history of sports on U.S. television is the history of sports on
network television. Indeed, that history is closely related
to the development and success of the major television networks.
"Television got off the ground because of sports," reminisced pioneering
television sports director Harry Coyle. He coninued, "Today, maybe,
sports need television to survive, but it was just the opposite
when it first started. When we (NBC) put on the World Series in
1947, heavyweight fights, the Army-Navy football game, the sales
of television sets just spurted."
only 190,000 sets in use in 1948, the attraction of sports to the
networks in its early period was not advertising dollars. Instead,
broadcasters were looking toward the future of the medium, and aired
sports as a means of boosting demand for television as a medium.
They believed their strategy would eventually pay off in advertising
revenues. But because NBC, CBS and DuMont manufactured and sold
receiver sets, their more immediate goal was to sell more of them.
Sports did indeed draw viewers, and although the stunning acceptance
and diffusion of television cannot be attributed solely to sports,
the number of sets in use in the U.S. reached ten and a half million
Technical and economic factors made sports attractive to the fledging
medium. Early television cameras were heavy and cumbersome and needed
bright light to produce even a passable picture. Boxing and wrestling,
contested in confined, very well-lit arenas and baseball and football,
well-lit by the sun and played out in a familiar, well-defined spaces,
were perfect subjects for the lens. Equally important, because sporting
events already existed there were no sets to build, no writers and
actors to hire. This made sports inexpensive to produce, a primary
concern when the audience was small and not yet generating large
first televised sporting event was a college baseball game between
Columbia and Princeton in 1939, covered by one camera providing
a point of view along the third base line. But the first network
sports broadcast was NBC's Gillette Cavalcade of Sports,
which premiered in 1944 with the Willie Pep vs. Chalky White Featherweight
Championship bout. Sports soon became a fixture on prime-time network
programming, often accounting for one third of the networks' total
evening fare. But in the 1950s, as television's other genres matured
and developed their own large and loyal (and approximately 50% female)
followings, sports began to disappear from network prime-time, settling
into a very profitable and successful niche on weekends. This, too,
would change, like so much else in television, with alterations
in the technology and economics of the medium.
Cavalcade of Sports stayed on the network air for 20 years,
a prime example of sporting events presented by a single sponsor.
By the mid-1960s, however, televised sports had become so expensive
that individual advertisers found it increasingly difficult to pay
for sponsorship of major events by themselves. Still, the number
of hours of sports on network television exploded as the audience
grew and the multiplying ranks of spot-buying advertisers coveted
these valuable minutes. This mutually beneficial situation persisted
until well into the 1980s when the historically increasing amounts
of advertising dollars began to decline, and networks experienced
diminishing profit margins on sports.
the economics of televised sports had begun to unravel earlier.
In 1970, for example, the networks paid $50 million to broadcast
the National Football League (NFL), $2 million for the National
Basketball Association (NBA) and $18 million for major league baseball.
In 1985 those figures had risen to $450 million, $45 million and
$160 million respectively. These large increases were fueled by
growing public interest in professional sports, in part as a result
of more and better television coverage. But equally important, the
networks saw the broadcasting of big time sports as the hallmark
of institutional supremacy in broadcasting. Major league sports
meant major league broadcasting--not an unimportant issue for the
networks now challenged by VCR, the newly empowered independent
stations, and cable. Many of these cable channels were themselves
carrying sports (WGN, WTBS, and HBO, for example), and one, ESPN,
offered nothing but sports. Seemingly unconcerned, the CBS, NBC,
and ABC attitude could be described as "Who cares about Australian
Rules Football?" (a high point of early ESPN programming).
rising fees for rights to major sporting events were not, in themselves,
bad for the networks. They could afford them, and the cable and
independent channels could not. But increasing rights fees, accompanied
by falling ratings, proved to be disastrous. From 1980 to 1984,
broadcasts of professional football lost 7% of their viewership
(12% among men 18 to 34 years old) and baseball lost 26% of its
viewers, showing a 63% decline among young males. Non-sports programming
on cable, home video use, and the independents took many of these
viewers. In addition, sports on the competing channels further diluted
the remaining sports audience. To make up for falling revenues on
all its programming as they began to lose audience, the networks
began to raise the price of advertising time on sports shows to
cover the huge rights fees contractually owed to the sports leagues.
