Q&A with Bryant Gumbel

The longtime host of HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ looks back and ahead as show surpasses 300-episode milestone

By Chris Smith
Gumbel has hosted the long-form series since its debut in 1995.getty images

On April 19, HBO aired the 300th episode of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” the in-depth sports news program that debuted in 1995. Gumbel took some time to reflect on the show’s long history — and its potential future. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Where did the idea for “Real Sports” come from?

BG: Seth Abraham, who was the president of HBO Sports, was a friend of mine. One day he approached me with the idea of doing this kind of a broadcast. We didn’t know how much of an appetite there was for it, and we didn’t know whether or not, frankly, we could sustain it for a period of time. When we started, it was kind of a one-off and was meant to be a biannual show, maybe two episodes a year, then broadened to four episodes a year. It was several years before we decided to try a monthly, but we were pleasantly surprised at how much of an appetite there seems to be for long-form journalism with sports as the centerpiece.

Across the 300 episodes of the show, which segments stand out as the ones you’re most proud of?

BG: I tend to be proudest of those that made a lasting impact. For example, child jockeys in the Middle East. They used to be brought into indentured servitude, and they had kids riding camels because they were little. They were getting crippled and killed. We talked about it, did the piece, and now that no longer exists. We had Marcus Dixon, who was just named defensive line coach in Denver. He was a young man who, if not for our work and some others, would have been in jail and his life would have been ruined. Those kinds of things, for me, are the most lasting because they change lives, they save lives.

‘Real’ strong start

“Real Sports” debuted on April 2, 1995, with three stories that still have relevance today:

1. MLB labor strife
: A strike canceled the 1994 World Series and shortened the 1995 season by 18 games.
NOW: A lockout ended 26 years of labor peace and pushed Opening Day back one week.
2. Dennis Rodman profile
The Worm drew attention for his rebounding and his unique style.
NOW: The Basketball Hall of Famer recently launched a series of NFTs featuring colorful hairstyles.
3. Draconian rules at Augusta National
Exploring the policy that at the time excluded women.
NOW: Taylor Gooch was not allowed to wear shorts while practicing his putting at this year’s Masters.

Which segments did you most enjoy personally? I recall one episode where you got to drive around Monaco with Lewis Hamilton.

BG: That’s not one of them, to be honest. [Laughs] It wasn’t that fun of a shoot because he was the guy who, in the middle of the interview, realized it wasn’t the kind of interview he wanted to do. The ones that I recall are the ones that gave me the opportunity to learn something and experience things I never had. Going down to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, going to Austria and falcon hunting, going to Egypt and understanding how the ultras [passionate soccer fans] were at war with the government. Things like that are the great memories to me, because I still get excited about trying to learn something.

Have any elements of making the show become more challenging as the broader sports media landscape has evolved?

BG: The growth of sports networks — league-owned and team-owned and conference networks — have allowed the people who are part of that league or team or conference a soft landing spot. So whenever most have run afoul of something, instead of then having to face a contrarian interviewer, instead of facing difficult questions, instead of having to own up to it and deal with it before moving on, they can find an easy landing spot on the corporate arm. That’s made it very difficult for shows like ours. A lot of the stories we come up with, that we conceive of, we can’t execute because people just won’t play ball. They’d rather not sit across from someone who’s not going to spoon feed them, and they don’t want to face difficult questions.

Are you starting to consider your future beyond “Real Sports”?

BG: I have a year and a half left on my contract and when that’s over I’ll be 74 years old. What’s that old sports axiom? You’d rather get out a year too early than a day too late. I never want to be the guy who’s hanging on because they’ve known him forever and he’s a brand name. I guess I’ll take an assessment on that as it gets close, but I honestly don’t know. 

Have you put any thought into what the show will look like after you walk away?

BG: It’s funny, I used to ask that of Richard Plepler. When he was running HBO, we’d be at lunch and I’d say, ‘Richard, if I walked away tomorrow, does the show continue?’ He’d go, ‘I don’t want to think about that.’ Then I asked Peter Nelson, who was president of HBO Sports, and I’d asked Ken Hershman, who was president of HBO Sports before that. I asked them the same question. None of them ever wanted to give me an answer. I really don’t know, that’s above my pay grade. HBO prides itself, justifiably, on being cutting edge, and we’re easily their longest-running broadcast. I kind of sneak around the idea, because I don’t want them to turn around and go, ‘Oh shit, we’ve got a show that’s been on the air 28 years?’ I don’t want to give them any ideas. If you find an answer to that, please let me know.

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