Today’s Flashback Friday feature was originally published on March 29, 2017
ABC’s Wide World of Sports was one of the most ground-breaking programs in sports television history.
Former Madison Avenue advertising executive Edgar Scherick created Wide World of Sports at his company, Sports Programs, Inc., which he started in 1956 with $ 600. In February 1960, he sold the company to the fledgling American Broadcasting Company [ABC] for $ 500,000, where it became ABC Sports. Lacking the deep pockets of television rivals NBC and CBS, Scherick wanted inexpensive sports programming that could attract and retain an audience.
He envisioned Wide World of Sports as a fill-in show for a single summer season, something to air until football season arrived in the fall. Scherick hired a young Roone Arledge to produce the show. In January 1961, Scherick sent Arledge to the annual AAU Board of Governors meeting, where Arledge struck a deal for ABC to broadcast all AAU track and field events for $ 50,000 per year. At the same time, Chuck Howard took a detour from Chase Manhattan Bank to become a production assistant under Arledge.
Howard – who later became the first to use split-screen and an isolated camera to highlight part of a play that was away from the main action – was charged by Arledge with scouting sporting events around the world in an effort to discover sports that had a loyal following but might be unknown to American viewers. The result was a ground-breaking sports anthology program that aired on ABC for nearly four decades.
Jim McKay left CBS in 1960 for the opportunity to host Wide World of Sports. He, Arledge and Howard made up the show on a week-by-week basis during its first year. Arledge had a genius for the dramatic storyline that unfolded in the course of an event, while McKay’s honesty and bluntness gave the show an appeal that attracted atypical sports fans.
The series debuted April 29, 1961, and featured both the Penn and Drake Relays. Working with field reporter Bob Richards, McKay covered the action from Penn’s Franklin Field, with Jim Simpson and Bill Fleming handling the broadcasting duties from Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa. WWOS covered many events during its first season, including soccer, AAU Swimming and Diving Championships, and a football game from the upstart AFL.
Airing Saturdays from 5 to 7 pm ET, the program became unexpectedly popular. Featuring two or three events per show, WWOS delivered something for everybody, from Acapulco cliff diving to demolition derby, and provided viewers the only opportunity to see gymnastics, figure skating, and skiing outside the Olympics.
Before cable and internet, the only live visual medium was television. ABC was able to use the speed of jet transportation and flexibility of videotape to record events for later broadcast without the audience discovering the results or details beforehand. ABC undercut the financial advantages of its two competitors – NBC and CBS – while broadcasting live sporting events.
With only three major networks, Americans gleaned much of their news and entertainment from television, and Wide World of Sports introduced the country to rattlesnake hunting, rodeo, barrel jumping, arm wrestling, bobsled racing, and hydroplane racing. Every telecast began with Jim McKay’s voice-over set to music. “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition…this is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!”
In March 1970, WWOS sent a crew to West Germany to cover the World Ski Flying Championships. Vinko Bogataj, a 22-year-old Slovenian, was making his attempt when snowy conditions made the ramp too fast. Midway down the run, Bogataj attempted to stop his jump, but instead lost his balance and rocketed out of control, tumbling and flipping wildly.
He suffered a mild concussion and broken ankle before returning to competitive jumping a year later. ABC used the footage of the crash, with McKay’s melodramatic narration, “…the agony of defeat” becoming a catchphrase in the U.S. Throughout the show’s history, various images were used for the other parts of the narration. “The thrill of victory” was often preceded by images of teams celebrating a Super Bowl or World Cup goal, but “agony of defeat” was always illustrated by Bogataj’s failed attempt. Written by Arledge, “agony of defeat” joined the lexicon of American sports. Long before social media, the video of the ski jumper went viral.
More than four decades later, a Google search returns nearly 500,000 results. Unaware of his celebrity in the U.S., Mr. Bogataj was invited to attend the 20th-anniversary celebration for Wide World of Sports in 1981. During the banquet, he received the loudest ovation of any athlete at the event, and Muhammad Ali asked the Slovenian for his autograph.
ABC’s Wide World of Sports quickly established a sports television tradition. It also created several spin-offs. In 1961, WWOS covered a bowling event. The broadcast was so successful that, in 1962, ABC Sports began covering the Professional Bowlers Association Tour. In 1964, a segment featuring Curt Gowdy and Joe Brooks fly fishing in the Andes Mountains of Argentina led to the American Sportsman, a program later hosted by Joe Foss that ran on Sunday afternoons for nearly 20 years. Superstars first aired on WWOS in 1973, becoming a weekly series that lasted ten years.
After occupying the 4:30 – 6 pm ET time slot, WWOS revolutionized televised sports. It was the first to cover Wimbledon , the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships , the British Open , and the Little League World Series . ABC started touting racing with the same enthusiasm as they did the Olympics and legitimatized motorsports. The network provided same-day coverage of the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. “I have always said that Indy made me,” observed four-time winner A.J. Foyt. “Not the other way around. Wide World of Sports made Indy a big deal. When you have guys like Jim McKay talking about you on TV, you become a star.” The show also popularized NASCAR. When Keith Jackson showed up at the Daytona 500, America took notice.
In 1964, Scherick left ABC Sports to become the network’s vice president of programming and went on to create many popular shows, including Batman, Bewitched, That Girl, and Peyton Place. Arledge was able to use WWOS to demonstrate his ability as an administrator as well as producer, ultimately being named president of ABC Sports in 1968. He went on to produce ten Olympic telecasts and ushered in the era of sports in prime time with the creation of Monday Night Football in 1970. Mr. Arledge was made president of the network’s news division in 1977.
Wide World made Evel Knievel a household name. His 1975 jump of 14 Greyhound buses at King’s Island Amusement Park in Ohio remains the highest-rated program in WWOS history, and five of his seven appearances still rank among the top 20-rated Wide World episodes ever aired. It returned thoroughbred horse racing back to the mainstream and delivered some of the most historic bouts in heavyweight boxing history, including George Forman taking Joe Frazier’s title [Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier!] and Ken Norton breaking Muhammad Ali’s jaw.
ABC featured the X Games in 1994, giving rise to an entirely new audience of non-traditional sports enthusiasts. WWOS became the longest-running continuing series on ABC, winning 11 Emmy Awards and several Peabody Awards. From 1963 to 2001, the Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year award was presented annually. Past recipients include Jim Ryun, Mario Andretti, Tiger Woods, and Dennis Conner.
Wide World of Sports ran every Saturday on ABC from April 1961 to January 1998. One of the most iconic sports programs in television history, it gave way to British, Australian and Mexican versions of the show for decades to follow. Cable sent it packing, as the rise of cable television provided more outlets for sports programming, rendering Wide World obsolete. The show lost many of its core events [some, but not all, to its sister network ESPN] and on January 3, 1998, Jim McKay announced that Wide World of Sports had been cancelled after 37 years. Time magazine voted ABC’s Wide World of Sports one of the 100 best television programs of all time.