HBO's 'Real Sports' airs its final show after 29 years with Bryant Gumbel

HBO’s “Real Sports” taped its episodes on the same Manhattan block as CBS’ “60 Minutes” for the last several years of its run. They shared a sensibility as well as a community.

While “60 Minutes” is in its sixth decade, Bryant Gumbel’s monthly sports magazine is calling it quits in its 29th year. The last 90-minute episode will air Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

Sports served as a lens through which the magazine examined a wide range of issues, including corruption at the International Olympic Committee, labor abuses as Qatar prepared for the World Cup, concussions in sports, and youngsters forced to ride camels in the Middle East.

“Real Sports” featured some uplifting stories, such as Mary Carillo’s profile of the Hoyts, a father who raced marathons pulling his cerebral palsy-afflicted son’s wheelchair, as well as some humor.
Who came up on top? There were other men for the job.

“I’m OK,” Gumbel declared before filming the final episode. “I’m sad, but everything has to end at some point and this is the right time for this to end.”

A champagne cart was pushed down a backstage corridor. Correspondents, producers, and their families made their way through the offices, saying their goodbyes. Hilary Gumbel, Gumbel’s wife, and his grandchildren sat in the control room to watch the final taping.


HBO's 'Real Sports' airs its final show after 29 years with Bryant Gumbel

Gumbel is 75 and nearing the end of his contract, and HBO is now owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, which is looking for ways to save costs. While the show’s departure makes sense, there is concern that a subset of sports journalism is also departing for good.

“It has been the gold standard in sports journalism on TV for the last three decades, and it really is quite a loss,” Mark Hyman, director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland, said. “It checked all the boxes — timely, ambitious, well-funded, independent.”

According to him, sports news is increasingly coming from outlets owned by leagues, such as the NFL or MLB networks, or networks whose businesses rely heavily on winning rights deals.

“The show tried to do some things in sports journalism that no one else was doing,” he stated. “I believe it was one of the few avenues where issues could be explored honestly without regard for ratings, sponsorships, or relationships.”

“I’ve been on the other side of that coin,” he told me. “I’ve worked for networks that were what is now known as a ‘broadcast partner’ of a sporting business. And you’d be a fool to believe that you can follow any tale wherever it leads if it intersects with that relationship. That is not how life works.”

Athletes knew they were agreeing to a difficult interview when they decided to participate in “Real Sports,” just as “60 Minutes” guests knew what they were signing up for, according to Carillo.

She claims that athletes may now control their own messages via social media or sites such as The Players’ Tribune.

“I wish we could have kept going,” she expressed regret. “But times have changed.”


HBO's 'Real Sports' airs its final show after 29 years with Bryant Gumbel

Carillo has been a part of “Real Sports” since 1997. Jon Frankel, Andrea Kremer, Armen Keteyian, Soledad O’Brien, and David Scott are among the other notable correspondents. From 1995 to 2014, the late sportswriter legend Frank Deford featured on the show.

Bernard Goldberg was a prolific journalist until his abrupt departure in 2020. He claimed he became enraged by what Gumbel, a Black man, said about the amount of racism in society and abruptly left the show after 22 years.

Goldberg said he canceled HBO the day he departed, hasn’t seen a single episode of “Real Sports” since, and won’t watch the conclusion. He declined to comment further.

When asked about tales that have lingered with him, Gumbel highlights one that resulted in the release of an athlete, Marcus Dixon, from prison, and another about a recruitment scam at St. Bonaventure University that resulted in the suicide of a university official.

“We offer a focus on how athletes impact their sport,” that’s what he said. “What’s more important to me, more lasting to me, and more interesting to me is how sports impacts the people who try to play it, try to run it, and try to govern it.”

Gumbel takes pleasure in having never missed a show filming in 29 years, despite a divorce, two bouts with cancer, seven surgeries, and a particularly terrible face injury that required 68 stitches (he showed a picture on his phone).

He recalls discussions with Deford about how age diminishes people’s abilities in their line of employment. “‘I can still flip a phrase,’ Frank used to say. “I just can’t do it as frequently as I used to,” Gumbel explained.

He understands. Gumbel has thought about what many players face at the end of their careers.

“I’ve always thought I’d rather leave a year too early than a day too late,” he was quoted as saying. “I never wanted to be the guy who overstayed his welcome.”

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