It’s hard to get anyone in sports business to agree on anything, let alone a charity of choice. However one thing that is universally accepted this time of year is that the March of Dimes annual sports luncheon is the place to be every December. Over 600 attendees fill the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria for a well-run two hour event that features a host of sports broadcasting names spread around the room, from athletes turned commentators like Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason to longtime local favorites like Bruce Beck and Warner Wolf, all joining with an “A list” of honorees to raise funds for the March of Dimes. Every year the event also has a decidedly Jersey flair, especially because so many of the committee members are high level sports execs who live in and around the State.
This year’s lunch will take place just a few days after Thanksgiving, December 3, and will honor Howard Katz of the NFL (Sports Leadership), Kevin Plank of Under Armour (Corporate Leadership), Michelle Wie, Women’s Professional Golf Champion (Sportswoman of the Year Award), and Mark Messier, Captain of the New York Rangers 1994 Stanley Cup Championship Team (Sports Achievement Award). Emceed by Norah O’Donnell, Co-Host, CBS This Morning and Willie Geist (Co-Host, NBC’s TODAY & MSNBC’S Morning Joe) the lunch has raised over $10 million and is run by one of the most impressive steering committees you can find anywhere.
Chairing the committee since 1997 is CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. Under his leadership, the March of Dimes Sports lunch has really re-defined and re-shaped how such an event can assist a philanthropic effort. We caught up with McManus to talk about the growth of the event, where it is today, and how it got here.
When you first got involved with the Sports Luncheon, did you ever think it could become the massive event it is today?
Not really. When we first got involved our goal was to get the event back to being a major fundraiser for March of Dimes and go from there. The first few years it became a dinner and we had to scramble to sell just 10 or 11 tables ourselves. Now we as a group have grown it into an amazing yearly event, and a great story that helps babies and their families through the funds the community raises.
Do you have a favorite memory from over the years?
There are so many. Brian Williams had such a funny and memorable introduction for NBC’s Ken Schanzer one year; Billie Jean King, always such an amazing speaker introducing Lindsay Davenport, who was very touched and overwhelmed by the stories of the kids; Turner’s Ernie Johnson, whose son has faced some enormous physical challenges, with a very emotional and heartfelt plea for the organization, were all very memorable. However the one that touched so many people was when we honored Steve Sabol of NFL Films. Steve meant, and still does mean, so much to so many people in this industry because of the way he carried himself and the way he helped shape this industry. His acceptance was certainly one I will always remember, especially since he is no longer with us.
However the most touching stories, and the most memorable, are those of the families and the kids who have been directly affected by the monies raised and the great work the March of Dimes does. Seeing those kids creates the lasting memories that really make this all worthwhile.
On a personal side, how do you think your father, the late Jim McKay, would have handled all the digital/social immediacy that goes into being a media member today?
My father probably would have resisted all the changes at first, but he loved communicating and learning and I think he would have adapted very well. He really enjoyed being around people, and those who he worked with in the media, so if those tools that exist today would have helped him stay connected to so many people around the world, he would have used social media as a positive influence.
What he would have not enjoyed is the mean-spirited and petty ways social media has been used to spread rumors and denigrate people. He was a man of great thoughtfulness and always taught all around him about respect, and he would be very upset to see members of his profession, or people in the public eye in general, using the tools of the trade irresponsibility or to promote ill will.
In your professional career, what has been the biggest change you have had to deal with?
It really is the change of the immediacy in which we all have to communicate and the quickness in which we have to adapt, react and tell the news. It has brought is closer together in some ways but it has created a rush to judgment in minutes or seconds that can be problematic sometimes. The explosion of the cable networks and the amount of content we have to consider, and all the platforms we have to use now, is also something that has changed our business, and we continue to adapt and grow.
We have now gone through the “Ice Bucket Challenge” era which boosted ALS research; does a cause need such events today to stay relevant?
Not really. I think what we have built with this lunch as an annual get-together for the media world is very special, and it’s for a great cause. It doesn’t need a gimmick, it sets the standard and it is very effective. The Ice Bucket Challenge did wonders for ALS Awareness and it was great to see, but we are very proud of this event and it doesn’t have to change in any way. The quality of our honorees goes above anything we could ever dream up as a gimmick or a stunt.
What is the one thing you hope people who leave the lunch every year remember?
That they are making an immediate different in the lives of young people. Every year people come for the first time and are really blown away by the stories they hear and the kids and families they meet, and we want that to continue. We are very grateful that the sports media industry turns out every year and takes time from such busy schedules to not just support, but attend the lunch, and we think that combined with the stories of the recipients, it makes for a memorable few hours every year.
For all the details on the event, check out 31st Annual Sports Luncheon | New York State Chapter | March of Dimes