On This Day: Wide World of Sports Makes ABC Debut 60 Years Ago

by Joe Rutland
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ABC brought the world of sports, well, a little bit closer to TV sets when “Wide World of Sports” debuted on this day 60 years ago.

Viewers were greeted by sportscaster Jim McKay’s voice saying, “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports.” This show definitely did succeed at that point, a variety of the sports world.

One week, you’d tune in and see Alpine skiers from Switzerland. The next week, you’d be front row to watch the Harlem Globetrotters perform their basketball wizardry. Can any discussion of “Wide World of Sports” not bring up Evel Knievel? Absolutely not.

‘Wide World of Sports’ Gave Evel Knievel Platform For Daredevil Stunts

Knievel, the daredevil motorcycle rider, would perform his jumps over cars or trucks on the ABC show over the years. Yes, ABC was the network of record when Knievel attempted to jump across the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. It was a bust as Knievel’s rocket landed at the bottom of the canyon. He was injured but did not die.

Sportscasters ranging from Frank Gifford to Keith Jackson would cover these events. Mind you, Gifford had a gig as the play-by-play guy on “Monday Night Football.” Jackson will forever be tied to ABC’s college football coverage.

Then, you have to take a minute and talk about Howard Cosell. Cosell, one of ABC’s most-loved and most-hated sportscasters, would find himself interviewing boxing legend Muhammad Ali on the show. Some of his Ali interviews would become iconic moments in TV history.

ABC Show Provided Unique View At So Many Different Types Of Sports

The show was so unique for its time. No sports show had been dedicated to displaying many different sports to the television viewer. Drag racing, figure skating, gymnastics, track and field, and Mexican cliff diving would appear on TV sets all over America.

Pro bowling also first appeared on the show. The initial appearance was so popular with viewers that ABC Sports started covering the Professional Bowlers Tour not long afterward. That, too, became a Saturday afternoon programming standard.

Years after “Wide World of Sports” provided a Saturday afternoon block of sports programming, other networks attempted to copy the idea.

Cable Television Started Taking Away Events Once Covered On ‘Wide World of Sports’

Nothing came close to the original show. “Wide World of Sports” remained on ABC through Jan. 3, 1998. McKay, Gifford, Jackson, Cosell, Bill Flemming, and others were among the original sportscasters on the show. Later on, Julie Moran became the first female host of “Wide World of Sports.” She would be followed by Becky Dixon and Robin Roberts.

Jim McKay, who was the father of CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus (McKay’s real last name), died on June 7, 2008, at 86 years old.

With cable television’s multiple sports channels available 24 hours a day, “Wide World of Sports” became a bit of a dinosaur. ESPN and other networks coming on board would find a home for these events that the sports anthology show covered.

Still, there are many people who lovingly remember the glory days of this ABC Sports staple. Here’s to the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat.

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