There are a number of reasons for the success of ABC's "Wide World of Sports. But none are more important than the basic philosophy of host Jim McKay and the show's producers: Their goal is to focus on the participants as people and not the scores, times and records.
Saturday "Wide World" will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a two-hour prime- time special at 8 p.m. The host, as usual, will be McKay. That was his role when it all began, and he's still at the helm of the longest-running, most-successful and most- honored sports anthology.
"When we first began, we were doing a lot of sports the public didn't give a darn about. The only way to get the viewers interested, was to get them interested in the people," McKay recalled. "I always felt that was the best kind of sports reporting and so did executive producer Roone Arledge"
McKay also points with pride to the trail- blazing format the show came up with, a style that is now used by almost all ABC sports shows, including coverage of the Olympic Games. "Today all networks do it," McKay said, adding, "One of the things I'm proudest of is the writing I've been able to do for 'Wide World.' I'd like to believe people think more about the English language in sports broadcasting than they did before 'Wide World' came along."
Arledge, too, says that the show, which has won a total of 36 Emmy awards, became successful by focusing "on people within sport, who they are, what they are like, and why they have devoted so much of their lives to the pursuit of excellence. We have treated these athletes and their sports, however unusual some of them might have appeared at first, with honesty and respect."
These days McKay, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who in 1947 uttered the first words ever on a television station in that city, spends a lot of time on his vast Bellefield Farm in Monkton, Md. He and his wife, writer Margaret McManus, breed thoroughbreds.
McKay, who figures he has traveled more than 6 million miles covering more than 120 different sports in more than 40 foreign countries, is away "only about 25 weekends a year. It used to be 46 or 47."
At age 64 McKay is not looking back. He said of his farm and schedule, "At our age I think it's great to have new interests." And he said he hasn't lost any enthusiasm for "Wide World" and the network, noting that "just yesterday I mailed in my contract with ABC for three more years. Every year there's something new. This spring we're going to do the Indy 500 live for the first time," he said with all the zest of a young sportscaster.
After giving a reporter and a photographer a glimpse of his exquisitely manicured farm, which was once the site for Maryland's famed My Lady's Manor steeplechase race, McKay talked about his upcoming schedule of sports events to be covered and how the standards for sports broadcasting are ever changing.
"When we started doing 'Wide World' people didn't know much about gymnastics and figure skating, and virtually nothing about scoring. Today a 12-year-old knows the difference between a 9.6 and a 9.8 performance."
That wasn't the case when the show was in its formative years. McKay still recalls the first gymnastics meet he ever covered. It was in a high school gym near Cleveland, dimly lit, hot, with no air conditioning. The meet lasted many hours and ended well into the night, after numerous squabbles among the the judges. The marathon was edited to 30 or 40 minutes and turned out fairly well.
"In those days a gymnastics meet would draw about 200 people, even the nationals," he said. "Now the sport is selling out major arenas with 15,000 or 20,000 seats weeks before it happens. I think we had a lot to do with that, not only in the case of gymnastics, but figure skating and many other sports. We started telecasting a lot of sports no one else had ever tried on TV."
At first some folks called them trash sports, but McKay disagrees. "Wide World" never created an event for TV, such as refrigerator carries. They had to be sports that already existed. There were such competitions as the World Lumberjack Championships, the ice skating barrel jumps and demolition derbies. But those championships existed, and "we brought those people who were the best to the viewers. I remember when Ken Labell cleared 17 barrels at Lake Placid, N.Y. It was like the four-minute mile. The fans went wild. His wife cried and the fans carried him around the arena on their shoulders."
The segmented approach of "Wide World" also came under some fire at first, but McKay brushes aside those critics as long since silenced. "We never changed the meaning of the event or the order," he said. 'We just tightened the presentation, showing the best. It's like picking out the best things in a candy store."
