Bryant Gumbel keeps HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ relevant in evolving media industry

When NBC switched Bryant Gumbel from hosting sports to hosting the “Today” show in 1982, some viewers couldn’t see him making the change.

“There were a lot of people who were saying, ‘Oh, my God, how is he gonna talk to presidents and prime ministers? He never talked to anybody brighter than a linebacker,’ ” Gumbel recalled this week.

But he figured that no matter whom he interviewed, the basics were the same – ask intelligent questions and make sure that the answers are clear to the viewers.

With that simple game plan, Gumbel was a rousing success, hosting “Today” for 15 years. He carried that success into his next major endeavor, hosting HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” which launched in 1995. In its 28th season, the show celebrated its 300th episode Tuesday. It’s available to stream on HBO Max.

“It’s very gratifying,” said Gumbel, 73. “I’ve never made any secret that this is the best show on which I’ve ever worked. I attribute it to a lot of good people who’ve worked very hard to make it possible. I’m glad that there’s still room on the American landscape for good, intelligent television.”

“Real Sports” is a sophisticated sports show in an industry that’s lacking them. Rather than yell thoughts and opinions in your face, Gumbel does what he always has – speak eloquently, explain the facts and provide perspective. He’s one of the few broadcasters who can navigate between news and sports.

Gumbel has kept “Real Sports” in sports fans’ conscience despite an evolving media landscape. Competition for consumers has grown, and there’s more instantaneous media available. How has a monthly magazine-style show stayed relevant?

“At the risk of oversimplifying it,” Gumbel said, “I would say that we have remained consistent in what we wanted to try to do, which is tell good cultural stories with sports as the centerpiece and to try to do them with a degree of professionalism and never try to dumb it down for the audience.

“I always say that our show is about sports like ‘Rocky’ was about boxing. ‘Rocky’ was about self-esteem, opportunity, class warfare, economics, education. Boxing happened to be the vehicle that gave us an opportunity to explore all those elements. And that’s what we use sports for.”

The show also has affected change. A segment in 2004 uncovered boys in the United Arab Emirates being forcibly taken to be camel jockeys. They lived in horrible conditions, and many were killed or crippled in competition. The practice became illegal because of the expose.

“Real Sports” can tackle challenging topics because it has no affiliations. The show and HBO don’t have relationships with leagues, they don’t have sponsors and they’re not driven by ratings.

“Two of the worst words in modern sports television are ‘broadcast partner,’ ” Gumbel said. “I’ve been on the other side of this, having worked at NBC for 25 years and having worked at CBS, and I’m aware of the limitations that are exercised because you have a relationship with leagues or with sponsors.”

Gumbel and his brother, Greg, who works for CBS Sports, grew up in Hyde Park and graduated from De La Salle Institute. They have such similar demeanors and styles, viewers might think it’s inherent. But whereas Greg has said he was influenced by broadcasting peers, Bryant’s influence came at home.

“I’ve always said that I’m my father’s son,” Gumbel said. “And I’ve always tried to conduct myself in that fashion. He was in every way a better person, a smarter person, a harder-working person than I could ever hope to be. And I wanted to do his memory proud and be like him.”

Richard Gumbel was a World War II veteran and a Chicago judge who put himself through college and law school. He died of a heart attack in his courtroom in April 1972, six months before Bryant became a sportscaster at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles.

“My only regret is that my dad died before I was ever on the air,” Gumbel said. “He never got a chance to see anything. I never got a chance to let him enjoy the many things that I could not have possibly learned but for him.”

This fall, Gumbel will have spent 50 years in television. He has shown no signs of slowing, and he doesn’t know when he’ll stop. Gumbel has a year and a half left on his HBO contract, at the end of which he’ll be 74.

“Hopefully I’ll still have all my marbles, hopefully I’ll still be in good health,” Gumbel said. “But in television, as in sports, you’d rather leave a year early than a day late. And I never wanna be the guy who used to be Bryant Gumbel. I’ll asses it a year and a half from now and see what’s going on.”

Remote patrol

Game 3 of the Bulls-Bucks series Friday will air on NBC Sports Chicago and ABC 7. ESPN is putting its top crew on the game – Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and Lisa Salters. Game 4 on Sunday will air exclusively on ABC 7. Dave Pasch, Hubie Brown and Malika Andrews will call it.The White Sox-Twins game Saturday will air on NBCSCH and FS1, which will carry it nationally. Aaron Goldsmith, former Cub Eric Karros and Ken Rosenthal will have the call.For those still interested, the Blackhawks’ game Monday against the Flyers is exclusive to ESPN+ and Hulu.Read More

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