Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2020-21: Tom Sahara, a Key Force in Operations
In a ceremony postponed by the pandemic, the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame Class of 2020 will be inducted on Dec. 14 at the New York Hilton. SVG is profiling the nine inductees in the weeks prior. For more information, CLICK HERE.
Like many an engineer, former Turner Sports VP, Operations and Technology, Tom Sahara had an inkling at a young age that he had a knack for engineering and broadcast technology.
“One year, I got a transistor radio and I ended up taking it apart,” he recalls. “My mom said I always took everything apart and then, one day, I started putting everything back together. I guess I was always a tinkerer.”
Tinkering would eventually lead to a 20-plus–year career at Turner Sports and a role as a key force in the broadcaster’s becoming a top-notch sports powerhouse. And Sahara’s efforts at Turner Sports — particularly around developments related to HDTV, the move to digital, and next-generation audio — made him a leader on a global scale.
“When I was a teenager,” he says, “I was exposed to electronics through a teacher who happened to be the advisor of the electronics club. I was curious about electronics because these radios and TVs just magically pull something out of the air. That intrigued me.”
He began reading anything he could get his hands on about electronics, and an electronics class in high school helped him realize he had a talent for fixing gadgets. Money from delivering newspapers and fixing TVs funded his habit for Heath Kits, which allowed him to build his own electronics.
Sahara grew up in Hawaii, and his interest in a career in television was inspired when, shortly after graduating from high school, he watched news coverage of, of all things, a strike by local TV-station workers.
“It was all over the news,” he says. “It’s the first time I ever thought you can actually work in a TV station. That got my curiosity going and me seriously thinking about electronics as a career.”
His first professional break was working on live-music technical support for an AV electronics company servicing restaurants, night clubs, and cabarets. It wasn’t long until he made the leap, at age 21, to Don Ho’s live show.
“Don Ho gave me the exposure to the exciting careers around the entertainment world,” says Sahara. “It was fun, and, in every night’s performance, you had to give 110%. Television is much the same.”
Soon, though, he realized that the entertainment business can be difficult. Was there something more stable?
“That’s when that interest in TV came back,” he says. “I got my FCC license and went around to some of the TV stations and had an interview with the chief engineer [at KITV Honolulu]. He said, ‘There are at least three or four people every day coming in saying I want to work here. Why should I consider you?’ And I said, ‘Well, I have one of these,’ and pulled out my FCC license. He told me to start that weekend.”
That FCC license put Sahara in charge of signing the station’s transmitter logs, and he also handled master control on the weekends.
“From there,” he recalls, “I just advanced into maintenance and learning all the systems. It was a lot of fun, and, in between commercials, I would take out all these manuals and start reading about the gear.”
Sahara credits a thirst for knowledge and willingness to leap at new opportunities as key to his development.
“What really drove me was always wanting to know about what’s going on and how something works,” he says. “At the TV station, there would be a sign-up sheet to work on remote productions like festivals and parades, and I would be standing right there with a pen in hand to be the first one to sign up. That’s the way I approached everything: if an opportunity came up, I would raise my hand, say yes, and jump in.”
The leap to sports began with ABC’s coverage of surfing events, such as the Pipeline Masters Surfing Championship. With FCC license in hand, Sahara would set up the microwave dish that would send the signal to the station.
“Sports appealed to me because it was excitement on a regular basis,” he says. “It was fun. I got to the point where I felt there was more to a career than being in a local station, so I started freelancing.”
One of the early opportunities was on the golf events in Hawaii. NEP would provide technical facilities and support, and it was not long before Sahara met NEP stalwarts and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famers George Wensel, John Roché, and Tom Shelburne on a production.
“They started bringing me out on bigger and bigger shows,” Sahara says. “Before you know it, I was doing shows like the 1994 World Cup in Dallas. I met people from the Olympics, who asked me to join them for the Atlanta Olympics, and that’s how I ended up in Atlanta.”
That 1996 Olympics gig (he would also work on the 2000 and 2002 Games) gave him a chance to feel part of something really big.
“The Olympics are the best of the best,” he explains. “It’s not just the best of the athletes; it’s the best of the broadcasters as well. It’s an amazing experience to have this common thread with broadcasters from all across the world, all coming together.
“We’re not really competing against each other,” he continues. “We’re forming a team to present the best show in the world. That’s an amazing experience to have. It’s a lot of hard work, but, at the end of the day, you’ve accomplished something that took the entire world to come together.”
Arriving at Turner in 1997, Sahara served as manager of studio engineering for Turner Studios, responsible for technical operations for all live studio productions.
