Part of what makes Real Sports special is the fact that it doesn’t have league obligations and there are no sponsors to answer to, Gumbel says.
Bryant Gumbel knew the question was coming.
In most of the shows that have aired on HBO’s “Real Sports” in the last 28 seasons, Gumbel, as the host, is seen talking to one of the show’s correspondents discussing the previous segment and asking follow-up questions, providing more context to the story.
Gumbel is also seen quickly writing on a notepad before going back to asking questions.
So, what is he writing that’s so important?
“Everyone always asks and I’ll never tell,” Gumbel told USA TODAY Sports. “I wish I could tell you how often I am asked that question.”
“Yeah, Bryant is a scribbler,” correspondent Soledad O’Brien added. “I have looked down to see what he is writing. It’s just little notes to himself. But whatever it is, it makes sense to him.”
Tuesday’s airing of “Real Sports” will be the 300th episode, which will feature an update on seven-time gold medalist Paralympian Oksana Masters, with profiles on YouTuber turned boxer Jake Paul, and Rodney Stotts, one of the few Black falconers in the United States.
But the idea of the show evolved from a casual conversation to appointment television every month.
While still co-hosting the “Today” show, Gumbel had lunch with then-HBO Sports president Seth Abraham, who pitched him on a program around sports but doing it in way not seen on cable television. With no real expectations, Gumbel and Abraham set out to create long-form video journalism with sports as a centerpiece.
“But we were interested in not just the scores of who won and who lost, we were much more interested in the cultural issues. Our show is about sports like the movie “Rocky” is about boxing,” Gumbel said.
The show, which started in 1995 and has won 33 Sports Emmy Awards, evolved from a one-off program to airing quarterly to its present format of once a month, with three to four stories per episode and an end-of-the-year roundtable discussion.
“We do seem to resonate with people across all parts of society, young and old,” said Jon Frankel, who has been a “Real Sports” correspondent since 2006. “What’s special about it is that this is the perfect marriage of being able to do things in sports and allowing us to cover the topics you don’t always see anywhere else.” (Some examples of those topics: how the gun industry markets shooting sports to kids, an in-depth look at the world of bull riding for kids as young as 8.)
With the sports landscape saturated with blogs and debate shows at every turn, and more options than ever for viewing content, Gumbel says what separates his show is they don’t have contractual obligations with leagues and no sponsors to answer to.
“It is very difficult to identify what one might call an original thought. There aren’t many places that are even attempting to do long-form journalism.” Gumbel said. “We are free to pursue a story to its honest end as opposed to pulling our punches because we don’t want to upset anyone.”
HBO does not pay for interviews, the correspondents don’t entertain being told what to ask subjects and have the time and additional resources to complete a story, making for a unique autonomy.
“Bryant’s name is synonymous high-quality journalism. He does not tolerate anything that is half-assed, which makes him a great person to work with and for,” O’Brien said. “There is no, ‘Yeah it was good.’ That does not exist. You can’t do a 16-minute piece with thin reporting (and) combine it with pieces that makes sense and win awards. The magic is knowing what to pitch.”
“We don’t give into the hot takes,” said correspondent Andrea Kremer, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. “We are empowered by the man whose name is on the show to do the best and most interesting stories without regard for how big of a name a person is.”
Over the course of almost three decades on the air, Gumbel admits making a lot of mistakes and says he rarely walks away from a broadcast thinking it was as good as it could be or worries about pundits critiquing his sometimes, controversial commentary at the end of a show.
“I don’t use my rearview mirror at lot. I am not sure it does a lot of good. You try to learn from things and you move on,” he says. “But dwelling on the past. I am not sure it’s terribly productive. I did it, it is a part of history, it’s on tape and in the public domain.”
He said that not every segment is a work of art, as there have been some athletes he had been looking forward to meeting and they gave him nothing during the interview, whether the athlete lacked a personality or just didn’t provide much context. (Gumbel declined to offer names.)
Gumbel also doesn’t share with the correspondents about what he is going to ask at the end of a segment, ensuring that the back-and-forth exchanges are authentic and relevant.
One of the most difficult periods in the show’s history happened during the beginning of the still ongoing coronavirus pandemic, when the staff wondered how they were going to pull off shows. The March 2020 show was canceled after being unable to navigate the travel necessary to get to assignments.
It was decided that Gumbel would set up shop in his Florida home, with Zoom being the main tool to conduct interviews.
The network shipped the necessary equipment and taught his wife, Hilary, how to perform the technical tasks. Eventually she became Gumbel’s cameraman, lighting director, sound technician, prompter operator and sometimes his makeup assistant.
HBO produced 17 shows remotely before heading back it to its New York headquarters in June 2021.
“She became everything. She was terrific and a rock star,” Gumbel said of his wife. “She got interested in and got good at it. She basically was a one-person crew for a three-camera setup. We just kept churning out programs even though we didn’t go anywhere.”
Kremer said despite the limitations that COVID brought with travel and securing interviews, the message from her bosses was clear.
“You can (complain) about it all you want, but figure out a way to make it work,” Kremer said. “But the audience was savvy enough to figure it out that and still realize that they are going to still get an interesting and informative piece.”
For now, the future of “Real Sports” is secure. Gumbel is 73 and has another 18 months left on his contract with HBO.
While he isn’t necessarily thinking of retiring any time soon, he says he is always thinking ahead with “one eye on the door,” preparing to leave when he sees fit and equates it to when he left the highly-rated “Today” show in 1997 after 15 years at age 48.
“Like everybody else, there are times when I throw my hands up and go, you know I have stayed too long at the fair,” he said. “I don’t need this kind of aggravation; I don’t need this kind of scrutiny. I have few complaints. I am in good health and I think our show is still worthwhile and I still get excited about doing it.”