Roone Arledge 1931-2002 In presenting the Olympics, Wide World, Howard Cosell and much more, this visionary revolutionized sports television

December 16, 2002

Roone Arledge, who died last Thursday at 71 after suffering long
with prostate cancer, is indisputably the most important person
in the history of sports television. In a matter of speaking, he
invented sports television--or at least that which we know (and
now take for granted). He changed and improved so much of the
primitivism that existed that it barely matters what came before.
Speaking for many in the sports TV business, Barry Frank of IMG,
an agent who often sat, disputatious and admiring, across the
negotiating table from Arledge, once observed, "The bottom line
on Roone is ... without him we'd all be making $50,000 a year
selling suits at Barneys."

Effectively, what Arledge wrought derived from a memo that he
wrote to Edgar Scherick, the new boss of ABC's sports arm, in
1960, shortly after Scherick had hired him away from producing a
puppet show at NBC. "We are going to add show business to
sports!" Arledge exclaimed, exclamation point and all. Then,
operating by his credo,What if I tried this? he began trying
stuff. Most of it worked, and all of that has been copied.

Arledge is most remembered, of course, for developing Olympics
coverage and creating Monday Night Football, taking ABC Sports
from virtual nothingness to preeminence. But almost every element
of everyday sports production was inspired or enhanced by
Arledge. Simple things like ambient sound, the tight, intimate
shot--up close and personal!--and identifying graphics (as well
as, ahem, tantalizing looks at pretty girls in the stands) were
his ideas. So were advances like the handheld camera, cranes on
golf courses, the underwater camera, the split screen, the camera
on the basketball backboard and the three-announcer booth (as
well as, ugh, a microphone under a dead zebra to help The
American Sportsman viewers better hear the lion munch his striped

There yet remains an almost theological dispute about who created
the slow-motion instant replay, but if it was not Arledge and a
brilliant engineer named Bob Trachinger (who outlined on a soggy
beer napkin in a Los Angeles bar how Arledge's idea might work),
it really doesn't matter, because it was Arledge who popularized
and refined the concept, starting in 1961. Earlier that year
Arledge's first major success, Wide World of Sports, had
premiered after Scherick had muscled advertisers into buying into
the show. Shortly thereafter Scherick--a cagey, flamboyant,
blithe spirit who had set the table for his protege (and who died
two days before Arledge, at age 78)--departed for Hollywood and
motion pictures, leaving behind ABC Sports and a whole, barely
imagined new world to the red-haired, freckled-faced prodigy who,
to his competitors, looked like Howdy Doody or Spanky in Our

Roone Pinckney Arledge Jr. was born in New York City on July 8,
1931, and despite his Wide World reputation, he would--except for
a couple of years in the Army, during which he was posted to
faraway Maryland--always reside in the environs of the city of
his birth. (Columbia was his alma mater.) His family heritage was
Scottish, but so far as Arledge himself knew, no one on the globe
save his father, himself and his son ever labored under the
curious, meaningless name of Roone.

He could be gregarious and charming, political, a man fond of the
creature comforts who reigned, felicitously, at a time when
expense accounts generously covered a multitude of desires, as
befitted network royalty. Arledge was conveyed about Manhattan in
a chauffeured Jaguar. He golfed and hunted and fished--the latter
a personal hobby that inspired The American Sportsman. But
professionally Arledge was a shadow figure, somehow running his
empire with a minimum of interaction with his underlings. At ABC,
Arledge was known as the Wizard because, after all, "nobody can
see the Wizard." When in 1977 he also took on the presidency of
ABC News, Beano Cook, the football analyst, cracked, "Now
Roone'll have two offices where you can't find him." Arledge
never attended staff meetings, rarely sent out memos and
delegated his subalterns to express his displeasure to those who
disappointed him.

