ABC’s “Wide World Of Sports“ ran regularly on American television from April 29, 1961 – August 26, 2006. At it‘s best, it was hosted by Jim McKay with announcers like Howard Cosell, Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, and Jackie Stewart. It usually ran on Saturday afternoons, and would feature two or three sporting events. I was a young boy in the ’70’s, and just discovering my love of all things sports related ( along with Farrah Fawcett ). After I watched “The Hudson Brothers” and “Land Of The Lost” on Saturday morning, I might see boxing, Formula One racing, bowling, rodeo, roller derby, the Harlem Globetrotters pulling a ref’s pants down, or Evel Knievel jumping over the fountains at Caesars Palace. ( Knievel also attempted to fly a makeshift rocket over the Snake River Canyon. Wile E. Coyote would have fared better. The event stands alongside the opening of Al Capone’s vault by Geraldo Rivera, as the most disappointing, over-hyped spectacle in television history ). The show’s intro spawned a national catchphrase with “ the thrill of victory….and the agony of defeat “ in voice-over, as a ski jump gone horribly wrong showed on the screen.
Today, we live in a world of 200-plus TV channels, and we find out via Twitter the results of Lance Berkman’s MRI before he does. ESPN’s ticker, along with all the league channels ( MLB network, NFL network, and NBATV ), give you breaking news on everything from injuries to line-up changes. During the 1970’s, which was the hey-day of WWOS, we all got our sports coverage in nightly newscasts and once-a-week news reports. Shows like WWOS, and “This Week In Baseball“, which was hosted by the great Mel Allen, re-capped the previous week‘s action. The events themselves were often the “Saturday Game Of The Week” in baseball, along with Monday Night Baseball and Monday Night Football. The Game Of the WEEK ?! Seriously ? Today, where I live, I can see virtually all the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs, and Chicago White Sox games. I have the MLB network and ESPN, too. Which means I also get 98.7 % of all New York Yankees games. Of course in the ’70’s, those four channels were all we had, and the announcers did a great job of reporting and conveying excitement and emotion in events that might be a week old. You were more excited to see baseball, when that weekend game finally rolled around, let me tell you.
I can’t today envision a world with no fantasy sports in it, but that was the case back then. Stats were not easy to come by. Box scores were often a day late, and the only computer anyone was familiar with was HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s classic film. My fantasy playing was restricted to throwing a baseball against a “pitch-back” ( a primitive practice tool ), imagining I’d struck out Willie Stargell. This was also way back when one might even see a group of neighborhood kids ( I swear to you ) actually PLAYING baseball together. There are drawings on cave walls that depict this ancient practice.
Televised sports has benefited greatly from technology and we are more informed sports fans, as a result. Aside from the up to the minute news I’ve mentioned, the graphics are really mindblowing these days. For proof, just watch an old ball game from the ’70’s or ‘80’s on ESPN Classic sometime. If you can stop laughing at Steve Garvey’s hairstyle long enough, you’ll see how spare the graphics are. The inferior camera angles and dated instant replay are evident, as well.
While I consider most of the changes in televised sports to be improvements, I have a few areas where I think change is needed. I’ll start with professional boxing. Boxing has been under scrutiny lately as the result of the controversial split decision awarding Timothy Bradley the WBO welterweight championship in a victory over Manny Pacquiao. The topic of a lot of sports talk shows, in the fight’s aftermath, was just how much boxing had been harmed by the decision, and what changes boxing could make to bring fans back to the sport. First of all, deciding on ONE champion per weight class, would be a start for me. There are four major sanctioning bodies in boxing. Three of the four ( WBA, WBO, IBF ) list Wladimir Klitschko as the heavyweight champion. The other ( WBC ) gives the honor to his brother, Vitaly. Also, make live boxing more accessable to the average fan. Many fans can’t afford HBO, nor can they afford $60 for a pay per view fight that might end in the first thirty-eight seconds.
My other big complaint about television sports coverage, concerns the good ‘ol boys of NASCAR. The actual race coverage itself has probably come farther than in any other sport. In the days of Richard Petty and “Fireball” Roberts, you were lucky to see any races televised. The Daytona 500 would get coverage, but most of the races weren’t available. In the event they were, it was from one or two camera angles only. Today, we have in-car cameras and engine models that clearly show car dynamics and problem areas.
My problem with NASCAR coverage is the incessant, ill-timed commercials ! Cutting away from LIVE green flag racing ? Then, when they finally return, you’ll watch gripping scenes of drivers pitting under caution. What other sport cuts away from live coverage when something historic might occur ? Take for instance, baseball. Imagine, that it’s the bottom of the ninth inning….the bases are loaded, two outs, 2-2 count on Albert Pujols ….Francisco Rodney has been brought in to save the game for the visiting Rays….the crowd is on it’s feet… .the suspense is mounting…and coverage cuts away to “Smiling Bob“, the ever grinning pitchman for Enzyte offering help with your erectile dysfunction ! It comes back three minutes later to bedlam on the field and in the stands, while Torii Hunter is getting pied by Maicer Izturis. You are left trying to piece together what just happened while they were away.
Yet, this sort of thing is an accepted practice with NASCAR coverage. You’ve just watched Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Brett Favre hawk Wrangler jeans for the third time in the last ten minutes, when suddenly, they cut back to smoking cars torn open like beer cans, and debris scattered everywhere. Everything from Jack Roush’s hat to Kyle Petty’s Lynyrd Skynyrd CD is getting swept off the track, and it looks like Jeff Burton is being helped into an ambulance. Now we get to watch twenty nine cars pit under caution and hear the probing questions of Krista Voda, directed at Burton’s frustrated crew chief. I’d rather listen to Darrell Waltrip quote Shakespeare. In some cases now, the networks are showing action in a split screen during commercials, and this is a welcome development. One more thing. Why does NASCAR have Super Bowl-worthy pre-game shows for average races like Pocono ? Any other sport starts near the time it is scheduled, minus the epic pre-game build-up and lollygagging. What’s frustrating is when they could start races earlier, but end up encountering a rain delay later in the race, to boot.
Even with these few complaints, there is no way that I’d want to go back to the sports coverage of forty years ago. We are a society of information junkies, with sports events and news demanded and offered around the clock. I wouldn’t mind if they aired those old Noxzema ads with Farrah Fawcett occasionally, though. That might help me get through the next break from live coverage that NASCAR takes !