Sports on Television

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Sports on Television

Americans watched and competed in a wide variety of sporting events long before the invention of television. From the time the new medium arrived in the 1940s, however, it completely transformed sports. "Television has changed the sports landscape—changing everything from the salaries, number of teams, and color of uniforms, to the way that fans conceive of sports and athletes alike," Steven D. Stark wrote in Glued to the Set. In fact, many Americans in the twenty-first century might find it difficult to imagine what sports would be like without the influence of television.

In many ways, sports and television are a perfect fit. TV cameras put viewers in the middle of the action, giving them a much closer view than they could get by sitting in the stands. Televised sports also feature live action, high drama, real heroes and villains, and unpredictable endings. "People like to watch people in dramatic situations; they like the unpredictable, the unknown," said Roone Arledge (1931–), the legendary head of ABC Sports, in Sports Illustrated. "They want to watch something that has the quality of an event."

The natural appeal of sports on television has created large, enthusiastic audiences for many different types of athletic contests. In fact, TV was responsible for introducing a number of lesser-known sports to American viewers, including ice hockey, soccer, golf, tennis, and auto racing. TV profits, in turn, have made many professional sports leagues, teams, and players very wealthy. A number of top athletes have taken advantage of the broad reach of television to become celebrities and entertainers, known as much for the products they promote as for their athletic ability.

Some critics claim that television has corrupted sports in the United States. For instance, some say that the high-stakes competition for TV money has caused an overall decline in sportsmanship, as many athletes have shifted their focus from teamwork and winning to attracting media attention and winning endorsement contracts. (Endorsement contracts pay an athlete to be associated in advertising with a given product. For example, an athlete may appear in television commercials for the product or use the product in competition.) Moreover, several major sports have changed their rules to accommodate the demands of television. Basketball implemented the shot clock (a rule that gives the offensive team only a certain number of seconds to shoot the ball) to speed up play, for example, and baseball introduced the designated hitter (a player who is allowed to bat in place of another player, usually the pitcher) to increase scoring. Games are often moved to inconvenient times just to fit broadcast schedules, and seasons are often extended in order to increase opportunities for TV coverage.

Television has also changed the way that sports leagues operate. All of the major professional sports have expanded their number of teams in order to reach more TV markets. The National Hockey League (NHL), for instance, has grown from its original six teams to thirty. Arguments between leagues and player organizations over TV revenues have resulted in player strikes (protests in which players refuse to practice or compete) and management lockouts (protests in which team owners refuse to allow players to practice or compete) in all of the major professional sports. The big money available from television contracts has also caused the breakup of several longtime college sports conferences, as top teams left in search of higher-profile competition and increased TV ratings.

While the relationship between sports and television has both positive and negative aspects, there is little doubt that televised sports are big business. TV contracts brought the National Football League (NFL) a whopping $3.7 billion in 2005, accounting for more than half of the league's total revenues. The popularity of sports on TV has also led to the success of cable networks dedicated to sports-related programming. Viewers in the 2000s can literally tune in at any time of day or night and find some sort of athletic competition to watch on television.

Sports drive the growth of TV

While television has had a huge impact on sports, sports also played an important role in the development and growth of television. During the early days of commercial broadcasting in the 1940s, the networks relied upon telecasts of sporting events to increase demand for TV sets. "Television got off the ground because of sports," early network sports director Harry Coyle told Stanley J. Baran in the Museum of Broadcast Communications publication "Sports and Television." "Today, maybe, sports need television to survive, but it was just the opposite when it first started. When we put on the World Series in 1947, heavyweight fights, the Army-Navy football game, the sales of television sets just spurted." In fact, sports programming helped the number of households with TV sets increase from 200,000 in 1948 to more than 10 million in 1950.

In many ways, sports provided an ideal form of programming for the early TV networks. For one thing, sports programs were less expensive to produce than many types of entertainment programs. Since sporting events were happening with or without TV coverage, the networks only needed to show up with cameras and crews to film the games. In contrast, producing an entertainment program required the networks to build sets and hire writers, directors, costume designers, and actors. Another factor in the appeal of sports for the early networks was the primitive nature of television cameras in the 1940s and 1950s. The cameras of that time required bright light in order to produce a clear picture, and sporting events tended to be well lit. Finally, sporting events featured natural breaks in the action that the networks could fill with advertising messages.

Of course, some sports adapted to the television era better than others. The size of the ball used was one factor in selecting sports programming for the early broadcast networks. When TV screens were small and pictures fuzzy, sports such as golf and hockey were difficult for viewers to follow. Some sports also provided better TV viewing because of the way the action unfolded, with the potential for something exciting to happen at any moment. The most popular sports in the early years of television broadcasting were baseball, boxing, and wrestling. The action in these events tended to be concentrated in a small space, making it easier for TV cameras to follow.

