Go ahead and raise your hand if you have a recollection of Sports Challenge. Raise it nice and high; we wouldn’t want to overlook anyone. Is that all? It appears that hardly anyone here has memories of Sports Challenge.
Well, that’s quite surprising. Perhaps some of you might be thinking of a different show or something else entirely.
Maybe you recognize it as the one that enjoyed an eight-year run on a major network? No? How about the show that was introduced by Dick Enberg, one of the most esteemed sportscasters of our era? Still no bells ringing?
It’s the game show that ESPN decided to air for a year back in the day when they were looking to diversify their programming. No recognition yet? I suppose I’ll need to reintroduce you to it, then.
The spring months are undeniably some of the finest, if not the absolute best, in the world of sports.
It’s as if the universe offers us a brief respite following the Super Bowl, allowing us to pause and prepare for the whirlwind of events ahead collectively: March Madness, The Masters, Wimbledon, the commencement of the baseball season with Opening Day, and the onset of the excitement that accompanies the NBA and NFL playoffs.
In the spirit of this splendid sports season, let’s delve into the realm of Sports Challenge, a long-standing game show that has faded into obscurity and largely slipped from our collective memory.
Frequently, regardless of how obscure a show may be, there’s usually someone out there who possesses a substantial amount of knowledge or enthusiasm for it, or there might be a resurgence of nostalgia leading to reruns over a year or two.
However, this particular show truly qualifies as a hidden gem, mainly because the costs associated with acquiring rights make it challenging for reruns to be a consistent choice for any network, including those primarily dedicated to broadcasting syndicated game shows like GSN.
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Many sports-related game shows typically revolve around the concept of Pros vs. Schmos, pushing both groups out of their comfort zones.
This could range from having regular individuals compete against professional athletes in typical sports to larger-scale events like the iconic Battle of the Network Stars, which essentially turned into pseudo-Olympics each time.
However, Sports Challenge, which enjoyed an eight-season run on CBS, transcended this common trope by centring its titular challenge around professional athletes discussing their fellow professionals.
The only way this could have been more tailored to their expertise would be if they had baseball players competing by hitting Nerf balls off a tee.
The entire production had the ambience of a genuine sporting event. It featured two teams of three pitting their sports knowledge against each other, with the victorious team earning funds for a pre-selected athletic charity or a group of their choosing.
What set this apart was that not only were the teams among the elite in their respective leagues, but the participants themselves were far from ordinary.
These weren’t just bench players making appearances on a game show for some extra publicity; most teams consisted of the era’s most beloved players and personalities.
For instance, in one episode, the Boston Celtics squared off against the Green Bay Packers. The Celtics’ lineup featured Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, and John Havlicek, while the Packers were represented by Willie Davis, Paul Hornung, and Jerry Kramer (Cousy and Sharman would also appear in another episode alongside Auerbach).
I can’t emphasize enough how incredible this show was. One of my favourite moments from the series was when they consistently referred to the Celtics as the “champs” because they were defending their game show title in that particular episode.
And who wouldn’t want to witness Bill Russell effortlessly tackle a niche question about the Kentucky Derby at a moment’s notice? I certainly would!
The selection of athletes on Sports Challenge was not the only aspect they went all-in on; they also took a bold approach with the questions. They didn’t make everything a cakewalk (although, let’s be honest, who wouldn’t know the DiMaggio streak question), and it’s possible that the challenge lies in the fact that these questions are no longer current events.
Nevertheless, some questions were downright tricky. For example, posing a question about the 500-HR Club and including Gherig as an option. He had 493 home runs, and he turned out to be the last choice they guessed! It was definitely not an easy task by any measure.
The overall atmosphere of the show was perfectly aligned with the proceedings—a delightful blend of lighthearted fun infused with just the right amount of competitive spirit, as one would anticipate from professional athletes.
Choosing Dick Enberg as the host proved to be an inspired decision. Since each question was preceded by a clip from a different sporting event, he could tap into his skills as an announcer while also enjoying some friendly banter with some of the most iconic athletes in history on national television.
It was a pleasure to see Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron once more, and it was exciting to pose random questions about their legendary careers, such as Spahn’s 300th win and Aaron’s 600th home run.
Regrettably, what made Sports Challenge so remarkable three decades ago is precisely why many people are unaware of its coolness today. Dick Enberg acquired the rights to the show and began broadcasting reruns on ESPN.
However, the steep expense of obtaining the rights for all the game clips rendered this unsustainable. Both the NFL and Major League Baseball, following their long-standing tradition of being less than enthusiastic, lodged complaints regarding the residual fees.
This is truly disheartening. Even when perusing YouTube clips, especially now, 30 years later, it brings boundless joy to any sports enthusiast.
I am completely convinced that ESPN should incorporate these fees into their current contracts with sports leagues and air reruns of Sports Challenge, either online (perhaps on the Grantland channel) or on ESPN Classic, which seems like a perfect match.
Even more enticingly, there’s every reason to believe we could successfully replicate this concept today.
Are you seriously suggesting that someone can persuade athletes to participate in shows like Dancing with the Stars but can’t entice them to spend a couple of hours showcasing their knowledge of their own sport?
It would be fantastic. Imagine Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan teaming up against London Fletcher, RG3, and Roy Helu. It would be a surefire way to generate significant interest.
Better yet, bring back stars from the 90s to compete against their old rivals. We all know Dennis Rodman isn’t currently occupied with anything overly productive.
In general, more game shows should follow the blueprint set by this one. No need for exorbitant stakes; make it accessible to win, emphasize fun and camaraderie between competitive yet endearing teams, and include enough amusing clips to allow everyone to procrastinate for hours on end effectively.
We implore the entertainment world to provide us with more of this.