Live From Men’s Final Four: CBS Sports Director Mark Grant Gets His Shot In the Chair After 40+ Years In The Industry
Grant is the first person of color to direct a televised major sports championship in the US
For the first time in the 40-year history of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on CBS Sports, a new man will sit in the director’s chair for the Final Four and the National Championship Game this weekend. Mark Grant, a five-time Emmy Award-winner and veteran shot-caller of NFL, college football, college basketball, and golf, takes on the role, succeeding Bob Fishman, a Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer that hung up his headset a year ago.
The historical magnitude of the change, though, extends far beyond a simple passing of the torch. It’s also believed that Grant will become the first person of color to direct a televised major sports championship in the United States.
A 1981 graduate of LSU, Grant has been a trailblazer in the industry for more than four decades, first getting his start at ESPN before being hired by CBS Sports to direct NFL games when the network got NFL rights back in 1998. Since then, he’s climbed the ladder, having directed games in every edition of March Madness dating back to 1999. Now, his time has come to sit in the director’s chair for the Men’s Final Four and the National Championship Game.
Prior to this weekend’s games, SVG caught up with Grant to discuss his career, what it means to him to get this opportunity, what important lessons he has learned from his predecessor, what technological enhancements make the best storytelling tools, and what advice he would give to an aspiring live sports director today.
After more than 40 years in the business, you’ve done your fair share of big-time sporting events. What does it mean to you to finally get this shot at the Final Four and the National Championship Game on CBS?
I never expected it. When CBS hired me, they hired me to direct the NFL when they got the rights back to the NFL in 1998. I always really considered myself a football director who just happened to do basketball when basketball came along. So when they asked me to take the place of Bob Fishman – a guy who has been doing this for such a long time – I was honored and kind of surprised that they thought enough of my basketball work to say, ‘you’re not just a football director. You’re an excellent basketball director as well.’ It kind of came out of left field, but I was thankful for the endorsement and for the confidence that they have in me to give me that opportunity. I’m just running with it. I can’t believe it’s me. I can’t believe it’s happening.
I see directors get asked a lot about how they “put their own stamp on things” when they take the director’s chair on a property. Is that possible at this level? Or does March Madness have such an established identity that you mostly try to honor and carry on that?
Yea, you certainly want to stick to the model that’s been set in place for such a long time but I’m also excited to have my own input. You can try to put your own stamp on it and just ruin everything. Forty years of hard work has been put into this [event]. I hope I can just come in here and do a great job. It’s probably not going to look exactly like Bob Fishman did it because if you had any director come in they’re gonna do it a little bit differently and I’m no exception to that. But I don’t think the average viewer is going to be able to say, ‘oh my God, that’s not the same guy that’s been doing it for 40 years. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
What did you learn from Bob Fishman over the course of your career? What was your relationship like with him?
Bob really welcomed me when I came to CBS in 1998. He has a passion for football just like I did, and he just taught me to really let the game come to you. Don’t always be so aggressive and come of play-by-play [camera angle].
Sometimes the best cut is no cut at all. The best shot is staying on the camera that is play-by-play. I’ve painted myself in a corner many times, being too aggressive, cutting to the hero [shot] on a made basket and they steal the inbounds pass or someone steps on the line bringing the ball in. You miss that moment because you’re so busy trying to cut shots. Bob really taught me that and I always think about that. I’m certainly not as aggressive as I used to be and I have Bob Fishman to thank for that.
How long ago did you first sit down with Mark Wolf to discuss working together on this project and in what ways do you typically like to build chemistry with a producer partner?
Mark and I have done a lot of basketball together, especially in our earlier years at CBS. We did [NCAA Tournament] Regional Finals together. I’ve known him a long time. He vaulted to the top of the college basketball world at CBS and I really didn’t. When I got this promotion he called me and congratulated me, and told me to be me. To just do my thing and not to worry about copying Bob or anything like that. I really appreciate him for giving that vote of confidence.
He’s he lets me do my thing, and through this journey so far, which started back in January. When we reunited for the first time, it’s been a really wonderful experience. I know that he trusts me and that he’ll take my ideas and implement them. Going into this Final Final, I want to know the guy I’m sitting next to trusts me, and I certainly feel that way working with Mark.
We make a lot out of the bells and whistles. Specialty cameras, 4K images, AR graphics. From your perspective, what newer introductions have you genuinely liked and think help you tell a better story within the live game?
Whenever you have a game that has some aerial presence, whether that’s a SkyCam, or a drone, or a blimp, or a fixed-wing, it really puts that show on the map. It makes it bigger and it’s really cool to have that. At the [game] level I work at doing NFL, I don’t always have that. So when I get the chance, it’s great.