“When I got there,” he recalls, “it was basically a ‘big’ little cable company. With Executive Producer Mike Pearl and director Lenny Daniels, we started looking at how we [could] get this cable company up to being a broadcast network. Mike and Lenny set the tone of how things should be. And Lenny, being a very collaborative guy, would sit with me, and we would talk about his vision and then figure out how to get it done.”
The desire for collaboration spread to Sahara’s own team, which laid out a vision and came up with lists on how to get things done.
“We’d go through the list and identify what the biggest challenges were and work on that,” he explains. “We just took it step by step. Once you worked on the big challenges, everything else seemed easy.”
The growth of a network is always tied in with rights, and Turner Sports’ growth spurt began when it took over the weekday rights to Wimbledon from HBO. Getting those rights gave Turner Sports a chance to show it could pull off really big things.
“By that point,” says Sahara, “I had already gone through the Olympics and understood big events and how to put together world feeds and all of that. I also had a good working relationship with the Visions team in England. We basically built the facilities up and brought our production team over, and that was our team’s big exposure in the world of international sports.
“Wimbledon really changed the course of Turner Sports,” he continues. “It served as a model for everything that happened after that. It also opened the door for Turner to take over the Goodwill Games.”
Sahara’s management philosophy is simple. First, take things one step at a time to avoid being overwhelmed, especially on a big project. Second, make sure you have the right team; they know what needs to be done.
“My staff,” he explains, “would come in saying ‘I have a problem with so and so.’ I would look at them and say, ‘Okay you’re responsible for them. Is the issue that you don’t trust them, or did you not actually tell them what you wanted and what you needed?’ At the end of the day, if you hire someone, you have to trust them to do their job and make sure they understand what you want.”
In his 20 years at Turner Sports, Sahara rose to the role of VP, operations and technology, and made sure technical operations made all the right moves to support NBA All-Star, March Madness, Major League Baseball, NASCAR, golf, and other productions. Toss in the transition to HD, some 3D production, and embracing digital production and new ways of working, and someone who always loved learning something new always had something new to learn.
“In every sports-media division,” says former Turner Sports President David Levy, “there are individuals behind the scenes who are the true hidden treasures, responsible for helping drive groundbreaking innovation and production. For more than 21 years at Turner Sports, that was Tom Sahara. He developed a well-earned reputation as a forward-thinking executive, and his vision and technical prowess helped transform Turner Sports’ remote and studio productions. Not only is Tom the consummate professional, who served as a mentor to many of his Turner Sports colleagues, but his warm and friendly personality sets him apart.”
Chris Brown, Turner Sports, VP, Sports Production Tech, says it is hard to think about Turner Sports and not put Tom Sahara in the conversation.
“Although he was generally very quiet, his presence was quite prominent, and that not only permeated throughout the Turner Sports family, but also the industry,” he says. “Not only was he good at his job, but he was also an amazing person and that was often times more important than the tech that was rattling around in his mind. That personability is one of the many legacies that he has left us with at Turner Sports.”
On events like the NBA All-Star Game, which eventually grew into a full weekend of activities, Sahara’s efforts were appreciated at the highest league level.
Says NBA EVP, Media Operations and Technology, Steve Hellmuth, “Tom Sahara was a steady hand on the wheel of innovation for the NBA, always careful to hear any idea or concept out, and ready to apply expertise and engineering to make it work. In the area of audio, he was in the lead always, improving sounds from courtside year to year.”
The team at CBS Sports, which worked closely with Sahara and the Turner team on March Madness and other events, is an example of the kind of outside organization that was impacted by Sahara. Patty Power, CBS Sports, EVP, Operations and Engineering, says Sahara was a terrific partner on the event.
” Tom is a big reason for our initial success and why the partnership continues to be so strong today,” she says. “Tom’s leadership, creativity and collaboration helped our teams seamlessly blend into one operation across four networks, two studios and a multitude of remote sites each year. Turner Sports and CBS Sports developed one of the most unique relationships in sports television, and that doesn’t happen without Tom’s expertise, support and most importantly, his friendship.”
Sahara also served as SVG Chairman from 2013-2018, helping oversee the organizations expansion and growth both domestically and internationally. His vision helped the organization tackle a wider variety of technical areas and his desire to always look to the future always kept the organization moving forward and in the right direction.
Today, Sahara is a consultant, and, once again, learning is important, with things like augmented reality on his current to-do list.
“I didn’t have a plan for each step,” he says regarding his career development. “It was always a serendipitous meeting of people saying, ‘I’m looking for someone,’ and I would be there, or I would be referred. It was all by chance and luck, and I just happened to have the skills they were looking for. It has been a fantastic ride.”