balked. Not only were they unwilling to pay higher prices for smaller
audiences, but the once attractive male audience was becoming less
desirable as working women came to control even larger amounts of
consumer capital. Rather than pay what they saw as inflated rates
for a smaller and now less prized set of viewers, many advertisers
bought commercial time away from sports altogether, feeling they
could reach their target audiences more efficiently through other
types of shows. Car manufacturers turned to prime-time drama to
reach women, who were increasingly making car-buying decisions;
beer makers were turning to MTV to get young women and young men.
in order to make the most of their expensive contracts with the
major sports leagues, the networks began broadcasting more sports.
But spots on sports shows would have been easier to sell had there
been fewer of them on the market. The three networks together showed
1,500 hours of sports in 1985, double what they programmed in 1960.
With about 8 minutes of commercials an hour, the addition of even
relatively few hours of programming had a noticeable effect on the
supply-and-demand balance of the commercial spot market.
It was during this same period that superstations WTBS and WGN,
and premium channel HBO began national, cable-fed sports programming.
ESPN was launched in 1979 and by mid-1980 reached 4 million homes.
By 1986, 37 million households subscribed. The glut of sports on
television was abetted even more by crucial courts decisions affecting
intercollegiat competition. Universities, desirous of their own
access to broadcast riches, successfully challenged the National
Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and, at times their own regional
athletic conferences, to be free of what they considered restrictive
television contracts and broadcast revenue-sharing agreements. College
basketball and football, once local or regional in appeal, began
appearing on the television dial in a complex array of syndication
packages and school-centered or conference-centered television networks.
While the history of televised sports may have been directly related
to network television, the current and future states of the genre
certainly are not. There are more televised sports today than ever
before and they continue to draw a large total audience, but it
is an audience fragmented among many available choices. Sports on
television, then, is decreasingly likely to originate on a national
network. Despite the Super Bowl's annually growing audience and
increases in the price of a 30 second spot ($1.3 million for some
aired during the 1995 San Francisco/San Diego mismatch), it remains
a television anomaly, unique as a television and cultural event.
Ratings for individual television sports programs generally continue
to decline in the 1990s. The 1993 World Series, for example, had
a cumulative rating for all its games of slightly more than 16,
surpassing only the 1989 Series interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Game 1 of the 1993 contest between Toronto and Atlanta was the lowest
rated World Series game ever recorded by Nielsen. When CBS's four
year, $1.06 billion deal with major league baseball ended with that
Series, the best network deal that the leagues could make was an
arrangement with both ABC and NBC tying baseball's income to the
amount of advertising sold. Baseball was forced into the business
of selling advertising time for the networks (and therefore, for
itself). Hockey's ratings on its ABC and ESPN/ESPN2 telecasts, never
big, also declined, from 0.9 in 1992 to 0.8 in 1993. The pattern
is the same for football, basketball and the Olympics.
The Industrial Benefits of Televised Sports
This does not mean, however, that viewers no longer watch sports
on television. But they have ceased to watch the big marquee events
in numbers as great as they once did. Now cable channels and local
independent stations have joined the networks as primary outlets
for sports programming, and sports remains valuable and attractive
to programmers for several distinct reasons
for the big ticket events like the NCAA Basketball Championships,
the Super Bowl, the World Series, the National Basketball Association
(NBA) Championships and the major college football bowl games, televised
sports generally produce smaller audiences than prime-time network
programming. Of course, for independents and cable channels sports
contests may often draw their biggest viewership. But regardless
of the size of the audience for a sports telecast, it is audience
composition that is important--this is the demographically attractive
audience for advertisers who want to reach males, 18 to 49 years
old. Certain sports also bring with them even more narrowly defined
audience segments. The products advertised during a bowling match,
a game of golf or an auto race, make it immediately clear that a
particular demographic group is being targeted. And advertising
rates for these events are usually well below those charged on more
the new technologies began to divide the television audience, huge
rights fees to big sports leagues became a burden for the networks.