The first sporting event to be televised was a 1939 college baseball game between Columbia and Princeton universities. It was filmed using a single TV camera—situated in the stands along the third base line—and the broadcast was received by about two hundred TV sets. The first Major League Baseball (MLB) telecast took place a few months later, during a demonstration of television technology at the 1939 World's Fair. The game was a doubleheader between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. Dodgers' announcer Red Barber (1908–1992) introduced many of the elements of modern sportscasts during this event. He provided play-by-play announcing, conducted between-game interviews with players and managers, and finished with a post-game summary or wrap-up.

The first regularly scheduled network sports broadcast was Friday Night Fights, which aired on NBC beginning in 1944. The premiere telecast featured a featherweight championship boxing match. Within a few years the program was expanded and renamed Gillette Cavalcade of Sports after its sponsor, a shaving razor manufacturer. The show remained on the air for two decades, until televised sports grew so popular that it became too expensive for individual advertisers to pay to televise major events. Once that occurred, the networks began purchasing the broadcast rights to various sporting events and sold small blocks of commercial time to advertisers.

During the early years of television, sporting events were often broadcast in the evening hours known as prime time. In fact, sports programming once accounted for up to one-third of the networks' prime-time schedule. But this situation began to change in the mid-1950s, when the networks found that situation comedies and variety shows drew more female viewers. The networks then moved their primary sports telecasts to weekends, where they have drawn consistently strong ratings ever since. In fact, watching sports on TV became a regular weekend activity for millions of Americans.

At first, many people worried that showing sports on television would reduce attendance at live sporting events. Television did have a negative impact on attendance at some types of events, such as boxing matches. Fights at New York's Madison Square Garden drew an average of 12,000 fans in 1947, for instance, but the popularity of programs such as Friday Night Fights contributed to a decline in average attendance to 1,200 a decade later. Such statistics convinced a number of sports leagues to institute TV blackouts. These measures prohibited the television networks from broadcasting home games in local markets, so that fans would have to go to the stadium to watch the games.

MLB commissioner Ford Frick (1894–1974) was so concerned about television's effect on attendance at baseball games that he took steps to limit the quality of telecasts. As sports writer Charles Hirshberg noted in ESPN 25, Frick issued a rule stating that "the view a fan gets at home should not be any better than that of the fan in the worst seat of the ballpark." For many years, television cameras were kept so far away from the action that there was little reason for casual fans to watch baseball on TV. Rather than causing fans to flock to the ballpark, though, Frick's rule only encouraged viewers to watch other sports on TV instead. Over time, it became clear that when television coverage was done well, it could actually increase fan interest in sports.

Sports telecasts gain entertainment value

In the 1960s, sports programming underwent a major change. Rather than simply providing viewers with film footage of the event itself, the networks started offering special features that turned sports into high-quality television entertainment. The man most responsible for this transition was Roone Arledge, a visionary programmer who joined ABC Sports in 1960. At that time, ABC was the smallest and least influential of the so-called Big Three broadcast TV networks. Its competitors, CBS and NBC, controlled the television rights to America's most popular sporting events. But ABC did manage to win the contract to broadcast college football games. In preparing for the start of the season, Arledge began thinking of ways that ABC Sports could make its football telecasts stand out from the competition.

Arledge came up with a plan to make the game more interesting and exciting by giving viewers an inside look at the action. He described his ideas to his colleagues in a memo that has earned a spot in TV sports history, according to Hirshberg. In the famous memo, Arledge encouraged the operators of ABC's six fixed cameras to "cover all the other interesting facets of the game when [they are] not actually engaged in covering a game situation." He also proposed using portable cameras "to get the impact shots that we cannot get from a fixed camera—a coach's face as a man drops a pass in the clear—a pretty cheerleader after her hero has scored a touchdown—a coed who brings her infant baby to the game—the referee as he calls a particularly difficult play—two romantic students sharing a blanket late in the game on a cold day—the beaming face of a substitute halfback as he comes off the field after running seventy yards for a touchdown…. In short—WE ARE GOING TO ADD SHOW BUSINESS TO SPORTS!" Most of Arledge's suggestions became a standard part of sports on television, as other networks followed ABC's example and increased the entertainment value of their sports broadcasts.

