Long before there was ESPN (or ESPN2 or ESPNU or Versus or Speed or any of the numerous other channels dedicated to sports) ABC's Wild World of Sports was a pioneer in coverage of niche and emerging athletic events. The venerable anthology series premiered 50 years ago this week, on April 29, 1961, and is perhaps best known for host Jim McKay's iconic opening narration: "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
Wide World of Sports gave early TV exposure to what have become some of today's most popular events, including the NCAA basketball championship, the Daytona 500, Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500. Obscurities like cliff diving, curling and badminton got their due, and Wide World devoted significant time to Olympic sports, including the 1961 USA vs. USSR track meet in Moscow, which featured the first live TV coverage from the Soviet Union by an American show. The series also helped cultivate the fame of flamboyant sports personalities like Muhammad Ali, Evel Knievel and Pelé, and took viewers to far-flung destinations. "It wasn't that we were showing sports all over the planet, it's that we were telling stories about people all over the planet, and that had impact," former ABC exec producer Geoff Mason told ESPN's Outside the Lines.
To honor Wide World's anniversary, ESPN and its sister networks are showcasing a variety of programming all week. The very first episode (which featured two track meets, the Drake Relays and the Penn Relays) airs on ESPN Classic on Friday at midnight/ET (11c/10m/9p, Thursday night). Friday's SportsNation (4/3c, ESPN2) counts down the Top 10 Wide World moments and Saturday's Winners Bracket (5/4c, ABC) will present the top "agony of defeat" moments.