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Arts & Culture

The Book 'Glory Days' Describes The 90 Days In 1984 That Shaped How We Watch Sports

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, we're going to jump in the wayback machine and visit another Olympic summer, the summer of 1984, with sports writer Jon Wertheim. The Los Angeles games highlighted the talents of athletes like track star Carl Lewis and gymnastics phenom Mary Lou Retton. The success of the games helped jumpstart a sagging Olympic movement, and other things happened that summer that shaped sports today.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For one, a Supreme Court decision that changed how we watch college sports. And a young Michael Jordan joined the NBA. His agent decided his new client needed a signature shoe, which helped give rise to a new era of sports marketing. Those moments and more are in Wertheim's new book, "Glory Days: The Summer Of 1984 And The 90 Days That Changed Sports And Culture Forever."

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

RONALD REAGAN: It's morning again in America.

JON WERTHEIM: The summer of 1984 was peak Reagan years. He was in full deregulation, tax-cutting bloom. He was a few months from trouncing Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Four more years. Four more years. Four more years.

REAGAN: Thank you all very much.

WERTHEIM: We were listening to pop music. We were listening to Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "BABY I'M A STAR")

WERTHEIM: The release of "Born In The U.S.A.," and it was still peak Michael Jackson. But in addition to listening, we have this visual dimension to pop music. We had the music video.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIM: More homes than ever were getting this great download of channels in addition to the network TV. We called it cable. That had great impact on sports. And in the summer of 1984, ESPN was sold to ABC. And at the time, ESPN was hemorrhaging money. And yet, that summer, networks like ESPN said, wait a second. Instead of paying to be on these cable systems, we should be getting paid a fee ourselves. We should flip the model. We're the ones that have value.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NINA TOTENBERG: The University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia claimed the NCAA was illegally preventing competition for TV money and exposure in violation of the nation's antitrust laws. Today, the Supreme Court, by a 7-2 vote, agreed.

WERTHEIM: The Supreme Court decision in this Oklahoma Regents case essentially said that college football programs shouldn't be beholden to the NCAA, which was this - operating as a cartel, that they should be able to make their own TV deals. And you have this sports network. They have a lot of hours they're suddenly going to have to fill, and they're going to have money to pay. So when you look at what college sports is today, when you look at the huge amounts of money that college football generates...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COLLEGE FOOTBALL LIVE")

CHRIS KELLEY: Welcome to College Football Live, presented by Mercedes-Benz.

WERTHEIM: ...This completely shifted college athletics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID STERN: The Chicago Bulls pick Michael Jordan from the University of North Carolina.

WERTHEIM: Michael Jordan decided to turn pro. He hastily gets an agent. And the agent's assistant, a gentlemen named David Falk, who, of course, would later become Jordan's primary agent and essentially said, why are we stuck to this model with team sport athletes? They play for a team. They get their contract. Maybe they make a few extra bucks. We're going to blow up the model. We're going to turn an athlete into this sort of one-person conglomerate. And David Falk, among other things, says we need to have a signature shoe.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

MICHAEL JORDAN: Who said man was not meant to fly?

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: Air Jordan.

WERTHEIM: That, of course, would grow to become the multibillion-dollar Jordan brand. It would be absolutely de rigueur for all athletes to have their - it's a real status symbol today, even, to have your own signature shoe. But at the time, when athletes made most of their income by their playing salary, it was a complete remolding of how athletes are packaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIMMY CARTER: And I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.

(APPLAUSE)

WERTHEIM: These were rough times for the Olympic movement. 1980, you had the boycott of the games in Moscow. LA, to get the 1984 games, had to outbid one other city. That's how little interest there was in hosting the Summer Olympics. And that city was Tehran, which then ended up abandoning its bid when the shah was overthrown. So LA essentially got the 1984 games by default. And there was the Soviet boycott...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In 1984, as in 1980, political competition between the two superpowers between East and West is now taking precedence over a competition between athletes. The games will go on, but what kind of games will they be?

WERTHEIM: ABC's stock plummeted the day the Soviets announced their boycott. Shortly before the games, Newsweek had this splashy magazine cover - are the games dead?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Peter Ueberroth is president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.

PETER UEBERROTH: So they'll be a different kind of games. They'll be a games which are not so lavish as those in the past, basically because we don't have the funds.

WERTHEIM: Peter Ueberroth was this underdog pick to basically run the 1984 Olympics. And he was little known even in LA circles. He was a bit of a successful businessman, and he ran this like a business, like an entrepreneur. He seized on this idea, first of all, that these networks really ought to be bidding much more to televise these games. And so the television contracts skyrocketed. Peter Ueberroth also said we need to be charging a lot more. We need fewer sponsorships, but they need to be paying millions and millions of dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: The Coca-Cola Company would like to salute all the 1984 Olympic athletes.

WERTHEIM: It was a huge financial success story. I mean, the games had a surplus of $250 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: For the first time in 52 years, the Olympic flame will burn in Los Angeles. And it is now alight.

WERTHEIM: And the competitions begin. And there are more - I mean, it's still, by today's standards, a fairly appalling ratio, but there were more female athletes than ever. There were gold medals left and right. I mean, the U.S. absolutely dominated the medal stand. There was this variety. There were, you know, Mary Lou Retton at 5-foot nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: There it is.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: She did it.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: A 10 (ph) - the gold medal goes to Mary Lou Retton.

WERTHEIM: But then you also had Michael Jordan, and you had power lifters. And it was - you're not really competing with much else in terms of media. I think something - you know, 1 out of every 2 American households watched these games. Americans grew obsessed with these Olympics in part because of a McDonald's giveaway game.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #3: When the U.S. wins a medal in the event on your game card, you win a Big Mac or regular fries or a regular Coca-Cola.

WERTHEIM: And then the games not only went off without a hitch but really was this sort of great moment of patriotism, and the fact that everybody got free Big Macs and fries and Cokes only sort of added to it. But also symbolically, it sort of cemented the sort of American exceptionalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKIN'... THERE'S NO STOPPING US")

OLLIE AND JERRY: (Singing) There's no stopping us - no stopping. Red light doesn't matter.

WERTHEIM: I use Michael Jordan as metaphor, who started the summer as the shlumpy kid wearing flip-flops. And by the end, he was this multimillionaire celebrity with a gold medal. And I think that really traces the same arc of sports in general. None of this seemed remarkable. It was only in retrospect when you say, holy cow, I can't believe all of these significant events were packed into these few months - in this very, very short, this very compressed period of time, sports - it was diversion. It was fun. It was a sort of small industry. And by the end of the summer, I think sports was awakened to the potential here.

KELLY: Jon Wertheim leading us through the summer of 1984. His new book is "Glory Days."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKIN'... THERE'S NO STOPPING US")

OLLIE AND JERRY: (Singing) There's no stopping us - no stopping. No one does it better. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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