In 1961 Arledge used the ideas he expressed in his memo as the basis for an innovative new sports program, ABC's Wide World of Sports. This show grew out of the fact that ABC's competitors held the rights to televise all the major U.S. sporting events. Arledge decided that ABC Sports should take a different approach and focus on the wide variety of sports available in the rest of the world. He believed that these lesser-known sports might attract a solid audience, as long as the events were presented in an entertaining way. The show's well-known introduction, read by host Jim McKay (1921–), explained its mission: "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport. The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC's Wide World of Sports."

ABC Sports sent camera crews all over the world to provide coverage of such little-known events as table tennis, badminton, curling, cliff diving, and drag racing. It also showed international gymnastics and ice-skating competitions at a time when these sports received minimal coverage. The most notable aspect of Wide World of Sports was that it presented sporting events as entertainment. It was the first show to provide "up close and personal" profiles of athletes, for example, and to use technical innovations such as instant replay and slow motion,

"Battle of the Sexes"

One of the most culturally significant American sporting events was a 1973 tennis match known as the "Battle of the Sexes." It pitted the 29-year-old reigning women's tennis champion, Billie Jean King (1943–), against a 55-year-old former men's champion, Bobby Riggs (1918–1995). The highly publicized match took place during the women's liberation movement, a period stretching from the 1960s into the early 1970s, when American women fought to break out of traditional gender roles and gain equal rights and opportunities in society.

King is an important figure in the history of women's sports. She had an outstanding professional tennis career that included five years ranked number one in the world, six Wimbledon singles championships, and four U.S. Open titles. King's influence continued off the court, where she helped launch the women's professional tennis tour, fought for equal prize money for male and female players, and started the Women's Sports Foundation to increase athletic opportunities for women. Her success helped make it socially acceptable for American women to be athletic and work up a sweat.

Riggs had been a solid player in his day, but by 1973 he was past his tennis prime. Nevertheless, the outspoken hustler challenged a number of top female players to compete against him. Riggs claimed that men were naturally superior to women in terms of athletic skills, and he insisted that no woman could ever defeat him in a tennis match. King turned down several invitations to play against Riggs, but she changed her mind and accepted the challenge after Riggs beat Australian women's champion Margaret Court (1942–) in a match known as the "Mother's Day Massacre."

During the hype leading up to the "Battle of the Sexes" match, King realized that millions of American women were pinning their hopes on her. "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," she recalled to Larry Schwartz of ESPN SportsCentury. "It would hurt the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."

King faced Riggs on September 20, 1973, at the Houston Astrodome in front of 30,000 spectators—the largest crowd in tennis history. ABC paid $750,000 for the right to televise the event, and the network broadcast the match to 50 million people in 36 countries. Riggs tried to fluster his opponent with an array of trick shots, while King applied a simple strategy of running her older opponent all over the court. King pulled out a convincing victory in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Her win inspired countless American women to continue fighting for equality and also led to increased interest in women's sports.

which allowed viewers to see the action over again and in detail. Wide World of Sports earned forty-seven Emmy Awards during its four-decade run on ABC. In the early 2000s, its influence can be seen in many aspects of sports broadcasting, especially in the coverage of multi-event athletic contests like the Olympic Games.

The world watches the Olympic Games

The Olympic Games have supplied some of the most memorable moments in the history of televised sports. These international competitions feature the best athletes in the world, all representing their home countries and trying to defend national pride. Both the Summer Games and the Winter Games only take place every four years, which gives the events added meaning. Every Olympic telecast has treated viewers to intense competition, with dramatic, once-in-a-lifetime triumphs as well as crushing defeats.

The first TV coverage took place at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. The German government used American technology to broadcast the competition to a dozen TV sets located in public areas throughout the city. The Olympics were not broadcast in the United States until 1960, when CBS paid $50,000 for the right to air fifteen hours of coverage from the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. Since then, the special nature of Olympic competition has turned the broadcast rights to the Games into the most coveted and expensive property in TV sports. In 1980, for instance, NBC paid $87 million for the right to broadcast the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Four years later, the price increased to $225 million for ABC to telecast the Summer Games in Los Angeles. Then NBC paid more than double that amount, $456 million, to gain the TV rights to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

The broadcast networks are willing to pay such astronomical fees because their Olympic coverage typically attracts 50 percent of the U.S. viewing audience, as well as an estimated one billion viewers around the world. As a result, broadcasting the Games can increase a network's prestige and give a boost to its other programs. Of course, a network also faces a great deal of public and industry scrutiny for its Olympic coverage. Some critics claim that the networks tend to overproduce the Games—providing an array of background stories and interviews with the athletes—in an attempt to attract female viewers. They contend that the networks devote too much air time to these special features and do not provide enough coverage of the actual sports.

