Mickey Wittman, Father of Aerial Sports Broadcasting and Hall of Famer, Dead at 74
Industry legend who helped make TV coverage from blimps a standard for big-time sports, died on June 4
Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and father of aerial sports broadcasting Michael “Mickey” Alexander Wittman died on June 4, at the age of 74 at the Hanson Hospice Center in Stevensville, MI. During his career with Goodyear, he directed the blimp in covering more than 2,500 sports events, including six Olympics, 30 World Series, 26 Super Bowls, and countless college football games.
Ken Aagaard, former EVP, innovation and technology, CBS Sports, says that Wittman made the camera on a blimp a staple of how we cover sports.
“He became part of the team at every network, but he was so much more than that,” says Aagaard. “His forever optimistic personality and passion for whatever he did made him special. Watching him as a contestant on Jeopardy! is a fond memory for many of us, and his well-deserved induction into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame was a highlight for all of us who knew and worked with him. Mickey was special and will be remembered fondly by all that crossed his path.”
Wittman (click here to read his Hall of Fame profile and watch his tribute and induction video) may not have been the first person to put a camera in a blimp (that was fellow Hall of Famer Frank Chirkinian), but he is the man most responsible for transforming it from a gimmick to a mainstay, both as a production element and as a commercial element.
Like many Hall of Fame careers, Wittman’s began with a bit of serendipity. “While going to graduate school at Akron University, I was a freelance writer, and I ran into someone whose father flew a blimp for Howard Hughes,” he recalled for his Hall of Fame profile. “I wrote a story on it that got me interested in blimps, and I read every book there was. Goodyear, based in Akron, had a blimp program and, quite coincidentally, was building a new blimp. I wanted to work with it in any capacity, and, during the interview, they were amazed at how much I knew about blimps.”
While working for Goodyear, Wittman was transferred to New York in 1968, beginning the most crucial learning phase of his career: working in Rockefeller Plaza and getting a degree in TV broadcasting from the New School.
The trick to maturing the blimp market, he said, was having three blimps and three crews, each comprising a camera operator, a video technician, and a microwave operator.
Wittman shared his success with many of the people who, over the years, have made a difference in the aerial business. One of those is Winged Vision founder Bob Mikkelson, who worked with him as a camera operator.
“Without Mickey, there would not have been a Winged Vision,” says Mikkelson. “He was always looking for better technology to improve aerial coverage and was very supportive of my work.”
Mikkelson credits Wittman with creating the sponsorship model that is used not only for aerial coverage but for other technologies as well: “It made possible a host of innovations financially viable for small companies and networks alike.”
Wittman said of Mikkelson, “Bob is a great cameraman; following a golf ball or a home run is not an easy thing to do. I also give [director] Craig Janoff credit,” he added. “Craig was fascinated by the angles and things we could do, and, at MNF, he put an emphasis on the blimp.”
Janoff, alongside producer Curt Gowdy Jr., transformed horse-racing coverage with the blimp. “Once we got the gyrocam, we did the Triple Crown, and, with the blimp, we could follow the whole field,” Wittman said. “And now the first replay after the race is always the shot from the blimp.”
Janoff and Wittman were also present for an earthshaking event: the 1989 World Series in San Francisco, which put producer Gowdy, director Janoff, and announcer Al Michaels at the center of the nation’s understanding of the earthquake.
“We were the only people flying and saved a number of lives and identified bridges that were damaged,” said Wittman, who was in the production truck with Michaels. “Al knew the San Francisco area after working for the Giants. What we did was a great service, as those were the days before news helicopters.”
On the return flight from San Francisco, Wittman met Susan Contreras, a Delta Air Lines flight attendant. Upon arriving in New York, he called his mother and said, “I just met someone, and I think she’s going to change my life.” The two married on Oct. 12, 1990, in St. Joseph, MO, and started a family in Akron.
Wittman eventually left Goodyear to work for other companies, among them Richard Branson’s Lightship Group, which had 19 blimps.
In recent years, he had become particularly passionate about bike riding. Forgoing a car just because he could, Wittman donned neon and rode his fat-tire bike all over the area. When he wasn’t pedaling, he enjoyed reading, cheering for the Yankees, and eating Chinese food.
Wittman is survived by his wife of 28 years, Susan (Contreras); their two daughters, Alex and Colby; and his daughter, Paige, with first wife, Shirley.
Fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and former ABC and ESPN production executive Geoff Mason says that Wittman cared about only one thing: having a good show.
“He did whatever he could to support the production,” says Mason. “He really cared, and he was proud of being an integral part of every show to which he was assigned. Our industry has lost an amazing pioneer who was also a wonderful pioneer.”
In accordance with his wishes, there will be no services. Cremation has taken place. To offer condolences and share “Mickey stories,” please visit purelycremations.org.
Wittman’s family asks that anyone wishing to pay tribute to his memory simply give his fellow bike riders adequate space on the road. For those wanting to take to two wheels themselves, he would want all riders to remember to dress in bright colors.