Sports and Television
Sports events on TV resemble news programming in that they are actualities reported as they happen. But the networks put much more energy into the development of the games Americans play than the pursuit of current events. Since many of the highest-rated programs on national radio in the 1930s were sports specials—the baseball World Series, college football games, championship boxing involving heavyweight Joe Louis—it was inevitable that athletics would be a concern of developmental television.
TV sports was born through a procession of technical "firsts" produced in 1939. On May 17, NBC, via W2XBS, aired the first baseball game, a remote broadcast pitting Ivy League university teams from Columbia and Princeton in a contest in New York City. The announcer was premier radio sportscaster Bill Stern, who appeared three days later on NBC television commenting live from a marathon bicycle race in Madison Square Garden.
On June 1 heavyweight boxing contenders Max Baer and Lou Nova fought in Yankee Stadium on live TV. More important than the result of the fight (Nova won by a technical knockout in the eleventh round), it was the first remote telecast of a boxing match. On August 9 Stern returned to television, this time to cover the first TV tennis match—the Eastern Grass Courts Championship from Rye, New York. Other sports firsts followed precipitously: on August 26, the first professional baseball game, matching Cincinnati against Brooklyn; then the first college football game as Fordham University clobbered Waynesburg College, 34-7; followed by the first professional football game as the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 23-14. And in 1940 came more breakthroughs, with remote telecasts of professional hockey, basketball, and track.
One of the chief appeals of sports to broadcasters was cost-effectiveness. Sports required little to produce, and games could be easily scheduled for unproductive network hours—particularly on weekend afternoons. Independent stations found it profitable, too, to program sports attractions that the national networks—because of the demands of weekday and prime-time schedules—did not fully exploit. In this way a network could offer the nation one baseball game per weekend, but a local station could build its entire spring and summer schedules around home games of the local professional team—day and night contests, plus many, if not all, games played on the road.
Sports was also a good buy for TV advertisers. Although ad rates were high in terms of the numbers of viewers delivered for each dollar spent, a major segment of the audience for televised sports comprised middle-class males, a demographic entity not necessarily guaranteed by other programming forms. This made sports especially attractive for manufacturers of beer, tobacco products, automobiles, shaving equipment, gasoline, and tires. Although CBS by 1967 was charging advertisers up to $75,000 for a minute of time on its National Football League telecasts, the network had little trouble attracting clients.
After the domination of roller derby, wrestling, and boxing, these staples of the 1950s yielded to a greater variety in televised sports. By 1962 the three networks had committed $80 million for sports programming, one-quarter of it for college and professional football on CBS, another quarter for baseball on NBC. Added to that were pro hockey and basketball, plus special events such as the Kentucky Derby and the Masters golf tournament. Less popular competition such as tennis, track, bowling, automobile racing, skiing, and swimming appeared, too, often packaged under umbrella titles such as
CBS Sunday Sports Spectacular or ABC's Wide World of Sports.
But commercial television was not content simply to televise sports as they happened: in the name of offering "a good show" the networks shaped American sports for the video age. Engineering advances such as instant replay and slow-motion video were developed for sports coverage, in part to liven up lulls in action. After the launch of Telstar and other communications satellites in the early 1960s, transmission from foreign continents became possible. This was made obvious in the Olympic Games of 1964. While the Winter Games competition in Innsbruck, Austria, were seen in the United States via videotape flown overnight to ABC in New York City, the two-hour opening ceremony of the Summer Games in Tokyo was transmitted live from Japan via the Syncom III satellite. Due to a time-zone difference of fourteen hours—the live telecast from Tokyo was seen on the U.S. East Coast at 1:00
a.m.—the remainder of the Summer Olympics was covered via videotape flown to NBC in Seattle.
With the orbiting of the Early Bird satellite in 1965, live telecasts between Europe and the United States became commonplace. In the first year of Early Bird operation, NBC televised the World Cup soccer championships while ABC aired eight sports events—including the Le Mans Grand Prix road race from France, a championship boxing match from Frankfurt, the Irish Derby from Dublin, the British Open from Scotland, and a U.S.—U.S.S.R. track meet from Kiev. With visions of complete live Olympics coverage of the 1968 Winter Games from Grenoble and the Summer Games from Mexico City, the executive producer of ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, predicted confidently in mid-1966 that "we are approaching an era when live coverage of a sports event in Frankfurt will be no more unusual than live coverage of a game show in a New York City studio."
