Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame Inductee Profile: Don Ohlmeyer

By Carolyn Braff

The brilliant creative force that is Don Ohlmeyer devoted his sports-broadcasting career to elevating the story above the event. Spreading his talents across multiple sports, networks, and genres, Ohlmeyer took chances with personnel, production choices, and technology implementation, constantly pushing for new ways to better tell the story.

Ohlmeyer’s own broadcasting story would begin with a close-up on his thumb. Hitchhiking his way from his dorm on the Notre Dame campus to the closest ABC Sports production, he spent his college Saturdays working as a gopher alongside anyone who would have him. One person who did was ABC Sports President Roone Arledge.

“From the first day I went to work at ABC Sports, it was like giving heroin to an addict,” Ohlmeyer says. “I couldn’t get enough of it. I just absolutely loved it; I couldn’t wait to go to work. I was mesmerized by how shows were put together.”

In the early 1960s, ABC had no rights to any big-ticket championship games, so the underdog of sports broadcasting was forced to turn second-tier events profiled on
Wide World of Sports into first-class shows. No one took that task more seriously than Ohlmeyer.

“What was important in those days was how good the show was, not what the event was,” he says. “We took these events that nobody had ever heard of and got people to care about them. It was a great lesson to learn about storytelling.”

Ohlmeyer began telling those stories to a more mainstream audience as producer of
Monday Night Football in the mid 1970s. Urging his crew to utilize technology to help tell the story, he introduced in-game updates, paving the visual path of the modern football telecast.

“We had to continually come up with better ideas with the technology and be able to tell a story with that technology,” explains Ken Aagaard, EVP of operations and production services for CBS Sports. “He was always ahead of the curve. Don maybe moved the meter in sports production higher and faster than anyone in the history of the business.”

Says Howard Katz, former president of ABC Sports, “He is one of these larger-than-life characters who has a vision, can describe the vision, get people to buy into the vision, and then execute the vision.”

Ohlmeyer’s visionary goal has always been to touch his audience, to make them feel something. Those feelings ranged from the pain of the 1972 Munich massacre, as told through his documentary
Triumph and Tragedy…The Olympic Experience, to the ironic hilarity of comedian Dennis Miller, whom Ohlmeyer added to the
Monday Night Football broadcast booth in 2000. Lured out of retirement by Katz, the consummate risk-taker returned to his roots to produce Monday Night Football for one final season.

“I thought Don was the one producer that I could turn to that could transform the show into something magic and get people talking about
Monday Night Football again,” Katz says. “Don was unique in his ability to bring not just sports knowledge but true showmanship to a primetime program and make it something out of the ordinary.”

In his second stint with the show, Ohlmeyer dramatically changed its visual and graphic look, added a healthy dose of his trademark controversy, and put the template in place to return the show to its glamour days.

In the two decades between his
Monday Night Football stints, Ohlmeyer spread his talents across the sports and entertainment world. He produced and directed three Olympic Games, served as executive producer of NBC’s sports division, formed his own production company, and returned to NBC as president of its West Coast division, where he brought the network back to primetime dominance with “Must-See TV.”

Still, “I never really left sports,” Ohlmeyer says. “Even when I went to NBC as president of West Coast, I made part of my contract that I could still direct the Indy 500.”

Sports continues to infuse Ohlmeyer’s life, as well as his curriculum at Pepperdine University, where he is an adjunct professor.

“One of the classes that I teach is directing, and the section that we do on sports, I always end up spending more time on than I probably should, because I’ll start going on something and I just can’t stop,” he says.

Having found a way to give back to a business that gave so much to him, Ohlmeyer now spends his days helping a new generation of television professionals touch their audiences, the way he did so brilliantly for 35 years.