The first thing we did upon signing a deal with NBC Sports was to work out a way to acquire the original signage from “The George Michael Sports Machine.” Both Davo and I shared the same experience as Englishmen new to this country in the early ’90s: To cast eyes upon George Michael was to glimpse the mechanics of everything that made America the world’s sole superpower.
If you never glimpsed the late-Sunday night sports highlight show, it pulsated with promise from the very opening. A confident synth opening tingled as if commanding clips to ricochet across our television screens. Scenes of baseball, the NFL, rodeo, surfing and a Carl Lewis victory culminated in stock footage of a satellite zapping footage directly into the studio.
And what a studio. One in which a bronzed George Michael presided over proceedings like an American Julio Iglesias. All tan of skin and white of teeth, with slacks stay-pressed and hair greased back. A clipboard permanently in his grasp to reinforce the truth that this ship only had one captain.
The set had been designed to represent “The Future” on the budget of a 1950 sci-fi B-movie: giant reel-to-reel machines; three small monitors glued together; lots of buttons. George could not have been prouder of his surroundings. “Tonight, through the use of the Sports Machine …” he would proclaim, as the camera zoomed in to introduce the control board besides him. A kaleidoscope of colorful lights and buttons with untold power, which, thankfully, George harnessed only for good.
After a brief background on a clip, be it from a baseball game, an NFL playoff game, sky diving or dwarf wrestling, George would smack a single button — most often the one with his name on it — sending the reel tapes into a blur of motion. And when those reels sparked to life, he would declare, “Let’s go to Cleveland Municipal Stadium!” creating the sense he could propel the viewers from one geographical location to another with a wink at the camera and a push of the button.
Having grown up in 1980s England where restrictive television rights made sports highlights a rarity and where soccer was perceived too déclassé to make the evening news, this weekly half-hour was a revelation. Athletic pursuit was out in the open. Sports was entertainment. Elite human achievement could be improved with a coat of schmaltz.
Back then I had never watched the NHL, had no idea who Cal Ripken Jr. was and still did not yet fully understand Pat Riley’s hair, but the way George Michael narrated them completely sucked me in. The man was completely at ease, both selling the fiction and being in on the joke. He was the man I wanted to grow into.
Being a balding Englishman made that dream regrettably impossible, but when Men In Blazers signed with NBC, it was George we both thought about — and in fact emulated by building a “Sports Machine” of sorts in our studio from which our show would be controlled. The man was a master of concept, polish, packaging, illusion, and above all, narrative, to whom Davo and I still genuflect today.