But for cable channels, local broadcasters and even for certain
events on the networks, sports are often cheaper to buy and air
than much first-run programming. This is why many regional sports
networks such as the Boston Red Sox Baseball Network have developed.
This is why team- and conference-centered ad hoc networks (groups
of stations that come together in a network for specific programming
like the Pac-10 Football Network or the Big East Game of the Week)
have grown in number. And this is why ballgames or boxing matches
are programmed on cable channels such as HBO, WTBS, WGN, and TNT.
is the only programming that has successfully attracted large audiences
on a weekend day. This creation of regularized audience behavior
enables the medium to maintain its role as a familiar aspect of
also link the medium into a system of cross-promotion. Newspapers,
radio stations, even stations in competition with a channel airing
the weekend's big game all provide free advertising in the course
of their usual sports coverage.
the reason sports are popular with broadcasters is that they are
popular with viewers. Even the 1993 "low rated" World Series drew
an average of fourteen and a half million households a game. The
National Hockey League's (NHL) tiny 0.8 rating per game translates
into three quarters of a million homes. And, as FOX Television's
1994 acquisition of the pro football rights from CBS makes clear,
the networks still see the ownership of the rights to major league
sports as tantamount to being in the Big Time. Owner Rupert Murdoch
dismissed the $350 million loss for FOX Television in its first
year of NFL broadcasts as "an investment" in altering audience perceptions
of his low-rated fourth network.
The Appeals of Televised Sports
why are these contests of skill, originally designed to test the
abilities of the participants and then to delight those who attend,
so popular from a distance, on an illuminated iridescent screen?
A range of possible appeals may be involved in gathering the large
audiences for sporting events.
identify with their team, their favorite players, those warriors
who carry the good name of their city, college, conference, nation,
ethnic heritage, or other characteristic, into battle. Sports offer
real heroes and villains, as opposed to the fictional characters
of televised drama and comedy. Fans become familiar with those real
individuals and their teams, following them, learning about them,
living and dying with them, or, in the immortal words of ABC
Wide World of Sports, experiencing with them the "joy of victory
and the agony of defeat."
on television is live television, it is history in the making, it
is being "up close and personal" (again, thanks to ABC) as possibly
momentous events unfold. To thrill in the victory of a favorite,
to join the excitment of the moment in an exhilarating game or to
learn more about the teams, players or games on television are among
possible satisfactions that are obviously specific to sports on
NBC broadcasting a baseball game in the early 1950s.
Aesthetics of Televised Sports
no doubt a fourth reason why people watch televised sports is that
they often make great television. Carlton Fisk's famous 1975 World
Series homer, the American hockey victory over the Soviet Union
team at the Lake Placid Olympics and the camera's sad attention
to Thurman Thomas in the last quarter of the 1994 Super Bowl, its
focus on the individual miscues that had led to a fourth straight
Buffalo Bills defeat, are only three examples of the wonder that
can be sports on television.
what, specifically, makes an individual sporting event "good television?"
As Channels writer Julie Talen wrote, "All sports are not
created equal. The most popular sports on TV are those best served
by the medium's limitations." What she means is that even if there
are 20 cameras and 40 microphones at an event, the viewer still
receives one picture and one set of sounds. Together these must
convey a sense of what is happening in the actual contest. Monday
Night Football's long-time director, Chet Forte, argued, "It's
impossible to blow a football game. . .Football works as a flattened
sport. Its rectangular field fits on the screen far more readily
than, for example, golf's far-flung woods and sand traps. The football
moves right or left on the screen and back again. Its limited repertoire--kick,
pass, and run--sets it apart from, say, baseball, where the range
of possibilities for the ball and the players at any given moment
is enormous." And CBS's top football director, Sandy Grossman, says
"The reason (the gridiron) is easier to cover is because every play
is a separate story. There's a beginning, a middle, and an end,
and then there's 20 or 30 seconds to retell it or react to it."
are, in other words, certain characteristics of the different sports
that make them better dramatic and visual matches for television,
and in doing so, render them more popular with audiences.
camera, and therefore the fans' attention, is repeatedly redirected
to a specific starting point for each new play, serve, or pitch.
