ABC’s Wide World of Sports

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!

On the air for 37 years, ABC’s Wide World of Sports (WWS) brought American television viewers what the introduction promised: a variety of sport. There are a number of memories people have of the long-running show.

Gold Jackets

Certain sports places, events or people become known by their attire. Checkered fedora? Bear Bryant. Coat, tie and conservative fedora? Tom Landry. Green jacket? You’re at the Masters golf tournament. For many years, WWS announcers and commentators wore gold blazers with an ABC logo on the left breast pocket. I don’t know exactly why gold, but Harvest Gold was a popular color choice in the 1970s for kitchen appliances and home furnishings. There were other blazers in bright yellow and navy blue, but when someone says “yellow jacket” I think Wide World of Sports.

The Agony of Defeat

In the WWS introduction, a skier tumbles down a slope, careens off a ramp and is hurled into a crowd of spectators. He was injured in the accident with a concussion and a broken ankle, but recovered and became a celebrity of sorts, receiving a standing ovation at the WWS 20th year anniversary banquet. ABC checked in with Vinko Bogataj over the years. He’s a successful artist living in his native Slovenia.

They’re all gone.

Covered by Wide World of Sports regulars and ABC News personnel, including future anchorman Peter Jennings, the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich was a watershed moment in sports and news broadcasting and in Middle East peace. Eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage by terrorists. The crisis monopolized raged live on television for hours. In a final battle with police at Munich’s airport, the remaining Israelis were killed. Jim McKay announced the news to the world.

When I was a kid my father used to say “Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.” Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were eleven hostages; two were killed in their rooms this morn– yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

A number of sources picked up the story from there, particularly the movie Munich.

Evel Knievel

If you watch a documentary made about Evel Knievel, longtime WWS producer Doug Wilson usually appears and says that of the ten top rated episodes of Wide World of Sports, Evel Knievel holds seven. Evel’s motorcycle jumping career started and ended on Wide World of Sports (excluding jumps after King’s Island).

The Constant Variety of Sport

They weren’t kidding about variety: hurling, soccer, rodeo, mountain climbing, curling, golf, soap box derbies, wrestling, championship boxing, jai-alai, yachting, the Indy 500, little league baseball, chess, high wire walking, drag racing, weight lifting, surfing, demolition derby, dog sled racing, slow pitch softball, cliff diving, badminton, swimming and more. Several Olympic sports, including skating, gymnastics, track and field competitions were also regular features of the show.

Spanning the Years

WWS began in 1961, when there were only three television channels in the United States, and ran until 1998. Ultimately it was a victim of corporate consolidation, what business-school types call “vertical integration.” After Disney acquired both the ABC broadcast network and cable network ESPN in 1996, ABC’s Sports Division was viewed as redundant (Disney apparently did not want two sports broadcasting entities). Wide World of Sports, Monday Night Football and other ABC Sports programs either disappeared entirely or were picked up by ESPN.

Get a taste of the sports, people and times of Wide World of Sports with a few items from our collection:

Muhammad Ali had several matches on WWS over the years and had a famous “feud” with Howard Cosell.

Al Michaels was a longtime WWS commentator and has a book:  You Can’t Make This up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television

Of course, Evel Knievel and Wide World of Sports had an almost decade-long relationship.

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Matt Pettit

Matt is a Public Service Specialist for the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. His areas of responsibility include outreach library services to nursing homes, senior, retirement and congregate living centers; service to homebound library users; the Kansas Talking Books service; Book Group in a Bag program and the history and sports neighborhoods of the library’s nonfiction collection.