There was a long-running radio show on WGN in Chicago that started off with the title “Ben Bentley and the Sports Writers.’’ The televised version debuted in 1985 as “The Sports Writers on TV.’’
The conversations would take place in a dimly lit studio that appeared to be in a basement. Cigar smoke plumed across the table as the conversation took place.
Bentley, a well-known ring announcer in Chicago during boxing’s glory decades, was the moderator. Bill Gleason, Bill Jauss and Rick Telander were the regular panelists, with frequent appearances from Lester Munson and Joe Mooshil.
The show could be seen in the Twin Cities on cable TV. Dark Star was a man of growing legend in these parts. He saw “The Sports Writers” as brilliant in its simplicity, and also as a formula to grow his brand.
That’s right: brand.
It is my contention that in the mid-’80s, a decade before promoters, marketers and executives were attaching “brand’’ to individuals and companies that don’t actually make anything, Dark Star knew all about it.
Come to think of it, the Kardashians have Dark Star to thank for their fame. He was the founder of branding, turning one phone call to a radio show in 1985 with the scoop that Bud Grant was going to resign again into an unstoppable force on the Minnesota media scene.
A decade later, Dark Star went to Mike Max, 31 and still working part-time gigs in the Twin Cities sports media, and said: “We can have a show like ‘The Sports Writers.’ ’’
Midwest Sports Channel was the sports outlet on cable in Twin Cities. Kevin Cattoor ran the place.
“Dark and I had lunch with Cattoor at Dan Kelly’s and pitched the idea,’’ Max said. “Kevin was on board with having a local sports talk show. We left the meeting and Dark said to me, ‘You get Sid and I’ll get Reusse.’ ”
I’m not sure how the Max conversation went with Sid Hartman. I wasn’t a tough sell for Dark Star. Heck, I’d been to Tijuana to bet on jai alai and dine on taquitos at the counter with the Darkman, so I was in for anything.
“Dark and I were a good combination,’’ Max said. “I knew how to find a production staff, and Dark knew how to sell. He was what salespeople call ‘a closer.’ ”
One item Max and the Darkman didn’t fret was coming up with a catchy title for this enterprise.
It debuted on Friday, May 10, 1996, as “The Sports Show.’’ It will sign off for the last time this Sunday, still as “The Sports Show.’’
The show was once gone for four weeks. MSC became Fox Sports North, and then Max and Dark Star moved the show to Victory Sports One in the fall of 2003. The Twins’ attempt to create a cable network failed quickly, and “The Sports Show” was off the air in May 2004.
Ch. 29 had moved out of its studio on Broadway Avenue in the late ’90s. Max and Dark Star were able to rent studio time at Ch. 23, across Como Avenue from the State Fairgrounds. We’ve been there throughout the 2000s.
“After Victory failed, we thought it was over,’’ Max said. “But since we were already taping at Channel 23 and we knew everyone there, we decided to talk to them about buying time for the show, and they were great.’’
“The Sports Show” returned in June 2004, anchored on Sundays — first 10 p.m., then at 9:30 p.m. — on Ch. 23.
There’s still a cult of viewers out there, if the number of comments I’ve received over the past week while doing radio shows at the State Fair are a valid indication.
Why then is “The Sports Show” going away?
Economics, certainly, and also future schedules of the participants, but here’s the overriding reason:
“The Sports Show” has been living on borrowed time since Dark Star died on June 1, 2012.
Lou Nanne has been outstanding as the main replacement for the Darkman, and it’s always fun to see the latest shirt he’s found in his closet.
There remains creative tension, with Sid’s mysterious attempts to muffle the thoughts of semiregular La Velle Neal, with the bickering when Sid says to me, “You hate the Gophers,’’ but we’re missing the genuine tension that existed between Sid and Dark Star.
There were times of peace, but Dark Star always was challenging Sid’s standing as the sage of Minnesota sports, and sometimes the battle turned downright nasty — especially during breaks.
If only we had the outtakes, “The Sports Show” would live in infamy on YouTube. (As it is, I highly recommend going there to find “sports show spoof,’’ posted by some young men in 2007.)
“The Sports Writers on TV” in Chicago lasted from 1985 to 2000, and “The Sports Show” in the Twin Cities will have lasted from 1996 to 2016.
“Dark and I thought we’d get one, maybe two years when it started,’’ Max said. “Twenty years. Incredible.’’