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 meal).
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 prot�g� (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 Gang.
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.