Athletics meant great profits for TV. The gross revenues of network sports during the 1968-1969 season approached $180 million. Writing in Variety a year earlier, Murray Horowitz aptly summarized the impetus for this boom: "TV has made 14 carat gold out of posts, putts, pucks, bats, and balls," he noted. "Now, there is not a major sports event in the
United States that does not have some tie with TV. The reason is simple: money."
But television demanded a price: in return for cash and exposure, it received a direct hand in shaping sports to fit TV needs. When Bert Bell, the commissioner of the National Football League, decreed in 1957 that referees could call time-outs for TV commercials during the first and third quarters of sponsored games, he opened the door for the restructuring of any sport selling itself to TV." Three years earlier, venerable sports journalist Grantland Rice bemoaned the deleterious effects TV was having on boxing, football, and baseball. "Whatever future these sports follow, they will be very much changed by television," lamented Rice." TV itself has no answers to the many problems that it poses. It's too young to answer questions. It came up with the roar and the rush of a tidal wave."
The impact of video on sports was manifest in many ways. Following decades of baggy uniforms, major league baseball adopted tighter-fitting, sexier clothing. In baseball, football, and basketball there was an increase in the number of night games because sports in prime time drew larger audiences and networks could charge higher advertising rates.
Once a phenomenon of weekend afternoons, professional football expanded eventually into Monday and Sunday evenings—and sometimes Thursday and Friday nights. The World Series increasingly took place under the lights. College basketball teams found themselves playing on Sundays because the networks needed Sunday programs. From the sponsorship of major sporting events by corporations seeking advertising and tax write-offs, to pressure for the racial integration of televised competition, video affected sports.
Above all, televised sports linked Americans in a web of professional and college leagues competing before the national audience. Whereas once video existed to cover athletics, sports now existed to entertain TV viewers. Spreading from sea to shining sea, sports franchises became tickets to riches as local and network broadcasters were eager to sign up the advertisers and go on the air. And where city size could not justify a professional team, there were university teams to fill the void. One historian concluded that while "television contributed to the nationalization of American sports," it also "trivialized and diluted the traditional sporting experience." Benjamin G. Rader contended that "television and the large sums of money that seemed to invariably accompany the medium led to the demise of amateur sports in America."
When TV wanted a sport such as college football or college basketball, money flowed, and college amateurism became semi-professionalism. When TV was basically disinterested in a college sport—such as baseball, tennis, swimming, gymnastics, and most women's sports—traditional amateur qualities endured. Many major U.S. universities used proceeds from men's basketball and football to support the rest of their sports program. But nowhere was the influence of television on sports more obvious than in the restructuring of professional football that occurred in the 1960s.
Pro football expanded in size and profitability during the decade because one network held a virtual monopoly over telecasts of NFL games and the other networks desired to fill their weekend schedules with pro football. To counter the stranglehold CBS had on the sport, ABC and then NBC began televising the games of the upstart but economically weak American Football League. Importantly, network money for the faltering AFL not only rescued the nascent league, it also precipitated a costly competition among the networks seeking to lease broadcast rights from the leagues. Whereas CBS had paid $1.5 million to televise a season of NFL games in 1960, with new network competition the fee rose to $4.5 million in 1962, $14 million in 1964, and $18.5 million in 1966. For rights to televise AFL games on Sunday afternoons, NBC in 1964 outbid ABC by fivefold, agreeing to spend $42 million over a five-year period.
Recoiling from such expensive rivalry, the networks applauded the merger of the leagues negotiated in 1966. The motivation was profitability: the leagues and networks expected to make more money playing each other rather than programming against one another. From that monopolistic agreement came the ultimate in marketable sports events, the Super Bowl, the annual championship game, which, promoted as "Super Sunday," became a national ritual—and among the highest-rated programs in video history.
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