Just as television has affected other sports, TV coverage has changed the Olympic Games in a number of ways. Beginning in 1994, for instance, the schedule of Summer and Winter Olympics was staggered so that one set of Games occurs every two years, rather than both sets taking place every four years. The desire to attract large TV audiences also convinced Olympic organizers to abandon the long tradition of allowing only amateur athletes to compete. Today, professional athletes routinely represent their countries in basketball, hockey, tennis, and other sports.

Finally, the opportunity to gain international television exposure has led some countries and groups to use the Olympics as a stage to draw attention to world political issues. The most frightening incident took place at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, Germany. Arab terrorists, upset about developments in the Middle East conflict, took eleven Israeli athletes hostage and murdered the captives when their ransom demands were not met. TV cameras captured footage of a hooded gunman in the Olympic village. In the 1980s national governments used the Olympics as a tool in foreign relations. The United States refused to participate in the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, and in return the Soviet Union declined to compete in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Football takes over TV

Of all the major American sports, professional football has developed the most successful relationship with television. TV coverage has helped make pro football the nation's most popular sport, with 33 percent of Americans naming it as their favorite in a 2005 poll cited by John Gallagher in the Detroit Free Press. By comparison, only 14 percent named baseball, which was long considered to be America's national pastime. The NFL, in turn, has contributed a great deal to the success of television. The Super Bowl is always one of the most-watched programs of the year, attracting an audience of about 100 million viewers in the United States alone. It is also the most financially rewarding program of the year for the television network that handles the broadcast. ABC charged advertisers $2.5 million for each 30-second commercial that aired during Super Bowl XL in 2006.

In many ways, football seems ideally suited for television. Games are played only once per week, which gives the networks plenty of time to publicize upcoming contests. Moreover, the nature of the game makes it easy to film. "The shape of the field corresponds to that of the screen. The action, although spread out, starts with a predictable portion of the field," Arledge explained in Sports Illustrated. Football games also have natural breaks in the action that the networks can use to provide information or analysis. "The reason football is easier to cover is because every play is a separate story," CBS Sports director Sandy Grossman told Baran. "There's a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then there's 20 or 30 seconds to retell it or react to it." As a result of all these factors, TV coverage can bring viewers closer to the action and enhance their understanding of the game.

Pro football began its rise to the top of televised sports in the 1960s, with the first telecast of the Super Bowl. The sport of football had existed for nearly a century before the potential for TV revenues convinced the NFL to organize its first championship game at the end of the 1966 season. Super Bowl I was played in January 1967 at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. This game, between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, drew a national TV audience estimated at 60 million people.

Football's Notorious "Heidi Game"

In 1968, when professional football was just starting to climb to its current position as the most popular sport on TV, NBC received a clear message about fans' interest in the game. Due to a combination of technical considerations and contract obligations, the network interrupted the final moments of a close contest between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets to broadcast the children's movie Heidi. This decision outraged football fans across the country and generated thousands of angry telephone calls. In fact, the high volume of calls caused the network's switchboard to blow twenty-six fuses in an hour. NBC issued an apology to viewers later that night and replayed the final minute of the football game on a network news program. As Joe Garner wrote in Stay Tuned: Television's Unforgettable Moments, the uproar surrounding the Heidi incident" ensured that no television executive would ever again question the appeal of pro football on television"

The Super Bowl soon became one of the biggest television events of each year. Various Super Bowl telecasts account for half of the twenty highest-rated TV programs of all time in the United States. The big game also attracts an estimated one billion viewers in other countries around the world. Over the years, the networks expanded coverage to last all day, providing viewers with extensive pre-game background, analysis, and predictions. For millions of Americans, Super Bowl Sunday became a national holiday to celebrate by eating snack foods in front of the television set. In 1990 the NFL agreed to extend its season and add more playoff games in order to push the Super Bowl into the key ratings period known as February sweeps, when the networks set their advertising rates.

For many years, NFL games (including the Super Bowl) were broadcast on Sunday afternoons. Television industry experts assumed that women controlled the TV set during the evening hours and that female viewers did not watch football. But Roone Arledge did not agree with these assumptions; he believed that football could do well in the weekly prime-time schedule. When ABC won the broadcast rights to NFL games in 1970, Arledge introduced a new sports program called Monday Night Football. Building on the success of Wide World of Sports, he continued to offer viewers a combination of sports and entertainment. As the program's original producer, Dennis Lewin, told Joe Garner in Stay Tuned: Television's Unforgettable Moments: "It was a form that would appeal to an entertainment audience, not just a sports audience."

