The Ten Most Influential Sports Series on American Television

This is going to be a wide ranging post. Unlike the last post on Best Announcers of All-Time, I will explain my reasons for choosing them. It’s quite an interesting list.

10. The American Sportsman – ABC Sports (1965-1986)

Hosted by Curt Gowdy, the show started from a segment in ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a series that will be higher in this list. It gave viewers a look at hunting, fishing, gaming in the great outdoors and also showed animals in their natural habitat. Done on film, the beauty of the series brought viewers to exotic locations all over the United States. Celebrities often joined Curt having fun in the outdoors.

9. Inside the NFL – HBO/Showtime/NFL Films (1977-present) 

The show began in the infancy of the cable era and continues today. Originally started as a highlights show using NFL Films footage, Inside the NFL evolved to features, interviews and discussion. The show went from HBO to Showtime, but it’s influence on highlights remain today.

8. This Week in Baseball – MLB Productions (1977-1999 version)

We’re talking about the syndicated version and not the program that airs on Fox Sports before its MLB coverage on Saturday afternoons. Fed up of seeing TV stations air NFL Films syndicated programming, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered MLB Productions start a program of their own and This Week in Baseball was born. Before ESPN, it was the only way to see baseball highlights from outside the local market. Narrated by Mel Allen until his death in 1996 and canceled in 1999 until Fox brought it back in 2000 with the highlights drastically cut. In its heyday, TWIB was one of the most successful league-owned programs. And it also led MLB Productions to other programs including “The Baseball Bunch” which was geared towards children.

7. Hockey Night in Canada – CBC Sports (1952-present)

While not seen in the United States until the NHL Center Ice pay-per-view package and now aired on NHL Network, this series had a great impact on how hockey is aired in the United States. HNIC set the standard for television production of the NHL and play-by-play announcer Foster Hewitt proved that radio announcing would work in calling the sport on TV. The ratings of HNIC continue to dominate in Canada and the NHL’s US TV partners have to strive to equal or surpass CBC’s production.

6. SportsCenter – ESPN (1979-present)

When ESPN launched in 1979 in the little town of Bristol, CT, then-President Chet Simmons decided that a nightly show devoted to sports highlights would be the network’s signature show. SportsCenter was the first show aired on ESPN and since then, over 30,000 editions have been produced. The show has made sports highlights on newscasts obsolete. It brought Chris Berman, Tom Mees, Bob Ley, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Craig Kilborn, Linda Cohn, Robin Roberts and so many others into national prominence. While other networks have tried to imitate the formula, SportsCenter has beaten back its competitors to the point where it’s expanded into a second ESPN channel.

5. Real Sports – HBO Sports

The sports version of 60 Minutes, Real Sports did not bring serious journalism into television sports, but it has moved the mountain to the point where it was once the only game in town. Now ESPN has its own sports journalism magazine, E:60 and also has a daily show, Outside The Lines. But neither program would be alive were it not for Real Sports. Hosted by Bryant Gumbel since its inception in 1995, the show has won numerous Sports Emmy Awards for Outstanding Sports Journalism. Its reporters are among the best in the business and continue to bring stories to the forefront. Gumbel has said he may be long to host the show, Real Sports is expected to continue for years to come.

4. The NFL Today – CBS Sports (1974-1994, 1998-present)

While CBS tinkered with a pregame show dating back to the early 1960’s, the origin of the NFL Today and other shows that have followed on NBC, ESPN, Fox and CBS again, can date back to 1974 when the Tiffany Network began a live show with co-hosts with reports from game sites. In 1975, the format we have come to know with a host, analyst and a reporter began with Brent Musburger, Phyllis George, Irv Cross and then prognosticator Jimmy The Greek who joined in 1976. NBC followed with its own show, Grandstand in 1975, then NFL ’77. But it was always following CBS’ lead and ratings. Until CBS lost the NFC package in 1994, the NFL Today constantly slaughtered NBC’s pregame show in the ratings. CBS also created the live halftime and postgame show with highlights and updates. fans knew that the NFL Today was the show to watch. And while Fox updated the format in 1994, networks have to tip their hat to the NFL Today.

3. Major League Baseball Game of the Week – ABC Sports/CBS Sports/NBC Sports (1953 – 1989)

Started by ABC, then bought by CBS and finally wrested away by NBC, this was one of the first regular sports series to air on network television. Until the series’ demise in 1989 when Major League Baseball inexplicably killed the series in a money grab with CBS, this was the only way for fans to see teams outside of their local markets. In addition, it was a big deal when the networks came into town to televise a game to a national audience. Called by great broadcasters such as Jack Buck, Dizzy Dean, Curt Gowdy, Joe Garagiola, Bob Costas and Vin Scully, the Game of the Week was a fixture every Saturday afternoon. Fox has its own version, but with cable showing so many games during the week, it’s only natural that Fox’s ratings have gone down. But old school fans yearn for the days when the Game of the Week was the only game in town.

2. Monday Night Football – ABC Sports/ESPN (1970-present)

It’s now hard to believe that there were some television executives who felt that primetime football would not work. Now, there are three NFL primetime packages and there’s primetime college football as well. MNF proved that not only could football work in primetime, but big ticket sporting events as well. Before cable, a Monday Night Football game was a huge event. The ABC Sports team of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith was treated like rock stars. And with the Halftime Highlights narrated by Cosell, its was the way to see the other games played from the weekend. The series on ABC continued to have a big game feel with Al Michaels, Gifford and Dan Dierdorf, but lost some appeal when ESPN began to tinker with the announcing teams and the production in the late 1990’s, and in the first two years when MNF moved to cable. However, MNF appeared to have regained some stability when Jon Gruden joined Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski last season. MNF may have lost the spotlight with NBC taking over Sunday Night Football, but games on Monday Night continue to have some luster.

1. Wide World of Sports – ABC Sports (1961-1998)

The show that brought us events like cliff diving, barrel jumping, Evel Knievel jumping over buses also gave America its first look at Wimbledon, Muhammed Ali, the ACC Tournament, gymnastics, figure skating, the Little League World Series, and the Indianapolis and Daytona 500. Through it all, Jim McKay was our teacher and host. Executive Producer Roone Arledge spanned the globe to find sports to televise and gave us Up Close and Personal profiles of athletes we may not have wanted to know, but found ourselves caring about by the end. And the way ABC shot sports, it set the standard for how NASCAR, the Olympics and other sports are produced. In its prime in the 1970’s, ABC aired Wide World on both Saturdays and Sundays, killing the NBA on CBS and the NHL on NBC. The series forced CBS and NBC to air similar shows, but Wide World was still the original sports anthology show and the best. Unfortunately, the show was killed in 1998. ESPN Classic has aired various Wide World events over the years, but not in the program’s original format.

Those are my choices for Most Influential Sports Series. What are yours?

Ken Fang

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013. He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television. Fang celebrates the three Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.