In a rare moment of personal appraisal in 1983, Arledge allowed,
"I'm a very shy person, not psychotically shy, but much shier
than people realize. I guess I'm insecure about life." Others,
however, found arrogance in what he dismissed as bashfulness. His
refusal to return phone calls was infamous. Jim Spence, who
worked for Arledge for almost two decades, wrote, "For as long as
I've known him ... [Arledge] listened only to the sound of his
own voice." He was criticized for taking credit due others and
for being a ruthless boss and competitor. He was not a good
administrator, but, indisputably, his skills at negotiation
matched his genius for innovation.

Arledge brought the Olympics to ABC, buying the 1964 Winter Games
for a stupendous $200,000. He was, in effect, already building up
the audience for the event by televising such exotic sports as
figure skating and skiing on Wide World--as he would enhance the
Summer Olympics audience by showing the likes of track and
gymnastics. (In 1965 ABC became the first U.S. network to
broadcast live a European sports event.) ABC topped the bidding
for the Summer Games of 1968, '72 and '76 (and again in '84), so
that for all intents and purposes Arledge became the de facto
head of the Olympics, at least in the U.S. That is: He alone
decided which Olympic sports and athletes were showcased,
especially as he reached out for a female audience. In America
the Games became the Arledge Follies, with audience shares that
sometimes approached 50%.

Monday Night Football, which debuted in 1970 (and was the
brainchild of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, not Arledge), made
even more of a cultural dent in the United States, literally
changing the behavior of a nation on one of the seven nights of
the week that God had bestowed upon the land. Significantly,
Arledge would not deal with the NFL unless the league gave unto
him the undisputed power to designate the announcers. Arledge
anointed Howard Cosell (who was already a divisive figure for his
unapologetic defense of Muhammad Ali), and then Cosell provided
the alternating current that lit up the booth and gave MNF its
electric company.

Cosell was Arledge's most inspired choice of voice, but he always
had a touch for selecting appropriate broadcasters. Jim McKay,
warm and appealing, was the perfect friend to guide us through
thrill and agony round the globe, and, of course, McKay--under
Arledge's direction--was no less than brilliant when suddenly
cast as the sad but affecting interlocutor who had to help us
endure the terror and tragedy of Munich. Later, after Arledge
took over ABC News, he would designate Peter Jennings as his
point man, a selection that would (with Nightline and 20/20) lift
that department from last place to first (even if Arledge could
never stomach Jennings's pocket handkerchiefs, which he thought
too foppish for down-home 'Mercan tastes).

Once Arledge was handed the News portfolio, his Sports interest
waned. His valedictory in sports was to produce the '88 Calgary
Winter Games, and after that it was an old acolyte of his at ABC,
Dick Ebersol, who as head of NBC Sports became the dominant
figure in the field--mostly and admittedly by following the
Arledgian lines.

As sports television has, at the same time, grown more diffuse
and less original, Arledge's creativity and influence have only
taken on more gleam. What if I tried this? To be sure, he
materialized at just the right time, when sport was fixing to
explode, but never mind. Roone Arledge alone in his field had the
inspiration and the drive to do what so few people ever do--to
change and control the territory he operated in, and with that,
to affect society beyond the parochial boundaries that sport had
always been fenced into.

Read Frank Deford's column every week at

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM COUPON B/W PHOTO: ABC MONDAY MANIA Arledge won casual viewers by casting Cosell (right) with the countrified Don Meredith. B/W PHOTO: BC PHOTO ARCHIVES LORD OF THE RINGS Already a power in the Olympic realm, Arledge surveyed the scene before the 1968 Games in Mexico City. B/W PHOTO: KEN REGAN/CAMERA 5 WIDE WORLD OF ROONE Clockwise from top left: The maestro at his console, 1984; signing Jackie Robinson as a baseball analyst, 1965; testing the underwater camera, 1963; discussing a fight deal with George Foreman (right) and Don King, 1976; exulting with MNF analyst O.J. Simpson at the Emmys, 1976; joking with MNF announcers Frank Gifford (right) and Joe Namath, 1985. B/W PHOTO: AP [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: ABC PHOTO ARCHIVES [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: AP [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: REED SAXON/AP [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: MARTY LEDERHANDLER/AP [See caption above]

Arledge built up the audience for the Olympics by televising such
exotic sports as figure skating and skiing on Wide World.

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