Once the crew was in Mexico for a Jack Kramer professional tennis championship. Arledge thought it would be a good idea to do the cliff divers in Acapulco. "Turned out they were unionized and the head guy said they wanted $100,000, McKay recalled. "Roone said 'No way' and walked off. The next day a local manager working with the ABC crew asked what time were they going to shoot the divers. He was told the idea was dropped because they wanted all that money. The manager said, 'I just negotiated a new deal -- 10 bucks a dive.' "
But it all began at a track meet in Philadelphia, the Penn Relays on April 29, 1961. McKay did the show from Franklin Field with Jesse Abramson of the New York Herald Tribune and former Olympian Bob Richards as expert commentators. Meanwhile, reporters Jim Simpson and Bill Flemming were in Des Moines to televise the Drake Relays and compare times at the two major spring meets.
McKay recently looked at the tapes of that meet on a lumpy cinder track in a steady drizzle and made an observation: "No replays. No slow motion. You just forget how different it was in those days,"
"Wide World" was originally scheduled as a 20-week summer replacement. The event that made the show was a U.S./U.S.S.R. track meet in Moscow, the first of many negotiating coups by Arledge. He signed an agreement with the Amateur Athletic Union that included rights to the meet, although that first summer's trial run included the F.A. Soccer Cup Championship from London, France's LeMans Grand Prix, the Japanese all-star baseball game and the world championships of professional tennis.
Arledge, McKay, 60 technicians and 20 tons of equipment went to Moscow. It was very unusual to have television pictures from Russia in those days. "The first eight or 10 shows didn't attract much of an audience, and I think we came close to being taken off the air," said McKay. "But the trip to Russia got some publicity. ABC president Tom Moore was along on the trip. And although some said the show would not return to the air in January after the football season, I think Tom Moore made up his mind during that trip to put the show back on the air.
"It was the first telecast from Europe handled exclusively by American personnel. The meet produced 'Wide World's' first hero, Russian high jumper Valery Brumel, who not only set a world record in that meet but also the following year at Palo Alto, Calif., and again the third year in Moscow."
When Brumel was named the show's athlete of the year, the Russians sent him to New York for the presentation. In 1971 "Wide World" also became the first U.S. show ever to be filmed in the People's Republic of China. The telecast featured a table tennis match, a first step in what was later to be known as "Ping Pong Diplomacy." The first sporting event to be televised fromFidel Castro's Cuba was a volleyball match on "Wide World," during which Peter Jennings did a historic interview with Castro.
The show also was the first to bring to Americans the British Open golf tournament from Troon, Scotland, in 1962. In 1964 it aired a taped version of the Sonny Liston/Cassius Clay (Muhammmad Ali) fight, the first of many major fights shown to the general public on "Wide World." In the early days, boxing, auto racing and later the Harlem Globetrotters brought the show some of its highest ratings.
In its best weeks this season, the show was watched by 30 million viewers on Sunday and 17.8 million on Saturdays. In a list prepared for the upcoming special, ABC came up with 183 names of commentators who had appeared on the show. This group could easily pack any sports Hall of Fame.
McKay said he couldn't recall a single one of them who didn't contribute to the show even though in many cases it was it was their first try at TV sports commentary.
"I had a chilling moment once," McKay recalled. "We were about to open at the F.A. Soccer Cup Championship in England and this coach is standing next to me. Seconds before we were to go on the air, and I just couldn't think of the guy's name. Blank. Nothing. Blood rushed to my feet. The light went on, and as I started to talk, his name just came out -- Dennis Storer, the UCLA soccer coach."
There were some favorites, and McKay was reluctant to name them for fear of leaving some out, but he did mention among those who were great because they were themselves: golf's Dave Marr, auto racing's Jackie Stewart, skating's Dick Button, and jockey Eddie Arcaro.
"One time Arcaro and I went to Europe to do the Grand National, Epsom Derby, Royal Ascot, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and Irish Sweepstakes. The Royal Ascot meeting was three days. Each day we got all dressed up in the formal Royal Ascot attire, top hats and all, and each day it rained. It rained so hard that all races were canceled. We never got in a single race."
