Publish date:


Berl Rotfeld turned sports nostalgia into a syndication hit

Anyone who has idly flipped the dial on a weekend afternoon probably has happened onto Greatest Sports Legends, a syndicated series that often airs before or after live sports events. The 30-minute show, which consists of highlight footage interspersed with a sometimes revealing interview with a sports "legend," has been on the air for 16 years. It's not as slick as its rivals, This Week in the NFL and This Week in Baseball, but what Legends lacks in sophistication it makes up for in nostalgia. As the show's host—usually a current sports star, like Michael Jordan, or a legend in his or her own right, like Reggie Jackson—schmoozes with the guest, you feel as if you have been invited to a private barbecue with two celebrities.

The creator and owner of Legends is Berl Rotfeld of Penn Valley, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. At various times, Rotfeld, 58, has been a women's hosiery salesman, written songs and run a hair-weaving business. But sports and show biz are his real loves, and on New Year's Eve 1971, while he was sitting at a bar debating whether O.J. Simpson was better than Jim Brown, the idea for Legends clicked in his mind. Since then Rotfeld has produced 186 shows.

Rotfeld does 10 new shows a year and fills up the remaining 42 weeks with reruns. Though he pays each legend only $1,000 to appear, Brown is the only former athlete who has turned him down because the fee was too low. Rotfeld has since worked out a deal with Brown and shot a segment about him in August that will air early next year. Another star Rotfeld has had trouble with is Jackson, whom he sacked as a host in 1978 but retrieved this year. After their falling out, Rotfeld said Jackson was "arrogant, egotistical, extremely hard to work with." Now Rotfeld calls him "the most enthusiastic and cooperative host that I've ever had."

Rotfeld has vivid memories of the sports figures he has featured:

Joe DiMaggio—"A gentleman, shy, wary of people. I think he feels people are anxious to take advantage of him."

Mickey Mantle—"Wishes he were 20 again. On the surface warm and friendly, but you get the feeling he's not happy with his world of today."

Joe Frazier—"He's superproud and haunted by the shadow of Ali."

Bill Russell—"First meeting, ice. Snobbish, unfriendly. Once we did the show, it was continuous laughter. He doesn't trust people he doesn't know."

While many sports shows are produced in elaborate studios in New York or Los Angeles, Rotfeld turns out Legends with a staff of seven in a six-room apartment above his wife Carole's Italian restaurant in Bala-Cynwyd, Pa. His budget for each segment is approximately $50,000, but he risks losing money when he has to buy footage from official sources. Rotfeld didn't produce a pro football Legends from 1975 to '85 because of a dispute with NFL Films over an old bill. He has since negotiated what he considers a reasonable deal with NFL Films, but he has cut back on doing baseball shows because Phoenix Communications, Major League Baseball's production arm, refused to give him a lower rate than the $1,200 per minute it charges other nationally syndicated shows. Rotfeld wasn't above making promoter Don King a legend two years ago, in part to gain free access to King's film library, which includes footage of Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

Unlike NFL Films or Phoenix Communications, Rotfeld must hustle to turn a profit in the syndication minefield. Because the networks provide their affiliates with more open airtime, some of the 123 stations that carry Legends have put the show on after religious programs or in competition with live events. "Stations say, 'Well, your ratings aren't good,' " says Rotfeld. "I say to them, "Here's a show getting a zero rating and we're coming on after it. How are we supposed to get a high number?' "

Chances are, your friends aren't all talking about last weekend's Legends. Indeed, few, if any, of them probably bothered to watch the show. But it's worth watching, especially if you have a taste for nostalgia.



To cut costs, Rotfeld produces "Greatest Sports Legends" in a suburban apartment.