Few viewers will notice that Larry Merchant and NBC Sports have parted company because, as Merchants readily concedes, his appearances on the air didn't produce any-groundswell that registered on the Richter scale.

What makes the divorce a pity is the lost potential it represents. They could have been a handsome couple. Merchant has excellent credentials as a reporter and could have contributed richly in an area NBC purportedly wants to develop: "Sports journalism."

The fact that they could not agree, financially or artistically, may indicate that we are further than we thought from seeing a sports equivalent to CBS' celebrated "60 Minutes," even though network executives apparently sense that this is a concept whose time has come.

Ironically, Merchant and Don D. Ohlmeyer, executive producer of NBC Sports programming, agree that Merchant would be a great asset as producer of a heretofore undistinguished "Sports Journal" segment of "Sports World." That's the anthology that premiered in January, amid much fanfare, as the cornerstone of NBC's buildup to the 1980 Summer Olympics.

Merchant believed there was a fundamental philosophical gap, that Ohlmeyer - an acknowledged genius at choreographing and glossily packaging sports events for TV - does not truly understand hardnosed journalism.

Merchant thinks the businessmen who run the network sports now think there is a market for sports journalism - which he defines as not only investigative reporting, but in-depth profiles of people and events - but don't know how to go about putting it on the air. It is certainly a different ballgame from what they are used to presenting in a visually exciting way an unashamedly hyping of an event of which they have become a part by acquiring the rights to broadcast it.

"It's harder to do the piece of substance. It takes a little more effort, imagination and money, and I don't think they know how to do it," Merchant says.

"I think the problem is that the people who run network sports are not journalists . . . The basic difference between the journalist and the television sports mentality is that the journalist wants to find out what it's all about, what the story is and the story behind the story. He's curious and maybe skeptical.

"The television personality just wants to be part of it. He wants to attach himself to it and to show it. The game is the most popular thing, so he wants to say, 'Look, we're a part of this.' Not, 'Look, here's what's happening.'"

Ohlmeyer, on the other hand, thinks, "The only philosophical difference that exists is whether it would be more effective to have Larry on camera or off camera."

"I think Larry could be the best sports producer in the business," says Ohlmeyer, 33, who was lured from ABC after NBC won the high stakes option for rights to the Moscow Games.

"Larry talks about '60 Minutes.' From the inception, our goal has been to get to that point, but first we've got to establish people," says Ohlmeyer. "One of the reasons '60 Minutes' works is that people identify with the on-camera talent, but they grew to identify with them over a period of years, not weeks.

"I think Larry could have helped us get there, but unfortunately he is not what we need on-camera, in my opinion, and he couldn't bring himself to work exclusively as a producer for the dollars we could offer him without revamping the salary structure of our whole department."

Merchant, 47, came to NBC two years ago after a distinguished career as a newspaperman. During 10 years at the Philadelphia Daily News, he was phto editor, sports editor and columnist, and for another decade his columns - witty, analytical, sometimes irreverent, sometimes poignant, always thoughtful - livened the sports pages of the New York Post.

He left the newspaper business to write books, but while researching one project stumbled into employment at NBC, initially as an on-air commentator.