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Television & Sports: A Love Story

via MLB / Fox Sports / Boston Red Sox

As the clock turns towards the second half of 2020 and many of us find ourselves due to the Covid-19 pandemic solely watching sports on television this summer, rather than attending games, we take a moment to look back in history at how this love affair with television and sports began and how we got to where we are today.

Television debuted to the masses of the United States at the 1939 World Fair held in New York City when RCA head David Sarnoff showcased the TRK-12 which was the first set available for purchase by the public. Sarnoff also headed the group that began television network broadcasts by granting rights to the newly created NBC for coverage of the opening ceremonies and events of the fair and eventually a regular schedule of broadcasts that would consist of 2 hours in the afternoon and roughly an hour in the evening, what we now know as “Prime Time”.

Later on that year, as television set ownership and viewership continued to grow at a rough rate of 10 percent per week, NBC broadened the scope of what it would show from produced shows to broadcasting of live events. This would include the introduction of live sports broadcasts to the television platform.

On May 17th, 1939 a college baseball game between Ivy League rivals Princeton and Columbia became the first sports broadcast on television. The game, ironically goes extra innings with the Princeton Tigers pulling out the 2-1 victory.

The single camera sat atop a 12 foot wooden platform and sent signals through a coiling wire to an amplifier truck which then boosted the signal to an antenna sitting on top of a flag pole and eventually would be picked up via airwaves on the 85th floor of the Empire State building in Manhattan. That signal would then be re-transmitted to the roughly 3,000 (yes, that’s all) television sets in the viewing area.

To put in even further perspective how impressive the viewership numbers of television were and how this would impact sports, it should be noted that the 3,000 people watching the game on television was 7.5 times more than the 400 fans in attendance at Baker Field on the Columbia University campus.

The landscape of sports had forever been changed. Within ten years of that broadcast, a projected 10 million people would watch one of the biggest college football games of the season, the 35th Rose Bowl Game featuring the Big Nine Conference Champion Northwestern Wildcats and the Pacific Coast Conference Champion California Golden Bears. The Golden Bears were 10-0 coming into the matchup in Pasadena and looked well on their way to an undefeated season, until they were abruptly upset by the Wildcats 20-14. This game was just the 3rd meeting under the conference champions agreement. While the Rose Bowl, now the "Grand-daddy of Them All" exists today as part of the College Football Playoffs and the New Years Day Six, so do the conferences now known as the Big Ten and Pac 12.

The National Football League, long known as the darling of sports television, would broadcast its first game as well in 1939. On October 22, an 8 man crew led by play-by-play announcer Skip Waltz would transmit that day’s game from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, NY which featured the Philadelphia Eagles losing to the Brooklyn Football Dodgers 23-14. Waltz’s broadcast was made possible by two iconoscope cameras, one fixed at the 40 yard line and another in the mezzanine deck and reached roughly 500 sets in the New York area. Today, NFL broadcasts reach an average of 16.8 million viewers featuring multiple games per day spread over five networks and that’s just in the United States.

The National Basketball Association broadcast its first game in 1953, just three short years after the league was founded. However, it was a cigar smoking coach and a bunch of dominating players wearing green and white jerseys from Boston that put the NBA on the map when they won eight straight championships and showcased some spectacular battles of the greatest players in the game like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Cousy.

As the popularity and technology grew, this paved the way for the other major pro sports to jump on the television bandwagon. The NHL would bounce around showing games sparingly from the 1940’s through most of the modern era before finally becoming a staple in 2004, when the league signed an exclusive rights deal with NBC. That deal has since been renewed multiple times and has ensured broadcast of NHL games on network television through the 2021 season with negotiations on yet another long-term renewal in the works already.

The second revolution of sports television broadcasting came in 1979, when a basic cable channel in Bristol, Connecticut launched from its studios built inside of a double wide trailer. Within a few years after its launch the network, known worldwide today as ESPN, had established itself as a strong stable of sports broadcasts ranging from major leagues to the somewhat bizzare. ESPN today is a massive cable network conglomerate featuring a multiplex of networks viewable via cable, digital cable and satellite. ESPN was also one of the first television networks to launch a proprietary digital platform which also incorporated the ability to stream its programing via internet or mobile transmission allowing the ability to now take your “television viewing” anywhere you’re going.

So where have we gone from the days of 1939 and one broadcast in an afternoon on NBC? Well currently, there are roughly 39 sports specific networks broadcasting in the United States, some of which have multiple branches to them such as ESPN, NBC SportsNet and Fox Sports. As the advent of new technologies continues, it only begs us to continue to explore new facets of broadcasting these events.

From on-screen displays in games such as the “Line of Scrimmage” and “First Down” lines in a football game, to the score, game clock, pitch counts and locations in a baseball game, sports television is a still ever evolving medium and now a source of as much information about the event as it is entertaining to watch the event and with this element of intrigue the viewership numbers continue to grow. From 3,000 to 10 million to a projected viewership of the Super Bowl broadcasts at 115 million, just in the United States alone, which makes for all the reasons to why sports television broadcasts are now not just some of the most watched programs, but also most profitable broadcasts in the history of the television business.

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