Shelly Saltman, Promoter of Sports Events Featuring Muhammad Ali, Evel Knievel and Billie Jean King, Dies at 87

Courtesy of Saltzman Communications
Shelly Saltman

He worked for Lew Wasserman and Mark McCormack and repped Andy Williams. Knievel once hit him with a baseball bat.

Shelly Saltman, a sports promoter who helped fuel interest in the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match and Evel Knievel's attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, has died. He was 87.

Saltman died Saturday in Los Angeles, publicist Michael Saltzman announced.

The original president of Fox Sports, Saltman worked for Lew Wasserman at MCA television and for Mark McCormack at IMG. After launching his own PR firm, he represented musical acts including Andy Williams, The Osmonds, Roger Miller and Ray Stevens.

Later, he managed the careers of NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, NFL great John Mackey and singer Vicki Carr.

Saltman helped coordinate the worldwide closed-circuit presentation of the heavyweight title fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The first of their three epic bouts, held in March 1971 at New York's Madison Square Garden, brought in estimated 300 viewers around the world.

The September 1973 tennis match between the victorious King and Riggs attracted a crowd of nearly 30,000 to the Houston Astrodome and another 50 million watching live on ABC.

Not all of Saltman's promotions worked out. In one of the most disappointing failures of his daredevil career, Knievel tried to clear the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in September 1974 while aboard a custom-built, rocket-powered cycle. The much-hyped closed-circuit event, later broadcast on ABC's Wide World of Sports, was a money loser.

Saltman then won $12.75 million in damages against Knievel after the showman attacked him with a baseball bat on the Fox lot in September 1977, angry about what Saltman had written in his book Evel Knievel on Tour.

Saltman also promoted Ali's bizarre 1976 "fight" against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki and helped create such made-for TV events as Battle of the Network StarsCelebrity Challenge of the Sexes and Battle of the NFL Cheerleaders

Sheldon Arthur Saltman was born in Boston on Aug. 17, 1931. Tip O'Neill Jr., the longtime speaker of the House of Representatives, was his godfather. He attended the University of Massachusetts and served in the U.S. Army at the end of the Korean War.

He began his career as an announcer before moving into promotion with the NBC program Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.

Saltman also was a producer on the 1978 NBC telefilm Ring of Passion, about the bouts between American Joe Louis (played by Bernie Casey) and Germany's Max Schmeling (Stephen Macht) in the years leading to World War II.

Saltman helped Williams start the PGA's Andy Williams San Diego Open and joined with the singer in a group that owned the NBA's Phoenix Suns.

Survivors include his son, Steven, and his wife, Betsy; his daughter, Lisa, and her husband, Dan; his grandchildren Samuel, Hannah, Sarah and Jilian; his sister, Barbara; and his half-brother, Jack.

Funeral services will be held at noon on Friday at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuary in Simi Valley. In lieu of flowers, the family ask that donations be made to University Kidney Research Organization.