Those shallow depth-of-field cameras are great. We’re going to have two of them here at the Final Four. We’re going to have the a double-headed RailCam: one as a traditional camera and the other shooting in that shallow depth-of-field look. We want to see what that brings.
Amidst all of this, you are also directing Jim Nantz’s final Final Four. This is also the first time you’ve worked directing with Jim Nantz on a show. What does that mean to you personally and what’s it like working with Jim at a championship event?
I’ve known Jim for a long time but our paths have never directly crossed. To get to work with a guy who’s the face of CBS sports, it’s a real honor and, for this to be his last Final Four, when he takes that headset off for the last time, I’m going to have a camera on him. We want to capture that moment.
He’s been very welcoming to me and I can’t say enough great things about him. I have a chance to sit in meetings with him and see how he conducts his business. There’s a reason why he’s one of the most beloved announces of all time and I’m just glad to be a part of that.
Do you do anything for yourself right before the show goes on air?
Yes. When we get to 30 seconds to air, I close my eyes and say a prayer for about ten seconds. This weekend, though, I will close my eyes at the minute mark and say a prayer because I’m probably going to say a longer prayer.
I’m always excited in that moment. I still get nervous doing games and going to air. I’ve done this thousands of times, but I still get nervous.
Last year, I was in the truck when Bob Fishman directed his last game and sitting right behind Bob is [CBS Sports Chairman] Sean McManus and [Executive Producer and EVP, Production] Harold Bryant. I’ve never done a show that’s been big enough for those two guys to be sitting right behind me. So I’ll be praying that I do a good job for the overall telecast. This is a much bigger deal this year than it ever has been before for me. I feel like I earned this opportunity and it’s mine for as long as I want it.
So I will say that prayer just to ask God to give me the strength to do what I’ve been called to do, and what I’ve done up to this point. Don’t mess up now. You know you finally get on the big stage; you don’t want to shoot an airball.
Beside the grandeur of it, it’s just basketball on a big stage.
It’s believed that you are the first person of color to direct a televised major championship sporting event in the United States. What’s your go-to piece of advice for an aspiring director today? That may be a student or a recent grad; particularly a young man or woman of color who hears about you at this Final Four and has that flash of inspiration. How can they harness that?
It’s really cool to be that person. Sure, part of me wants to know what took so long but I’m embracing this role. But it’s not just about me and it’s not just for me. As excited as I am about this I hope in the coming years that other people get opportunities like this. If its ten years down the road and still no other person of color has done something like this other than me, there’s going to be something wrong with that.
For students who want to become directors, understand that I’m not anything special. I had a very long journey to get here. I never gave up when other people seem to get promoted before me or when the opportunity didn’t come when I wanted to. It’s not going to come every time you want it to.
You’ve just got to keep on being great. There are a lot of people out there that are just waiting on the opportunity and just haven’t got that chance. So when you get your chance – at any level – you’ve got to be great at what you do so that you can get to the next level. If you just treat “lower level” shows as lower level shows, you’re never going to get there because your mentality isn’t right. When you’re in that chair directing a show, the company that’s hired you expects you to make that show look as great as it can because people are watching and [the audience] doesn’t care that they’re watching your game on ESPN or my game on CBS. Your game has got to look just as good as my game as far as directing goes. You may not have all of the equipment or the seasoned announcers but you can still be great as a director in spite of all that. When you do, people will notice, and you’ll rise to get more opportunities and more opportunities and, before you know it, someday someone’s going to say to you, ‘we want you to direct for ESPN; we want you to direct for CBS. You get in the door and you just keep working your way up.
If you just keep doing what you do and you keep doing it great then, the opportunities will come. Look, I was ready to retire in two years, and if I retired in two years, and I never directed the Final Four, I would have walked away knowing I had a great career. I would have been very happy. But I kept the path; kept doing what I do, and this opportunity came out of nowhere, and it’s great.
Not everybody who’s a great director is going to direct the Final Four or the Super Bowl. But you can still be great, and if you keep on saying that to yourself – “I want to be great” – you’re right where you need to be. If you have that mentality, you never know where it might take you.
CBS Sports and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports will provide exclusive coverage of the 2023 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship from Houston, Texas. CBS will televise the NCAA Final Four National Semifinals on Saturday and the National Championship on Monday, April 3. Saturday’s Men’s Final Four features Florida Atlantic taking on San Diego State at 6:09 p.m. ET on CBS, followed by Connecticut vs. Miami approximately 40 minutes after the completion of the first game.