Legends & Groundbreakers: Barry Frank

As a young man, Barry Frank wanted to be an actor. In 1953, he read three times for the lead in the Broadway play, “Tea and Sympathy,” but director Elia Kazan didn’t give him the part. That told him something.

“I felt like, ‘Jesus, there’s no hope for me,’ ” Frank remembers. “I was too short, not good-looking enough to be a leading man. I’d have to be a character actor all my life.”

He was wrong. He did become a leading man, just not the way he originally planned. In the six decades since that fateful rejection, Frank has transformed the sports-media business, brokering mega rights deals and creating durable franchises such as “The World’s Strongest Man” competition, which gets under way this week at Commerce Casino.

Without Frank, John Madden might have gone from coaching the Raiders to greeting customers at his wife’s bar in Oakland. Sports-rights deals might have continued inching along modestly rather than leaping forward with Calgary’s pact for the 1988 Winter Games; that seismic rights deal was almost four times greater than any previous Winter Olympics. And a long line of made-for-TV sports competitions might never have seen the light of day.

Frank found his second calling after attending Harvard Business School. He worked at CBS, ABC and J. Walter Thompson ad agency on his way to becoming executive VP of sports programming for IMG. Early on, he recognized the drama of sports, and the power that television had in delivering that magic.

Frank credits the late Roone Arledge, “my mentor and guru,” with teaching him that people will choose sides, regardless of the sport. “You want to know what happened and who won,” he says.

Frank certainly won when he negotiated the TV rights for the 1988 Winter Olympics. He persuaded the organizing committee to let IMG handle network negotiations. Instead of negotiating overall price first, as was typically done, he drew up a contract that designated what specific rights the networks would receive and had ABC, NBC and CBS sign it. Then he negotiated the price.

The result? After a bidding war, the rights went to ABC for $309 million; the previous high for a Winter Games had been the $91.5 million ABC paid for the Sarajevo Games in 1984.

“That was pretty amazing,” says Frank, who considers the deal the highlight of his career. “Every time I see a new figure come out, I say it all started in 1983 in a room at the Palace Hotel in Lucerne.”

The legendary dealmaker has also guided the careers of sportscasters Bob Costas, Jim Nantz and Greg Gumbel over the years, counseling Madden that taking a year off after coaching would be death to his media profile. After mulling that prospect over a weekend, Madden changed his mind and asked Frank to get him a tryout as a network NFL analyst. That led to Madden’s lucrative career as a broadcaster, pitchman and videogame colossus.

Frank started producing made-for-TV sports franchises after seeing the potential for alternate programming as a network sports exec.

“In about 1967 or ’68, Dick Button came to me — I was at ABC at the time — and he had a copy of Life magazine,” Frank recalls. “The centerfold was ballet dancer Edward Villella doing splits with his feet touching his hands in a spread eagle. The caption was, ‘Is this America’s best athlete?’ I thought that was a great idea for a show. That became ‘Superstars.’ ”

Beyond that and “The World’s Strongest Man,” Frank has produced “Battle of the Network Stars,” “American Gladiators” and the “Skins Game.”

He also hopes to revive “Survival of the Fittest,” and already has a sponsor lined up. “We are currently shopping it to all the networks to see where it ends up,” he says. “Having a sponsor to basically pay for it assures that we’ll get it on somewhere.”

The reality TV bin is stuffed with offerings, yet Frank feels there’s still plenty of opportunity. “People like to see other people do outlandish things,” he says.

His one regret: He never become a sports owner. Had he foreseen how rights fees would go, “I would’ve tried to buy whatever I could afford,” Frank says. “Owning a football team now is a different matter than it was in the ’80s.”

Frank never became an actor but he has created plenty of drama on the TV screen and at the bargaining table. At 80, he remains bullish on his adopted field: “I think the American public’s appetite for sports is insatiable.”

HIGHLIGHTS

Barry Frank has negotiated many major sports deals and created a series of memorable sports TV franchises in the course of his long career. We asked him to take a break from making deals to name his proudest accomplishments.

  • “Probably the $309 million for the Calgary Games, coming up with what was nearly four times the previous best bid,” Frank told Variety. “That was pretty amazing. It got a headline on the front page of the Wall Street Journal the next day, which unfortunately said that Frank would receive $2 million for his efforts. Somebody received $2 million, but it wasn’t me.

  • “Second I would guess creating the Tiger Woods primetime show, which was played under lights. That was something they said would never be done, that would never happen, and it did happen. I take a lot of pride in that one. The last three holes were under the lights. By the time we got to 11 o’clock at night and we lit up the course, it was incredible to see those holes. Quite unusual. I love to do things people say can’t be done.

  • “The third was probably ‘American Gladiators.’ We actually didn’t create ‘American Gladiators.’ That was created before me. But somebody created the pilot and it was a disaster, but it had already been sold into syndication. They had a tape they couldn’t use. I fixed it and it became a big success. I take a lot of pride in that.”

Legends & Groundbreakers: Barry Frank
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