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Mike Pearl, Innovative TV Sports Producer, Is Dead at 77

todayMarch 11, 2021 2

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Mike Pearl, a leading sports producer who shaped CBS’s “The NFL Today” into a must-see pregame show in the 1970s and gave the garrulous, opinionated former player Charles Barkley a forum on TNT’s N.B.A. studio show in the early 2000s, died on March 1 at his home in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. He was 77.

The cause was heart disease, said his brother, Bob, his only immediate survivor.

Mr. Pearl won 16 Sports Emmy Awards, including two for “The NFL Today.” He started at that show as a line producer in 1975, the first year of a successful overhaul that brought in a new cast consisting of Brent Musburger; Phyllis George, a former Miss America, who died in May 2020; and the former defensive back Irv Cross, who died last month.

A year later, Mr. Pearl became the show’s producer and hired the betting maven Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder as a commentator. Mr. Snyder predicted which teams would win, but he did not give point spreads, because the N.F.L. did not want to be linked to gambling. Before joining CBS, Mr. Pearl had been a writer for Mr. Snyder.

“It’s obvious that if a gambler wants the Greek’s spread, he can read it in the newspapers each week,” Mr. Pearl told The Palm Beach Post early in the 1976 season. “But we can’t use it on the show.”

Mr. Pearl managed the four stars’ egos and oversaw each Sunday’s multiple versions of pregame, halftime and postgame shows, which were scheduled based on the 1, 2 and 4 p.m. start times of the day’s games, and on how long each game lasted.

“His greatest role was coordinating everything,” Bob Fishman, who directed “The NFL Today,” said by phone. “We’d have a plan for one halftime show, but then another game would speed up and suddenly we’d have to switch gears and do halftime for a different audience.”

Mr. Pearl was unflappable, a welcome trait in a production truck, especially when things went wrong. Before the first live, wire-to-wire broadcast of the Daytona 500 in 1979, rain delayed the start of the race, and Mr. Pearl filled the time with pit reports and interviews. (Richard Petty eventually won the race.)

“Mike was thinking three steps ahead when confronted with weather or other delays,” Mr. Fishman said.

Mr. Pearl left CBS in 1980 for ABC Sports, where over the next eight years he was a producer of Super Bowls, the Indianapolis 500, “Wide World of Sports,” “Monday Night Football” and the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

After CBS acquired the rights to the 1992 and ’94 Winter Olympics, he returned to the network as the coordinating producer of both events. About seven weeks before the 1994 Winter Games opened in Lillehammer, Norway, CBS had a major story line: An associate of the figure skater Tonya Harding had struck her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, a gold medal favorite, with a baton to her right knee.

Ms. Kerrigan won the silver medal, and Ms. Harding finished in eighth place. The two nights of women’s figure skating produced spectacular ratings for CBS, leading the network to the highest-rated Olympics ever.

Recalling the second night of the women’s figure skating program, Mr. Pearl told The New York Times in 2002: “We knew we had a big night, and everyone was licking their lips. It started with Tonya breaking the lace of her boot, and from there, we just let it play.”

Wherever he worked, Mr. Pearl was known for wearing wrinkled shirts, rumpled pants and loafers without shoes, even in winter. “Phyllis George called me one day,” Hank Goldberg, a sports TV and radio personality and longtime friend of Mr. Pearl’s, said in an interview. “And she asked me, ‘Can you get me Mike’s pants size? I can’t look at those khakis another day.’”

Michael Evans Pearl was born on July 8, 1943, in Trenton, N.J. His father, Hy, was a pharmacist who later bought the Muzak franchise for South Florida. His mother, Theresa (Zamkin) Pearl, was a homemaker.

A sports fan from a young age, Mike persuaded the prep school he attended in Princeton to build a small press box at the football field so that he could more easily watch games and report the scores to The Times of Trenton.

He studied radio, television and film at the University of Miami but dropped out in the mid-1960s during his senior year for an internship at the local television station WTVJ, where he would become an on-air sports reporter and a producer. After several years at the station, he went to work for Mr. Snyder. He joined CBS Sports as an N.B.A. editor. in 1975.

After his second stint at CBS ended in 1995, Mr. Pearl moved to Turner Sports, where he oversaw production at TNT and TBS. As the executive producer, he initiated the first on-screen crawl of fantasy football statistics during TNT’s Sunday night N.F.L. game broadcasts; hired a still-active player, the quarterback Warren Moon, as a studio analyst, a rarity at the time; and produced TNT’s afternoon coverage of the 1998 Winter Olympics from Nagano, Japan.

But his most enduring contribution at TNT was how he dealt with the opinionated Mr. Barkley, who joined the host Ernie Johnson Jr. and the analyst Kenny Smith on “Inside the NBA” after his Hall of Fame playing career ended in 2000. Mr. Barkley fit easily into the cast and added frissons of humor and controversy with his views on players, politics and race.

“He let me be me,” Mr. Barkley said by phone. “But when you’re me, you’re always on a tightrope. He didn’t try to rein me in, but when I got into trouble, he’d say, ‘Let’s talk about this.’ He was like my grandfather. I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

Mr. Pearl returned to ABC Sports in 2003 as executive producer and remained there for two years until ESPN took over its operations in 2005. Until his retirement in 2012, he worked on various projects for ESPN, including its unsuccessful bid for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics.

“Mike’s view,” Harvey Schiller, the former president of Turner Sports said, “was to keep doing something unique in the way that fans looked at a sports event.”

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