This is what CBS's Grossman above called a "separate story." Therefore,
football and baseball are better than hockey and soccer in providing
a discrete starting point.
Tension can be sustained and viewer interest maintained if something
crucial can occur at any moment. Any pitch can result in a home
run or a fine running catch by the center fielder. Any pass can
produce a touchdown or an interception. In contrast, the first three
quarters of a basketball game usually serve only to set up the last
three minutes and much of soccer's action happens at mid-field,
yards and yards away from the goal (and a potential exciting save
or game-changing score).
has innings, football has time-outs and quarters. Those covering
and those watching the event can establish a rhythm that allows
for the more-or-less natural insertion of commercials and visits
to the refrigerator. Soccer has continuous action, as does hockey,
which makes commercial insertion more complex.
and viewers have to be able to follow the object of interest on
the field and on the small screen, respectively. Basketballs and
footballs are big while hockey pucks and golf balls are quite small.
is a visual medium; it lives by the pictures it offers its viewers.
Baseball and football offer spectacle--big, full, beautiful stadiums,
lovely playing surfaces, the blimp, cheerleaders (football) and
the bullpen (baseball). Golf presents the manicured scenery of country
club settings and the occasional glimpse at windswept Scottish headlands.
Tennis, by contrast, has a small rectangular court and bowling has
a skinny lane of wood (though each has the beginning-middle-end
story structure so desireable to directors).
adds to visual variety like physical action, people moving and competing.
Basketball is ballet above the rim. In football there are incredible
tests of strength and aggression. Tennis demands action defined
by precision and endurance.
Fans follow players as well as teams and the camera is well versed
in the close-up. Roone Arledge of ABC called this "sports as soap
opera." Baseball gives us the tight shot of the pitcher's anxiety
as he holds the runners on first and third or zooms in on the concentration
in the basketball player's eyes as she shoots two from the charity
stripe with the game on the line. In hockey it's much more difficult
to provide close-up, personal video images because the players wear
helmets and skate at 30 miles an hour, but fans can still be attached
to individual personalities, waiting for the grudge-induced fistfight
on the ice. And as the celebrity status of Arnold Palmer or Jack
Nicklaus, or the glamorous intensity of a John McEnroe, a Martina
Navratilova, or a Jimmy Conners attest, even the more sedate sports
create a cult-like status for their superstars.
course, television prefers sports with wide interest because it
assures more viewers and ad revenue; but this is a plus for sports
fans as well. Surely many fans watch games between teams they would
not typically follow. The outcome might affect their home-town favorites
or they want to see that scrappy second baseman they've read so
Sports and "Real World" Sports
Fans may watch televised sports for many of these reasons, but this
involvment is not without its costs. Here the difference between
sports and television's other forms of programming becomes clearer.
That is, unlike soap operas and situation comedies, sports exist
apart from television. Major league baseball, for example, was born
before radio was invented and developed its rules, traditions, nature
and character apart from television. Moreover, sports are played
in front of and for paying customers. This produces two important
tensions. First, what have sports lost and gained from their wedding
to television? Second, what have fans lost and gained?
The gains might be obvious. The leagues and athletes have prospered.
More and more teams and tournaments are played in more and more
cities and fill more and more television screens. Television has
helped create tremendous interest and excitement for the public,
turning the Super Bowl, for example, into something akin to a national
The losses, however, might be less obvious. Trying to explain dips
in television ratings and attendance at games in the 1993 NFL season,
for example, sports reporter Bud Geracie of the San Jose Mercury
News wrote, "Terry Bradshaw (former NFL quarterback and Hall
of Fame inductee) says that although Dallas is 'as good as any team
that's ever played, the league as a whole isn't fun to watch.' Is
this a temporary lull in the action, or a permanent condition? Is
this (1993) NFL season the product of fluky misfortunes, or is it
the beast born of parity...The NFL wanted parity--and took measures
to achieve it--and you can't argue with the logic or the success
of the concept. The NFL wished to maximize the number of teams in
play-off contention late in the season, thereby maximizing fan interest,
TV ratings, revenues and the rest. This is what the NFL bosses sought,
and this is what they got. What they seem to have lost in the process
is the big game. 'There are no big games between 5-4 teams vying
for wildcard spots,' said Bob Costas of NBC."
