Legendary Sports Producer Mike Pearl Passes Away at 77
Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Mike Pearl who worked at five networks and won 17 Sports Emmy awards has passed away at the age of 77. Highlights of his career include producing the first four years the NFL Today, the first five years of Inside the NBA, the first live wire-to-wire coverage of a Daytona 500, and working on five Olympic games.
In building some of the most iconic sports-television franchises ever and producing many of the most memorable sports telecasts of all time, Pearl helped redefine how fans watch sports on TV. Whether as an executive in the boardroom or a producer in the control room, he has maintained a flair for innovation, a knack for finding great on-air talent, and, most important, an unwavering sense of loyalty to his peers.
“Mike’s philosophy about life is all about personal relationships and friends,” said the late former NBA Commissioner David Stern. “If you’re a friend of Mike’s, you’re a friend for life, and there’s nothing that he wouldn’t do for a friend.”
Having studied mass communications/media studies at University of Miami, Pearl broke into the television business as a reporter at WTVJ Miami in 1968.
Soon after landing a job at CBS Sports in 1975, Pearl made his first big splash in the industry when he revamped the format of The NFL Today and added on-air talent Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, Phyllis George, and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. The pregame show, which Pearl produced for four years, proved a massive hit for CBS, beginning an 18-year run as the highest-rated program in its timeslot (until the network lost its NFL rights in 1994) and paving the way for countless studio shows to follow.
Ed Goren, who worked with Pearl at CBS as senior producer, says that Pearl, along with CBS Sports Executive Producer Bob Wussler and Director Bob Fishman created a pre-game show that decades later still holds up. “With Mikes leadership Brent, Irv, Phyllis, and Jimmy The Greek became stars and that’s not easy in a 30-minute show,” says Goren. “From “The NFL Today” to the NBA on TNT Mike was loved by, and trusted by, his stars.”
In his Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame profile Pearl said he has always believed that, with the right mix of [on-air] talent, anything is possible. “When you find personalities that have great chemistry and complement each other, the rest is a walk in the park,” he said. “That was truly the case with [The NFL Today]. With personalities like that, you couldn’t lose.”
Fishman says Pearl was his first TV partner as they were two young guys matched up by Wussler.
“We were best friends, brothers and he was a brilliant producer who always strove for perfection, yet in a very quiet way,” Fishman recalls. “I remember many instances when iIwould turn to him and ask, “Where are we going next?” He would stay silent for a while, always thinking about the next show element. He was a master at changing the format with just enough time to spare.”
Fishman says Pearl’s greatest strength was judging talent.
“He did that wherever he worked, from WTVJ in Miami to CBS, to ABC, Turner and back to ABC,” he says.
In addition to his prowess in the studio, Pearl proved himself as a producer in the truck, working the front bench for CBS broadcasts of Super Bowl X, XII, and XIV, as well as the first live wire-to-wire coverage of the Daytona 500 in 1979.
“That was a very challenging show because two young guys were trusted to deliver the first ever “live” flag to flag coverage of the race that had only been produced previously on an edited tape delay by ABC,” says Fishman. “Mike was at his best that day, delivering what turned out to be one of the most epic sports events in history. He was truly one of the best, and will forever be remembered by all of us who were part of his life, in and out of the TV truck.”
At the Alphabet Net
In 1980, Pearl took his producing talents to ABC, where he would spend eight years and produce a string of high-profile events, including Super Bowl XIX and XXII, Monday Night Football, the Indianapolis 500 (three times), the New York City Marathon, and ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Pearl also saw his first action at the Olympics — an event that would help to define his career throughout the ’80s and ’90s — serving as producer at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. In 1987, while at ABC, Pearl took home horseracing’s highest honor, the Eclipse Award, for producing the all three legs of the Triple Crown.
In 1988, Pearl returned to his roots at the Tiffany Network, serving as coordinating producer of CBS Sports’ coverage of the 1992 Albertville and 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics (still the highest-rated Olympics ever).
