By Whitney McIntosh
Raise your hand if you remember Sports Challenge. Nice and high now, we wouldn’t want to miss anybody. That’s it? Almost no one here remembers Sports Challenge? Well huh, if this isn’t just a pickle. Maybe you’re all thinking of a different show or something. Maybe you know it as the one that ran for eight years on a major network. No? How about the one that was announced by Dick Enberg, one of the top sportscasters of our time. Still nothing? It was that one game show that ESPN re-ran for a year way back in the day when they were trying to diversify their catalogue. Wow, really no recognition? I guess I’ll just have to reacquaint you with it then.
Spring months are some of the best, if not the outright best, in all of sports. The universe gives us a little break off after the Super Bowl so that we may collectively take a deep breath and get ready for the onslaught of things to come; March Madness, The Masters, Wimbledon, Baseball Opening Day, and the beginning of the mania that is the NBA and NFL playoffs. In the spirit of this great time of year in sports, we’re going to take a look at Sports Challenge, a long running game show that has descended into obscurity and has been generally forgotten.
More often than not, no matter the obscurity of the show someone somewhere will have a decent amount of knowledge or passion for it, or there will be a nostalgic resurgence of re-runs over a year or two. This one really is a hidden gem though, as rights fees make it difficult for re-runs to be a consistent option for any channel, even ones devoted almost solely to syndicated game shows like GSN.
Most sports-related game shows have some basis in a Pros vs. Schmos concept, in taking either group out of their comfort zone. This could be as small-scale as having normal people compete against professional athletes in typical sporting, or as large-scale as the classic Battle of the Network Stars which consisted of what amounted to a faux-Olympics every time. But Sports Challenge, which ran for eight seasons on CBS, went above that cliché and made their titular challenge about professional athletes talking about other professional athletes. The only way this could have been more in their wheelhouse would be if they had baseball players compete by hitting Nerf balls off of a tee.
The entire production felt like a sporting event. Two teams of three would face each other in a battle of sports smarts with the winner receiving money for a previously chosen athletic charity or group of their choice. Not only would the teams be two of the top teams in their leagues, but the players themselves were nothing to scoff at. These weren’t bench players appearing on a game show because they needed the extra publicity, most teams were the most popular players and personalities of their time. Below, an episode in which the Boston Celtics went up against the Green Bay Packers. Bill Russell, Red Auerbach and John Havlicek vs. Willie Davis, Paul Hornung and Jerry Kramer (the Celtics were a popular team, Cousy and Sharman would appear in another episode with Auerbach). I told you this show was awesome. Probably one of my favorite clips of this show if only because they kept referring to the Celtics’ team as the “champs” because they were defending their game show crowns this episode. Also, who doesn’t want to see Bill Russell answer an obscure jockey question about the Kentucky Derby at the drop of a hat? I know I do.
Not only did they go all in with the athletes they chose on Sports Challenge, but with the questions as well. Not everything was easy (although, seriously, who couldn’t get the Dimaggio streak question right) and this may just be because we have the disadvantage of these questions no longer being current events, but there some that were just plain tricky. Asking about the 500-HR Club with Gherig as an option? He had 493 and was the last one they guessed! Not easy by any stretch.
The whole feel of the show went well with the proceedings; lighthearted fun with just enough of the competitive spirit that you would come to expect from professional athletes. Dick Enberg hosting was an inspired choice. Because a clip from a different sporting event prefaced every question, he got to tap into his talent as an announcer while also getting to pal around with some of the most famous athletes of all time on national television. Oh hey Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron, good to see you again! Can’t wait to ask you random questions about your storied careers! (300th win and 600th homerun, respectively.)
Unfortunately, what made Sports Challenge so great 30 years ago is precisely the reason most people don’t know how cool it was. Enberg bought the rights to the show and began to air reruns through ESPN, but due to the high costs associated with rights fees to all of the game clips, this was unsustainable. Both the NFL and Major League Baseball (continuing a long tradition of doing an incredible imitation of a wet blanket) filed complaints for the residual fees. Which is really a shame. Just going through YouTube clips, especially 30 years later, brings unending satisfaction to any sports fan. I’m entirely convinced ESPN should work these fees into current contracts with sports leagues and air repeats of Sports Challenge either online (Grantland channel?) or on ESPN Classic (basically a match made in heaven).
Even better, we could totally pull this off today. You’re telling me someone can convince athletes to appear on Dancing with the Stars but couldn’t get them to give up a couple hours of their lives to show off how much they know about their own sport. It would be awesome. Throw Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on there against London Fletcher, RG3 and Roy Helu. Proceed to print money. Even better, get stars from the 90’s to come back and battle it out against old rivals. We all know Dennis Rodman isn’t doing anything super productive at the moment. Overall, more game shows should be like this one was. No ridiculous stakes, easy to win, fun and games between competitive but endearing sides, and enough hilarious clips for anyone to successfully procrastinate for hours on end. Please entertainment world, give us more of this.