has also been instrumental in changing sports in other not-so-obvious
ways, for example in the alteration, even the destruction, of traditional
college sports conferences. In February 1994 four schools, The University
of Texas, Texas A and M, Texas Tech and Baylor, left the 80 year
old Southwest Conference to join another regional conference, the
Big Eight. One goal was to cash in on ABC's promise to pay the newly
expanded league between $85 million and $90 million for the next
five years, with the promise of an additional $10 million if this
new football "super-conference" developed a play-off.
schools in the former Southwestern Conference were left behind.
Bubba Thornton, alumnus and track coach of one of the jilted schools,
Texas Christian University, lamented in a Sports Illustrated
interview, "What the Southwest Conference was about was small towns
and big cities, Texans against Texans, wives and girlfriends dressing
up, bragging rights, the Methodist preacher talking Sunday morning
about beating the Christians [Church of Christ], all the things
that keep you going. We were about tradition all these years instead
of instant gratification and egos. This decision will come back
to haunt us."
a view might be attributed to no more than nostalgia, a common aspect
of sports in any medium. And certainly different critics' lists
might vary. But here are several other "concessions" that fans and
the games themselves have made to television: 1) games moved to
awkward times of day to satisfy television schedules, ignoring fans
who've bought tickets; 2) giant video screens in arenas and stadiums;
3) alteration of game rules, as in the creation of the "TV time-out"
for television commercials; 4) free agency for players and consequent
moves to the "highest bidder;" 5) pro teams moving to better "markets;"
6) wild-card games designed to increase playoff partipants; 7) expanded
playoffs; 8) the 40-second shot clock in the NFL; 9) the designated
hitter in the American League; 10) over-expansion in the professional
leagues; 11) salary caps; 12) umpire and officials strikes; 13)
recruiting abuses as college teams chase television riches; 14)
the playing of World Series games at night in freezing October weather
(Game 7 of the 1994 Series was scheduled for October 30); 15) electric
lights in Wrigley Field. And 16) players strikes and lock-outs.
1994 World Series fell victim to baseball's labor problems, but
at the root of the dispute that also killed the last half of that
season was the inability of the sports' owners to resolve "revenue
disparities" between the small and large television market teams.
The 1994-95 National
Hockey League season lost nearly half its contests as well as its
All Star Game to precisely the same dispute among its franchise
the future of sports on television is certainly one that promises
more contests on the screen and more transformation of both the
games and the medium. It's widely accepted, for example, that one
reasons the networks paid such large rights fees to the professional
sports leagues throughout the 1980s was to keep them out of the
hands of pay-per-view television programmers. In the short term
the strategy was successful. But virtually every cable system in
America offers at least boxing on a pay basis and the Sports Channel
is, for all intents and purposes, pay television. What will happen
to competitiveness, franchise stability, and scheduling as individual
teams become star attractions? What will happen to the look of the
broadcasts and the nature of the games if television "tickets" rather
than advertising become the basis of program support? What will
changes in the economics of the sports-television marriage mean
to the teams, the medium and to the fans? What technological innovations
(in covering the games and in distributing them) will we see and
what might be their impact?
to these questions are neither immediate nor obvious. But as a sports
reporter might put it, "one thing is certain"--sports will continue
to be closely intertwined with devleopments in television. Major
events will continue to serve as national rituals. And audiences
will continue to follow favorite teams and celebrity players, watching
from a distance as the skills, the strength, the speed, and the
tactics of athletes, coaches, and owners are pitted against one
another on the screen in the home.
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also Arledge, Roone;
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Programming in French; Hockey
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