Monday Night Football incorporated state-of-the-art TV technology. ABC filmed the games using nine cameras, instead of the usual four or five, including some handheld models that roamed the sidelines. Arledge also put together an unusual team in the broadcast booth in order to increase viewer interest in the games. He combined Howard Cosell (1918–1995)—a hard-driving, opinionated journalist who tended to stir up strong feelings (both positive and negative) in TV audiences—with Don Meredith (1938–)—a funny, laid-back former quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. The team also included an experienced play-by-play announcer, first Keith Jackson (1928–) and later Frank Gifford (1930–). "The three created, for want of a better phrase, 'watercooler' talk [a type of discussion that takes place in the break area of a workplace]," Lewin noted. "Every Tuesday morning people all over the country would say, 'Hey, did you hear what Howard said to Don, or what Don said to Howard, what was said about this coach, what was said about that player?' It created a whole different atmosphere."

Before long, Monday Night Football became so popular that restaurants and sports bars across the country started hosting parties around it. For many years, the program was also a trendy spot for prominent athletes, entertainers, and politicians to show up, chat with the hosts, and promote their projects. Monday Night Football remained a winner in the ratings for 35 years, despite numerous changes in the broadcast booth. Both Cosell and Meredith left the show in the mid-1980s. Al Michaels (1944–) joined the broadcast team in 1986 and was a permanent member of it over the next two decades. In 2000 ABC tried to recapture the chemistry of the Cosell-Meredith era by adding comedian Dennis Miller (1953–) to the telecasts, but the experiment was a flop with viewers. Nevertheless, Monday Night Football helped the NFL emerge as the king of televised sports.

In addition to making regular appearances in prime time, NFL games eventually were broadcast on holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Cable transforms sports coverage

In the 1980s, the increasing popularity of football and other sports on television led to the creation of cable networks devoted entirely to sports programming. The best-known of these networks, ESPN, made its debut in 1979. From the beginning, ESPN's sports coverage had a look and feel that set it apart from the broadcast networks. The anchors of its signature show, SportsCenter, tended to be young, fashionable, and funny. They appealed to younger viewers by bestowing silly nicknames on athletes and showing humorous, story-like highlight film footage.

ESPN also set itself apart from the competition by introducing a number of technical innovations to sports programming. In 1980, for instance, the cable network used the first electronic cut-in at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament. This innovation allowed ESPN to cut away from one game in order to join another one in progress. In 1983 the network offered the first sports broadcast with stereo sound, and two years later it became the first to provide scores and news in graphic form across the bottom of the screen. Ticker-style on-screen graphics later became a standard part of all kinds of broadcasts. In 1995 ESPN introduced the in-game box score to sports telecasts. Over the next decade, viewers came to expect this constant graphical reminder of the score and time remaining when watching any type of game. In 2001 ESPN won a sports Emmy Award for creating the K Zone—the first graphical picture of the strike zone (the imaginary box, defined by baseball rules, in which a pitcher must throw the ball in order for the umpire to call the pitch a strike) in a baseball telecast.

These innovations helped ESPN become the fastest-growing cable channel in the United States in the 1990s. By 2005 the network was available to more than 75 million subscribers across the country. ESPN helped shift the focus of American sports coverage from local to national. Before the introduction of 24-hour sportscasts on cable, most viewers only saw scores and highlights featuring their local teams. By bringing superstars to widespread attention, the network contributed to the trend toward athletes becoming celebrities. Finally, some analysts argue that ESPN has led to an overall increase in the level of interest in sports.

TV sports become big business

The rise of dedicated cable sports networks like ESPN provided TV viewers with more coverage of athletic contests than was ever available before. The broadcast and cable networks began competing for the television rights to major sports leagues and events. As demand for TV sports contracts increased, the prices the networks paid rose dramatically. In 1970, for instance, the networks paid $50 million for a contract to televise pro football, $18 million for Major League Baseball, and $2 million for pro basketball. By 1985, the prices had increased to $450 million for the NFL, $160 million for MLB, and $45 million for the NBA.

Around this time, however, the TV ratings for individual sports programs began to decline. The nation's biggest sporting events—such as the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the NBA Championships, college football bowl games, and the NFL Super Bowl—continued to draw large audiences, and sports programming in general remained very popular. But the competing broadcast and cable networks offered American viewers so many choices of sports on TV that the audience became fragmented among the various options. As a result, the broadcast networks that signed huge TV contracts with pro sports leagues often lost money on the deals. Over time, the low ratings for individual sports programs made the national broadcast networks less willing to air regular-season sporting events. These games mostly moved to cable networks and independent stations, while the national networks increasingly concentrated on broadcasting league playoffs and big events like the Olympic Games.

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