“I always believe in looking for the next challenge; I could never handle being stagnant,” said Pearl. “If it was something that was unknown and seemed like something that wasn’t necessarily in my comfort zone, then that’s where I wanted to be. That [philosophy] guided a lot of the decisions I ended up making in my career.”
Following the 1994 Games, Pearl was ready for that next challenge when Turner Sports President (and childhood friend) Harvey Schiller came calling with an opportunity to revamp the Turner Sports’ production operation.
“I knew from my own background in sports that we really needed to do something different,” recalls Schiller. “At the time, we were the single cable carrier of the NBA, and the expectation from Commissioner Stern when I got on board was, ‘We got to do something that’s different.’ I knew of Mike’s performance before, and it was clear that he was the guy that could hire the right people and get the job done.”
Introducing Charles Barkley
As SVP/executive producer at Turner Sports, Pearl oversaw all production of NFL, Atlanta Braves baseball, NASCAR, figure skating, golf, Wimbledon, and college football, as well as Turner’s cable coverage of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. However, his crowning achievement at the network was his revamp of NBA on TNT: his keen eye for talent and unique programming would result in a nine-time-Emmy-winning studio show and create one of sports television’s most incendiary and popular stars: Inside the NBA and Charles Barkley.
“When I grew up in this business, there was a differentiation between a terrestrial over-the-air production and a cable production, but, thanks to Executive Producer Mike Pearl, that distinction was smashed once and for all after his job on the NBA on Turner. That’s just a fact,” said Stern. “He put together a spectacular production and terrific on-air talent, and he had the audacity to hire Charles Barkley, so we owe a deep debt of gratitude to Mike Pearl.”
Turner Sports released a statement on the passing of Pearl earlier today: “Mike was a pioneer in the sports broadcasting industry whose vision and influence impacted countless live productions throughout his storied career. We’re forever thankful for his many contributions to Turner Sports and our deepest condolences are with his family, friends and loved ones.”
Schiller adds: “A lot of people in TV feel that the studio shows can waste money, but our studio show was so different because it was a gathering place and a way to capture everything that was happening in the NBA. There were times we had a higher rating on our show than we got for a game or anyone else got for a game. That’s pretty dramatic and very unusual in broadcast that a studio show gets a higher rating than a game. That tells you something.”
In 2003, just as ESPN President George Bodenheimer began overseeing Disney sibling ABC Sports, Pearl returned to the “House that Roone Built” as SVP/executive producer. During his years at ABC, he oversaw production of Monday Night Football (as well as Super Bowl XL), the BCS National Championship, the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the Open Championship, the Indianapolis 500, and the World Figure Skating Championships. He also continued to work his magic behind the mic, introducing the three-man ABC Golf booth of Mike Tirico, Nick Faldo, and Paul Azinger as well as anointing Al Michaels and Doc Rivers as the network’s top NBA announce team.
“Mike played a significant role at ABC Sports, thanks to his vast experience, knowledge of the industry, and keen skill,” says Bodenheimer. “In addition, he is a consummate team player, always putting the needs of the organization first. He was instrumental to our operation, and I highly value our time working together.”
Following the merger of ESPN and ABC Sports operations in 2005, Pearl continued to oversee special projects for ESPN and Disney, including a bid for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics. In recent years Pearl was semi-retired and operated a consulting firm Michael Pearl Productions.
“I don’t believe that there’s a single sport that we have in America or around the world that wouldn’t want to take advantage of his expertise,” said Schiller. “He’s extremely honest. I never heard him say a bad word about someone away from the person. That’s something very unusual in the broadcast business.”
Pearl is survived by his brother Bob, sister-in-law Nancy, two nieces Lisa Pearl and Amy Saphier, Amy’s Husband Greg Saphier and their three boys: Hayden Saphier, Ethan Saphier and Justin Saphier.