Barry Frank, a television sports impresario who over a half-century negotiated deals for sportscasting stars like John Madden, developed or created popular shows like “The Skins Game” and “Superstars,” and helped engineer high-priced network rights deals, died on Tuesday in a hospital in San Francisco. He was 87.
His wife, Elizabeth (Packer) Frank, said the cause was pulmonary problems after he had choked on some food.
Mr. Frank had once dreamed of being an actor. But he ended up working on different stages — as a network official but chiefly as an executive at the International Management Group (IMG), the sports and entertainment agency founded by Mark McCormack in the early 1960s.
“Mark really created the sports marketing industry,” Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports and a former IMG executive, said by phone. “But you can also make the point that Barry in many ways perfected the sports television and talent representation business.”
Mr. McCormack gave Mr. Frank a wide berth to build a portfolio. As an agent, he had a stable of top sportscasters, including Bob Costas, Jim Nantz, Robin Roberts, Mike Tirico and Mr. Madden. As an adviser and negotiator, he worked for Major League Baseball, the United States Tennis Association, Wimbledon and the Atlantic Coast Conference to get the most money for their TV rights.
And as a programmer, he created shows — including “American Gladiators” and “Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes” — that were labeled “trash sports” by Sports Illustrated.
When Mr. Frank was hired by the local organizers of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary to orchestrate the bidding for United States television rights, he knew that no network had paid more than $91.5 million to televise the Winter Games. He also knew the Calgary rights were far more valuable with three bidders — including ABC, the longtime Olympic network — vying to buy them.
Executives at ABC were irate when the price soared beyond $275 million, which they had believed would be the winning price; they were further incensed when Mr. Frank pitted ABC against NBC in an auction after they had tied at $300 million. By then, CBS was out.
The auction ended with ABC’s reluctant winning bid of $309 million (almost $686 million in today’s money) — the most any network had paid for any Summer or Winter Olympics, starting an era of swelling prices.
“The atmosphere in that conference room was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Frank told Sports Illustrated in 1988. “People weren’t talking about lunch money in there.”
Mr. Frank’s ability to maximize his clients’ earnings found a perfect set of market conditions in 1994, after CBS had lost its rights to continue televising National Football League games, making Mr. Madden, the network’s Rabelaisian No. 1 analyst, a free agent.
ABC coveted him for “Monday Night Football” and made a handshake deal with Mr. Frank for about $10 million over four years. But Mr. Frank quickly heard from Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox network was replacing CBS in broadcasting the N.F.L. He offered to pay far more for Mr. Madden.
Mr. Frank tried to fend off Fox, saying he had a deal with ABC. But when Mr. Murdoch offered $30 million over four years, Mr. Madden eagerly told Mr. Frank to take it. Bob Iger, the ABC president at the time, insisted to Mr. Frank that they had had a deal.
“I know, but this isn’t my money, and it’s not your money,” Mr. Frank said he told Mr. Iger when he recalled their conversation in an interview with Sports Business Journal in 2011. “It’s John Madden’s money. What do I do? It isn’t me. It’s my client.”
Barry Wolf Frank was born on Aug. 14, 1932, in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Dayton. His father, Leon, owned a women’s clothing store; his mother, Miriam (Wiseman) Frank, also worked there.
Barry studied acting, performed in high school productions and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh.
But acting roles were not forthcoming. He auditioned three times for a part in the Broadway play “Tea and Sympathy,” but the director, Elia Kazan, did not cast him.
Disappointed, he shifted course, enrolling in Harvard Business School and graduating in 1957. After a stint working for CBS, he was hired by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency to work on the Ford Motor account. Ford was a top sports advertiser, and it opened an attractive new world to Mr. Frank. He would never leave it.
Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports, hired him in 1965 as vice president of programming. But after five years he left for IMG.
While there, he collaborated with Dick Button, the Olympic ice skating gold medalist, to create “Superstars,” in which prominent athletes competed not in the sports they were known for but in swimming and running and on an obstacle course. It became a long-running franchise.
Mr. Frank left IMG after six years, in 1976, to become the president of CBS Sports. He later said that he had been hamstrung from making changes there, blaming his boss, Robert J. Wussler, the president of the CBS Television Network, who had preceded Mr. Frank in the sports job.
He returned to IMG and never left again. He continued after Mr. McCormack’s death in 2003 and through the company’s acquisition by Forstmann Little in 2004 and its subsequent purchase in 2014 by William Morris Endeavor. He was at work the week before his death.
In a memo to employees, Mark Shapiro, Endeavor’s president, compared Mr. Frank to Mr. Arledge and Mr. McCormack, two of the leading visionaries in sports.
“He ranked them as geniuses,” Mr. Shapiro wrote. “Barry stood tall alongside them.”
In the juggling act that Mr. Frank performed — as an agent, negotiator and producer — he was perhaps best known for the made-for-TV programs he created or developed, among them “Battle of the Network Stars” and “The World’s Strongest Man.”
When he was asked in 1991 what he thought of those shows being called trash, he told The Associated Press: “My philosophy is simple. A, if people enjoy it, I don’t think these kinds of pejoratives are deserved; and, B, I don’t care.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Frank is survived by his sons, Thomas and Andrew; three stepdaughters, Holly Youngwood, Emily Merrell Hill and Alison Merrell; and five grandchildren. He had homes in Manhattan and New Canaan, Conn.
In addition to his more unconventional shows, Mr. Frank developed events like “The Skins Game,” where top golfers competed for prize money on each individual hole, as well as a series of Monday night prime-time matches featuring Tiger Woods, among other A-list golfers.
Howard Katz, who is now the N.F.L.’s senior vice president of scheduling, recalled that on his first day as the president of ABC Sports in 1999, he had dinner with Mr. Frank.
“We started thinking about things that would make a big impact, and that night we came up with Tiger Woods in prime time,” Mr. Katz said by phone. “Tiger was No. 2 at the time, but he was becoming the biggest name in golf, and David Duval was No. 1. Barry was always creative; he was already wondering how we’d light the course for the last few holes.”
Woods won the match, and the ratings exceeded those for the final round of golf’s United States Open that year.