Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel signing off. Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel signing off. (WBD.)

HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel is coming to an end after 29 years, and it’s doing so in notable fashion. The show typically ends its seasons with a holiday episode gathering the various correspondents and discussing the stories of the year, and this year saw them turn that into a 90-minute farewell special (debuting on HBO at 10 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday, also available on Max), with that special looking back at 29 years of coverage across five categories and featuring sendoffs from countless other HBO figures from Larry David to John Oliver to Chris Rock. But while that special (AA was provided with an advance screener) had many incredible moments, perhaps the most notable was host Gumbel’s final signoff. Here’s part of that:

“There are so many other ideas we could have explored and so many clips we could have shown. But ultimately, we realized we could only do so much in the time allowed. And that’s fitting. Because despite all we’ve done on this show, we leave with many of the issues that we thought were important still unresolved; fair pay for college athletes, a reckoning for the IOC, an end to public funding of private stadiums, the list goes on and on.”

“But we won’t. Our buck stops here. And it stops now. When we started 29 years ago, we never promised to solve any of the sports world’s many problems, only to explore them in an honest and intelligent fashion, and to try to address them in a manner that was honest, professional, and respectful to viewers like you. I think we did that.”

“And if that alone is the legacy of our program, we’re good with that. Whether you were a regular viewer or a casual one who caught us whenever, I want to thank you very much for being with us and appreciating our efforts.”

“For the final time, for all the good folks here at Real Sports, all the very good folks with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, I’m Bryant Gumbel. Thank you so very much for being with us, and goodbye.”

That’s a poignant signoff that helps illustrate a lot of things about Real Sports. And it’s especially powerful to have that come at the end of a 90-minute special that illustrates just how much tangible progress the show did make in the sports world. Their focus on good stories played a crucial role in changing league responsibility for injuries, exposed problematic behavior from international sports organizations and individual athletes, coaches, and owners, spotlighted countless inspiring athletes and other sports figures, looked at societal and sports issues, and did much more.

But the work is never done. And with Real Sports now coming to an end, there are real questions about who will carry on that work. As many have noted around the end of this show, Real Sports put incredible time, effort, and resources into thoughtful and nuanced longform storytelling, and into taking on the powerful in sports. And they did so so well that some broadcast executives even cited them as a reason not to do similar explorations of the dark sides of countries hosting events themselves. The torch thrown by Real Sports is certainly significant, and it’s to be determined if anyone else will hold it high.

At the moment, though, it’s worth looking back at just what Real Sports did establish in its run. And this show did an excellent job of that. The correspondent roundtable (featuring Gumbel, Jon Frankel, Soledad O’Brien, Mary Carillo, David Scott, and Andrea Kremer) provided terrific context across the five categories of stories from the show’s run they summarized. Those included injuries and league responses to them, outsiders in sports (including racial discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, intersex and transgender athletes, women in sports media, and more), power and money, inspirational figures, and characters. And the show smartly structured this by combining a wide variety of clips from each category with a correspondent’s overview of it, and then a panel discussion on it.

The injury discussion is where Real Sports made a lot of its league impact. There, conversations included very early reports on the NFL and concussions, including league doctor denials of linkage of head trauma to the NFL that were later played in congressional hearings. They also took a notable later dive into the NHL and concussions. And they featured many notable individual stories, including that of Frank Warren (who died five days after being interviewed for the program about the dangers of obesity amongst NFL linemen) and the athletes trying unusual psychedelic remedies for concussions’ lingering effects.

The talk of outsiders was also notable, and it showed how early Real Sports was on several major stories that wound up blowing up much more in subsequent years. Those included a 1999 report on Confederate flags and merchandise at NASCAR races, reports on thrown bananas and racial slurs at European soccer matches, a report on women seeking to gain membership at Augusta National and other restrictive golf clubs, reports on indigenous people pushing back on teams’ mascots, and reports on transgender athletes and reporters. And as Kremer noted, something that helped Real Sports through their run was that they were willing to take a wide focus (with almost 100 different sports covered) and cover even the sports-adjacent: “There only needs to be a tangential connection to sports for us to do a story.”

The power and money category covered some of Real Sports‘ most famous stories. From Vince McMahon’s infamous “none whatsoever” comment in 2003 on WWE responsibility for wrestlers’ early deaths to IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch’s “We are more important than the Catholic religion” to Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov’s “We don’t have any gays,” there are numerous cases of sports figures admitting far more than they should to the program. And that made for a lot of incredible content, and, as Scott noted, it may be some of the hardest to replicate: “There will be precious few of those stories now.”

Following the power and money category, there was a notable discussion from the correspondents on confrontational interviews. And while none of them really relished them, they talked about the merits of those. And Gumbel had a significant comment on those moments where key figures are caught in indefensible positions, saying “They know that they’re at the back of an alley and there’s no way out.”

Real Sports also did incredible coverage of underestimated and inspirational athletes, from a blind kayaker to adaptive skiers to wrestlers, gymnasts, and MMA fighters without legs. They covered famed figures like Dick and Rick Hoyt, and lesser-known ones like Kareem Rosser. O’Brien said some of those stories were the most memorable for her, saying “You walk away feeling like this person has changed my life,” and Kremer said “You want to be made to feel, And I think that’s what these stories have accomplished.”

The last spotlighted category here was characters. And so many of the people covered by Real Sports fit into that category, whether dangerous figures like Rae Carruth-hired hitman Van Brett Watkins (who just passed away) to yoga guru Bikham Chowdhury (covered amidst sexual assault allegations) to prominent athletes like Kobe Bryant and daredevils like Jeb Corliss. As Kremer said “I was taught really early on real sports pieces need three elements; character, action, narrative. But it starts with the character.”

One of the most notable questions with Real Sports is “Why do people talk to them?” That’s especially true for the powerful figures under significant criticism already who don’t often wind up coming off well here. But Gumbel had a good thought there, saying “They have a story to tell, and they want as many people as possible to know it, and they trust us to do it with it with a degree of professionalism.” And as O’Brien added, “They get a lot of time. It’s not going to be a soundbite and a half.”

A big question going forward is who will take up the Real Sports mantle and provide this level of coverage of often-difficult sports topics. And we’ll see if that happens. But regardless, we can be thankful for this show’s existence, and for what it did provide. As Scott noted in the wrap-up, “I’ve had the time of my life.” And Real Sports certainly delivered memorable experiences for both many who worked on it and those who watched it.

The Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel finale premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, and is also available to stream on Max.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.