pro football – carries so much financial impact.

As the Times reported Sunday, a prime-time 30-second spot on Sunday’s Super Bowl will cost $7 million. This is why CBS has spent a fortune to hold onto its NFL rights. CBS spends $2 billion a year to broadcast the NFL, and they’re locked in for the next decade.

They’ve got the rights to men’s college basketball for the next eight years, at $750 million a year. And they’ve got a bunch of Professional Golf Association events locked in through 2030 for hundreds of millions a year.

Sports are now the only sure thing economically for TV networks. Over the past decade, traditional TV ratings have been falling like things thrown off a cliff. So are advertising totals.

On that distant day when Jim McKay still went by his original name, and stood at the finish line at Pimlico to usher in the new age of television, no one could have predicted where we’d be today.

Over his career, McKay logged four and a half million miles covering worldwide sports. He called Baltimore home but went to a hundred countries. He helped build ABC and Wide World of Sports into powerhouses.

As chairman of the CBS Sports division, his son Sean worked behind the scenes to create his network’s class and its muscle.

He prepares to leave as no one knows where CBS – or network TV itself – goes from here.

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