For McKay, marathon resembles Olympics

Phil Jackman

November 02, 1990|By Phil Jackman

The TV repairman:

JIM MCKAY calls it his "one-day return to the Olympics." While the veteran ABC sportscaster is content with his reduced schedule of horse racing and the big golf tournaments, he's like one of Pavlov's dogs when the New York City Marathon bell rings.

"Aside from the Olympics, the marathon is the most difficult thing we do, technically. It's a grind," he says. "But being at the center of it all is so much fun." So invigorating, in fact, McKay says the three-hour telecast Sunday (10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) "ends up seeming like 10 minutes."

The network's preparation begins Friday morning and continues nearly non-stop until race time with production meetings, pre-taping and just plain bull sessions. Then, invariably, helicopters are grounded, cameras go out on the motorcycles following the leaders or audio problems arise and McKay gets the often-heard instruction in his earphone, "Keep talking, Jim."

It's the uncertainty of it all -- plus the enormity of conducting a race over five bridges and through 360 intersections along the streets of five boroughs of the world's biggest madhouse -- that makes the show, undoubtedly.

McKay won't admit it, of course, but he derives great enjoyment penning the words he will use over the usually awesome pictures starting the broadcast. His writing, incidentally, has earned him an Emmy.

ABC has been doing the marathon since 1981 and it appears a monumental task considering the ratings derived, about a 3.0. But, as race director Fred Lebow points out, "This is a rating for a Sunday morning, which compares favorably with the Breeders' Cup and a lot of the golf and, besides, the network is very happy the race is carried all over the world."

Lebow, the father of the race, probably will be featured in a segment of the show. He's in a battle with brain cancer (in remission). The race is dedicated to Lebow and, for the first time, will have a charitable benefactor, the Stop Cancer Campaign.

"I've always been reluctant to make the race a fund-raiser," says Fred, "but having seen what cancer does to people firsthand, I have no qualms. We're hopeful of raising several million dollars through [runner] sponsorships and call-in donations."

There from the beginning, when 127 runners lined up for four romps around Central Park in 1970, Lebow cites the first race as the one that sticks most firmly in his mind. "Then it's Alberto Salazar coming to town in 1981 saying he was going to run a world record, and doing it. And 1983 when Rod Dixon caught up to Geoff Smith very late and finally passed him within sight of the finish line in the park."

How great a day is marathon day in the Big Apple? "It's the one day in the year the muggers take off," Lebow says.

* CBS has the Georgia Tech-Virginia battle for the ACC title and a whole lot more tomorrow (2 p.m.). Say the Cavaliers whip Tech, finish unbeaten and a national championship game is set up against Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl. It might get lost in the shuffle going Jan. 1, so the bowl people have to talk the NCAA into letting them play Jan. 2 (no sweat), then get ABC to agree to the switch (sweat).

* In keeping with the pro sports' time-honored habit of rewarding ineptitude (with top draft choices), the NFL is going to give the odd Super Bowl in its current TV contract to the network with the worst ratings. Which, in all likelihood, means more Dan Dierdorf, gang.

* A letter writer relates a fine game plan for those "Monday Night Football" games that go flying by the midnight hour: He watches the first half, tapes the second and the next morning puts it on fast forward, watching it in about 10 minutes time.

* They're estimating about an 8 percent pay-per-view buy rate for the Buster Douglas-Evander Holyfield fight last week. That's about 1.2 million homes, a yield of about $42 million, so it appears as if big-time PPV has landed.

Meanwhile, Showtime will carry a replay of the fight, such as it is, tonight at 10 p.m. after running an overview program a couple of times this week, as though folks weren't aware the bout was a rout.

* The latest insult to money arranged by a network involves ABC and eight tennis players -- including Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe -- playing round-robin tie-breakers for $500,000 in prize money. It will run from 4 to 6 p.m. Nov. 11 in case you want to arrange to be out.

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