'Sports Machine' to power down; Michael retiring

WASHINGTON -- "Sports Machine," the syndicated sports highlight show that set the stage for ESPN and other national sports programming, will go off the air after 23 years when host George Michael steps down in March.

Michael, who began the show in 1980 as a late-night local feature on WRC-TV in Washington, also is retiring as the station's sports director and weeknight sports anchor.

Michael said he made the decision after NBC, which owns WRC, announced significant layoffs and staff cuts.

"I told them, that if I have to lay anyone off, if I have to get rid of any of my staff, then I'm going to take the first bullet," Michael said.

"Sports Machine" became nationally syndicated in 1984. It's now shown in 194 U.S. markets and 10 foreign countries. Michael has won more than 40 Emmy awards.

It was trendsetting programming, gaining its footing in the days before cable television and ESPN were widely available. The show was the first to give regular national TV exposure to once-obscure sports such as NASCAR and professional rodeo.

"He was us before we were us," said "SportsCenter" anchor Chris McKendry, who was part of Michael's competition in Washington at WJLA-TV from 1994-96.

Scott Van Pelt of "SportsCenter," who grew up in the Washington suburbs watching Michael, said the current TV sports industry is indebted to the retiring sportscaster.

"We used to have to wait days to watch highlights from some games," he said. "And then George came along and he had all these satellites and all these highlights instantly. If you were a kid who loved sports, it was like Christmas."

Michael helped the TV careers of several national sports personalities. David Aldridge, Bonnie Bernstein, Tony Kornheiser, Joe Theismann and Michael Wilbon are among those who did their first on-air work alongside him.

Theismann, the former Redskins quarterback who is now part of the Monday Night Football broadcast team, said he learned just from watching Michael work.

"George is the kind of guy who doesn't have to say a whole lot to you. You just keep your eyes and ears open," he said. "And you have a good time."