Growing up as a teenager in the early to mid-70s, one of my favorite times of the week was Saturday afternoon.
That was when ABC aired the finals of that week’s PBA (Professional Bowlers Association) tour, followed by the iconic Wide World of Sports.
It was three hours of pure joy.
I was into bowling back then, so I could relate to the PBA tour, dreaming of being a pro one day myself.
But the real highlight was watching Wide World of Sports, from 4:30-6:00. Who can forget the classic opening sequence, with its goosebump-inducing voiceover:
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!
There was no job I wanted more in life than Jim McKay’s, the anchor of the show. I even read his autobiography, My Wide World, several years later, to see if I could learn some secrets as to how to follow in his footsteps.
Here’s a little background on the show, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Wide World of Sports was intended to be a fill-in show for a single summer season, until the start of fall sports seasons, but became unexpectedly popular. The goal of the program was to showcase sports from around the globe that were seldom, if ever, broadcast on American television. It originally ran for two hours on Saturday afternoons, but was later reduced to 90 minutes.
Usually, “Wide World” featured two or three events per show. These included many types not previously seen on American television, such as hurling, rodeo, curling, jai-alai, firefighter’s competitions, wrist wrestling, powerlifting, surfing, logger sports, demolition derby, slow pitch softball, barrel jumping, and badminton. NASCAR Grand National/Winston Cup racing was a Wide World of Sports staple until the late 1980s, when it became a regularly scheduled sporting event on the network. Traditional Olympic sports such as figure skating, skiing, gymnastics and track and field competitions were also regular features of the show. Another memorable regular feature in the 1960s and 1970s was Mexican cliff diving. (Side note – one of the competitors – Don Colombo, was one of my swim coaches when I was a teenager). The lone national television broadcast of the Continental Football League was a Wide World of Sports broadcast of the 1966 championship game; ABC paid the league $500 for a rights fee, a minuscule sum by professional football standards.
Wide World of Sports was the first U.S. television program to air coverage of – among events – Wimbledon (1961), the Indianapolis 500 (highlights starting in 1961; a longer-form version in 1965), the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship (1962), the Daytona 500 (1962), the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (1962), the Monaco Grand Prix (1962), the Little League World Series (1961), The British Open Golf Tournament (1961), the X-Games (1994) and the Grey Cup (1962).
The series’ April 29, 1961 debut telecast featured both the Penn and Drake Relays. Jim McKay (who hosted the program for most of its history) and Jesse Abramson, the track and field writer for the New York Herald Tribune, broadcast from Franklin Field with Bob Richards as the field reporter. Jim Simpson called the action from Drake Stadium with Bill Flemming working the field.
In later years, with the rise of cable television offering more outlets for sports programming, Wide World of Sports lost many of the events that had been staples of the program for many years (many, although not all, of them ended up on ESPN, a sister network to ABC for most of its existence). Ultimately, on January 3, 1998, Jim McKay announced that Wide World of Sports, in its traditional anthology series, had been canceled after a 37-year run.
And what a run it was. It instilled in me a love of all sports, and competition, in general.
I didn’t end up being the next Jim McKay, but I think what I’d like to do in future posts is highlight some of the less-popular sports that found their way on to Wide World of Sports. YouTube has a treasure trove of old Wide WOrld os Sports segments.
It will give me a chance to relive a bit of my childhood, and pretend that I am Jim McKay, bringing my readers the Wide World of Sports…