Sports have not always been so deeply integrated into our culture. Exposure mostly consisted of communities attending games of local high school or college teams. The onset of the sports broadcast has revolutionized games like baseball and football making them into the national money-making giants that they are today. At the same time sports offered a symbiotic relationship to broadcasting, initially offering cheap programming at a fragile time in the development of the television. Together, they grew significantly for better or worse between the 50s and 70s.
Like radio, television allowed for live reporting, and because it additionally offered live images, the feeling of actually being at the game was greater for audiences. In the early days, sports broadcasts played a key role in the success of networks. NBC and CBS personally manufactured and sold television sets and they predicted that putting on big name attractions like the World Series and heavyweight fights would help create an intense demand for their product. People wanted to see what they were missing; what their coworkers were talking about. The number of television sets sitting in the living rooms of American families went from one-hundred and nineteen thousand in 1948 to ten and a half million by 1950. It was officially becoming a mass medium. Because production budgets were tight, networks were able to utilize sporting events as very economic programming content (a huge concern in the days of small audiences and low ad revenue). Games were already scheduled, the beautiful sets were already built, no talent to hire, and the lighting was often provided by the day’s sunlight. In the 50s, large followings of other content such as sitcoms and variety shows bumped sports broadcasting from prime time to new time slots on the weekends (which later changed).
Once boxing hit the airwaves, it exploded in popularity. “The saturation of boxing over the air led to the demise of local fight clubs, as fight fans now stayed home to watch the fight on TV; there were about 50 fight clubs in 1960, compared to 300 in 1952, and the number of professional boxers declined by more than 50%” (Wenner, 61) Just like with the quiz show scandal of the same decade, network execs had dollar signs in their eyes and did things like creating their own fight cards, and furthermore, organized crime had a stranglehold on the sport as a whole. The January, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated did an investigative piece saying “Boxing today is a national scandal.”
Around the early 60s, videotape, satellites, and portable cameras made it ever so much easier for networks to perform live broadcasts and “Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which permitted professional sports teams in a league to negotiate as one unit with broadcasters” (Wenner, 61) which prior to this would have been considered a violation of antitrust laws.
Advertisers quickly discovered that sports broadcasting was creating an ideal market for particular kinds of products. The densely blue-collar male market was great for selling razor blades (Gillette), beer, and even big items like automobiles. In the beginning, like most other programs of the time, sports broadcasts were funded by a sole sponsor. With other types of shows, the concept of singularly-sponsored programs were eventually done away with because of bias and/or because the network wanted to retain greater control of their content. When it came to sports however, the broadcasts had just because so expensive by the 1960s, after paying for all the televising rights to organizations like the NFL and the salaries of the announcers, that individual companies found it difficult to fund an entire program. This ultimately proved very beneficial to the networks as advertisers would fight for precious advertising time during a game that was sure to have a massive television audience.
Professional football was the first benefactor to really feel the monetary power of the devoted demographic that they attracted. In 1958, the NFL co-commissioner Bert Bell found a way to increase the amount of money each game could generate by imposing television time outs during a matchup. The other commissioner, Pete Rozelle used the growth in ratings and advertising revenue to negotiate their contract with CBS. In ’62, he got the NFL $4.5 million per year for broadcasting right. In ’64, that amount increased to $14 million per year. While CBS had the National Football League, NBC had the American Football League. Initially competitors, after NBC paid $42 million dollars for a 5 year contract, the NFL and AFL agreed to a merger allowing both networks to broadcast half of the games.
ABC was getting their ass kicked by the beginning of the 60s, so they got aggressive. “Wide World of Sports” launched in ’61 covering a variety of sports events and pioneered television coverage of the Olympic Games. From acquiring the Olympics, ABC virtually cemented themselves as being the number one sports broadcaster at least once every four years. They later found great success in a little show called Monday Night Football in 1970 putting sports coverage in the prime time on a regular basis. ABC said that the success of a prime time sports show was contingent upon the coverage being made fun and entertaining. To ensure this, they invested and delved into the newest technologies such as the instant replay and slow motion. “To no small extent, ABC rode its success with sports programming from third place to the top of the heap among the networks by the mid-1970s”. (Wenner, 63)
The system in place has been one of significant cross-promotion. Sports coverage from the very beginning has been free advertisement for the respective sport or team, while the team provides cheap content for the media outlet. Thanks to television’s sports broadcasting, sports have become so much more of a significant cultural force. Networks were just looking for cheap content and what they did was help create a massive industry that is sure to stick around far into the future. We will continue to call our local professional team “us”, we will continue to buy jerseys of our favorite players, and we will continue to tune into the super bowl year after year because if nothing else, not doing so will often give you nothing to talk with people about the next day.
Wenner, Lawrence. Media, Sports, & Society . 1989. Print.
Baran, Stanley. “Sports and Television.” Web. .
Beck, Daniel, and Louis Bosshart. “Sports and Media.”Communication Research Trends. 22.4 (2003): Print.