The 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."

With 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 by 1950.

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 advertising revenues.

The 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.

Gillette 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.

But 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).

But 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.

Advertisers 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.

Finally, 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

Except 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 general-interest programming.

When 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.

Sports 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 "everyday life."

Sports 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.

Ultimately, 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

But 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.

Viewers 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."

Sports 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 television.


NBC broadcasting a baseball game in the early 1950s.

The Aesthetics of Televised Sports

And 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.

But 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."

There 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.

The 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).

Baseball 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.

Cameras 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.

Television 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).

Nothing 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.

Of 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 much about?

Televised 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 celebration.

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."

Television 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.

Other 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."

Such 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.

The 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 owners.

Still, 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?

Answers 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.

-Stanley J. Baran


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See also Arledge, Roone; Australian Programming; Canadian Programming in English; Canadian Programming in French; Hockey Night in Canada; Grandstand; Ohlmeyer, Don; Olympics and Television