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Super Bowl Broadcast Is a Crossroads for CBS Sports
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Super Bowl Broadcast Is a Crossroads for CBS Sports

Super Bowl Broadcast Is a Crossroads for CBS Sports

On the one hand, Sunday will be a joyous occasion for CBS Sports. The sports division will broadcast its 22nd Super Bowl, the most of any network. The game is guaranteed to be the most-watched event in television this year, and it will generate hundreds of millions in advertising revenue and provide a huge promotional platform for CBS and its parent company, Paramount.

On the other hand, there’s everything else.

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 (N.F.L. football on Thursday nights) and Netflix (W.W.E. wrestling) entering the field. And Paramount is widely considered an acquisition target, with a number of suitors circling the company.

It all leaves CBS Sports facing a number of challenges — which company leaders say they can handle by sticking to what they know.

“No matter what happens in the future to the company, sports will increasingly be more important each and every year,” Mr. McManus said.

CBS Sports has long been one of the elite players in American broadcasting. Its understated coverage, narrated over the decades by broadcast booth legends like Pat Summerall, John Madden, Verne Lundquist and Jim Nantz, has stood in stark contrast to rowdier competitors like ESPN and Fox. CBS has televised golf’s Masters tournament with limited commercial interruption and stately hushed tones going back to the 1950s.

And CBS has plenty of major sporting events in its foreseeable future. The network’s N.F.L. rights are locked up through 2033, for about $2 billion a year. The rights to the men’s college basketball tournament are tied up for another eight years, for around $750 million a year. And many PGA Tour events are signed through 2030 for hundreds of millions annually.

That’s because even as traditional television ratings are plummeting and more people migrate to streaming, live sporting events still thrive on broadcast networks. Recent N.F.L. playoff games on CBS set ratings records.

“No matter how many changes are taking place, or are on the horizon, football on broadcast television, and especially the N.F.L., is the one entity that exists above and beyond all that,” said Bob Costas, the sports broadcasting eminence.

Even if the network sports divisions have to make adjustments, “not much of it has to do with the N.F.L.,” Mr. Costas said. “All they have to do is keep ponying up the money for the rights.”

Still, nearly every media company is confronting soaring sports rights fees while trying to juggle challenges. Those include cord cutting, diminishing advertising revenue and streaming businesses that are bleeding cash. Three companies — Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery and Fox — announced on Tuesday that they would jointly begin a new sports streaming service this year, to better control their fate in a changing world. Paramount, however, will not be part of that service.

Like other media companies, Paramount, which also owns cable networks like Nickelodeon and MTV, has been hurt by cable television’s decline. According to financial filings, Paramount has committed to more than $30 billion in future payments, the vast majority for sports rights. That is more than what the stock market says Paramount is worth. The company’s streaming service, Paramount+, lost hundreds of millions of dollars last year, and several analysts are skeptical whether it will even exist in its present form in a few years.

A number of suitors — including Skydance and Warner Bros. Discovery — have expressed interest in Paramount’s media business.

Over the last 18 months, a number of senior executives have departed the company. Mr. McManus, the leader of the sports division for 27 years, will be replaced by a longtime lieutenant, David Berson, after his retirement in April.

Both men described the transition as smooth (CBS’s president, George Cheeks, referred to it as “a master class in succession planning”), and emphasized that the division would stick with what it did best: acquiring desirable sports rights, and producing strong broadcasts.

“The relationships that we have with these various leagues are deep and storied, and there’s a tremendous comfort level and trust factor there that we will put on the best presentation,” Mr. Berson said.

Yet CBS has faced some challenges even on that front. For more than two decades, CBS aired SEC college football games on Saturdays, regularly a top-rated event. CBS had been paying $55 million a year for the rights.

But this year, ESPN will take over the broadcasts of SEC games, paying $300 million a year to do so. To make up for the loss, CBS acquired the rights for Big Ten games, but for a steeper price (around $350 million a year) and for a league that has been weaker overall in recent years, though it has added several prominent sports-rich universities from the West Coast.

“I think there’s a good chance that there’s going to be enormous growth in the Big Ten, both on the field and in the television universe,” Mr. McManus said.

Mr. Berson underscored the division’s ability to innovate with sports productions. He pointed to the fact that the Super Bowl would be simulcast on Nickelodeon in a broadcast tailored to children and families.

“We really do believe that it’s cultivating a next generation of fans and doing it in a really fun way that is additive to the audience,” he said.

Though CBS has locked up major deals into the early 2030s, tech companies like Amazon, Netflix and Apple have begun their march into streaming live sporting events. Amazon now streams “Thursday Night Football,” Netflix has picked up the rights to W.W.E.’s weekly flagship “Raw” broadcast for $5 billion over the next 10 years, and Apple bought the rights to show Major League Soccer around the world. A longtime rival, NBC Sports, also recently successfully streamed an N.F.L. playoff game on Peacock.

It all adds up to a vastly changing sports media landscape.

“They may indeed be competitors in the future,” Mr. McManus said of the tech companies. “Our deals are, generally speaking, throughout this decade, if not longer. We’ll look at them and do our research. And if they become competitors, so far we’ve been successful in keeping the properties we wanted to.

“So, you know, tough to predict the future, but I feel good about our position.”