In addition to its 36 Emmy Awards "Wide World" also has won a George Peabody Award for promoting international understanding, an International Cannes Broadcasting Competition Award, three CINE Eagle Awards, a Special Olympics Award for Distinguished Service to the Mentally Retarded, two National Press Photographer Association Awards and the Christopher Award, the first time in the award's 35 years that a sports program was been so honored.
McKay, the first sports commentator ever to win an Emmy, has picked up a total of 10. In 1972 he won two, one for his sports coverage and the other for his news reporting of the tragic events surrounding the attack of terrorists on Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village at Munich.
Jim McManus (McKay's real name, which he still uses except on the air) was born in Philadelphia and moved to Baltimore when he was 13. He was graduated from Loyola College under an accelerated program and captained a minesweeper in World War II.
After the war he joined the Baltimore Sun. "In those days my wife Margaret was a star reporter and I was a young police and general assignment guy." For more than 30 years Margaret McManus wrote a syndicated personality column. A graduate of the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, she is now a member of the school's board of trustees and recently held a $100,000 benefit luncheon for the school.
One day in 1947 McManus was called to a meeting along with three other members of the newsroom staff. "At this point I was also the aviation editor, a title they gave me in lieu of a raise." He was told that the Sunpapers were planning to start Baltimore's first TV station and had just learned that the Hearst people, who owned the Baltimore News Post (now News American), had the same idea and were to begin operating in a couple of weeks. The Sunpapers wanted to start up in a week. They did, and Jim McManus uttered the first words on Baltimore television.
He asked the editor who picked him why he'd been chosen and was told, "We noticed in your application that you were president of the drama society at Loyola."
McManus reported news and sports and whatever needed reporting for WMAR-TV. His first sports show featured two horse races from Pimlico, and later a Preakness race won by Citation. In 1950 he moved to New York and CBS. "The CBS network was five stations in those days," he noted. It was then that CBS changed his name to McKay. His first program was a variety show that lasted two years. The title -- "are you ready for this? -- 'The Real McKay,' " in which he not only hosted the show but sang too.
Soon he switched to mostly sports commentary. By the end of the 1950s he was doing the same at ABC, where it wasn't long before he added "Wide World" to his schedule of major golf tournaments, horse races and college football games.
Then the honors began to come, and they include an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Loyola. He's proud of that one and also of his son, daughter and grandson. His son, Sean McManus, a vice president with NBC, was named to the post when he was 27, youngest ever at the network to reach that rank. His daughter, Mrs. Charles Fontelieu, lives in Palm Springs, Calif., with 21/2-year-old grandson James and teaches special education.
A couple of years ago he suggested that Maryland have a "Maryland Million" day at the races to boost Maryland horse breeding. It will be run in October at Laurel; McKay has been named president of the event. "That happens when you have a bright idea, and now I'm in the process of raising a half million dollars in corporate sponsorships." To boot, McKay was named this year to the board of directors of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
His venture into horse breeding is not small. His stock has been bred to Preakness winners Little Current and Deputed Testimony, and given him a dozen trips to the winner's circle. "The feeling is one you have to experience. No one ever walks to a winner's circle. You run. It's like it's going to fade away. It's so special -- even though you didn't ride the horse, you didn't train it, you didn't groom it, and yet you have that thrill of having put the winner together."
A few days after his first winner, McKay carded a hole-in-one in golf, his first after decades of playing. "They were both great thrills. But the greatest was that first trip to the winner's circle."
Chuck Howard, ABC vice president, program production, recalls that as happy as the early "Wide World" crew was about the show, "I don't think it was until the show was on the air four or five years that any of us realized we might have such a long run."
Arledge predicts another 25 years, allowing for the usual changing with the times, but warns against tampering with the show's basic philosophy, which is reflected in the opening: "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."
In 25 years, ABC's "Wide World of Sports" has known little agony and no defeat.