Photo: Sports Design Blog
There’s some debate about who was the first to broadcast a sporting event over the airwaves and into people’s homes.It’s as if as many entities as possible want to claim that they were the ones who brought you a Jack Dempsey fight before someone else who also broadcast a Jack Dempsey fight.
(Or maybe it was Professor F.W. Springer who had a crude set up rigged to transmit University of Minnesota football games to a very small audience as early as 1912.)
No matter who got there first, there’s no denying that watching (or listening) to sports in the comfort of our homes is America’s real favourite pastime.
And as the games evolved, so did the technology that brings them to us, with each new innovation taking the viewing experience to a new level.
WTAW had the honour of broadcasting the first football game over the radio, a match between the University of Texas and Texas A&M (then known as Mechanical College) on November 25th, 1920.
The first professional football game to be broadcast on the radio was a Thanksgiving Day game between the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions on November 29th, 1934.
On August 5, 1921, KDKA of Pittsburgh, PA broadcast a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field. The game was called by Harold W. Arlin, as were many games back then since KDKA was an early force in the sports broadcasting world. KDKA would also do college football games and continue to do Pirates games. KDKA also broadcast the first ever tennis match on the radio.
The first television broadcast of a sport was pulled off by a radio station known as NBC that was attempting to break into the TV market.
Bill Stern had the honour of calling a baseball game between Columbia University and Princeton University that only 400 televisions in the country were capable of receiving. The date of this game's broadcast May 17, 1939.
The camera was nothing like the standard centre field set-up we have today. For the first few broadcasts, one camera actually panned back and forth between the pitcher and the catcher in a futile attempt to pick up the ball.
Sports programming on TV didn't appear in colour until August 26, 1955.
The sport that was shown in colour first was not baseball, but tennis. It was a Davis Cup match between the U.S. and Australia that was covered by NBC.
Canadian George Retzlaff invented a crude version of instant replay back in 1955 when working for Canada's CBC. It took 30 seconds of prep time for the moment to be re-lived, so only goals were replayed at first.
CBS's Tony Verna successfully got a VCR to work as a playback machine in 1963 for a more modern interpretation, giving him credit for being the inventor the 'instant' replay.
The game where video instant replay was first used was the annual Army-Navy skirmish. The quarterback for Navy that year was Roger Staubach.
'Slo-mo' replay didn't come along too long after the initial invention of basic instant replay.
In 1956, ABC -- with the help of the Ampex Corporation (one of the first video recording companies) -- was able to develop a recorder that could retrieve 30 second replays within 4 seconds, and also had controls to allow for three different speed of slow-motion. It could even freeze frames.
The technology of slo-mo didn't take long to reach other networks. These days, practically all instant replays are in slow motion, from every possible angle.
In the beginning, getting data on the screens was a crude affair, with smaller stations holding cue cards in front of the camera, but in 1965 the technology started to improve.
By the early 1970s, that yellow font that dominates old ESPN Classic broadcasts was very common. The letters and numbers were created by a simple character generator that overlaid the live transmission.
During the 1975 World Series, the technology improved enough to the point where stats could be updated during the course of the game thanks to information stored on archaic data devices.
These days it would be tough to imagine a sports broadcast that didn't cram every inch of the screen with as many numbers, scores, and robots doing calisthenics as possible.
September 7, 1979 was the birthday of the groundbreaking channel that dared to show nothing but sports, 24 hours a day.
ESPN's creation and success proved that televised sports is a big enough market to build an empire around -- so big that ESPN can't be contained on one, or even two, channels.
Since ESPN started, there have been dozens of other sports networks created, though none of them have been able to duplicate their massive success.
The rule used to be that whatever Fox, CBS, NBC, or ESPN decided to air in your immediate area was the only option you had.
If a network decided to interrupt your game with an airing of the movie 'Heidi,' there wasn't a thing you could do about it.
Satellite TV changed that, but was mostly a toy for the rich until small personal dishes like DirectTV came on the scene in the early 1990s.
NFL Sunday Ticket launched in 1994 (on DirecTV only) giving football fans the ability to choose any game they wanted, no matter what channel was carrying the game or where it was being played.
The other major sports, and even college sports now offer similar 'all access' packages on satellite and cable, allowing fans to follow any team they want, even if they live on the wrong side of the country.
The first large scale innovation from the graphic department of the Fox spin-off company SportsVision was the FoxBox.
NBC was the first to display a constant graphic of the balls and strikes during baseball telecasts, and a few other smaller network affiliates added things such as the speed of the pitch, and a diagram indicating how many people are on base.
Fox gets credit for condensing all those things and placing them in a small box that never leaves the screen. All sports broadcasts around the world now have something similar to the idea of the FoxBox since fans simply cannot live without it.
Over the years, it has been modified and streamlined to provide all the important information on a single line at the top of the screen.
Two years earlier, Fox introduced FoxTrax to the NHL -- a glowing yellow dot that appeared to follow the puck every where it went on the ice.
Meant to increase visibility, all it did was increase anger in fans who loathed the unnecessary distraction. It was roundly criticised and eventual dumped.
However, a new version on same technology debuted during a Bengals vs. Ravens game on September 27, 1998, as TV introduced a glowing yellow first down indicator that only appears to TV viewers and doesn't obstruct their view of the game.
It's become such a vital part of the football experience that even fans who are at the stadium wish they could see it (although one company aims to do just that.)
The process is an amazing technological achievement that requires a set-up to rival the main TV broadcast. It employs the use of several dedicated cameras, 3D mapping of the football field, and complicated projection system.
The idea of the '1st and 10' system was actually spawned in 1976 by David W. Crain (according to patent information), but broadcasts weren't yet capable of effectively using the system. It was forgotten about until ESPN -- in congruence with SportVision -- resurrected the idea.
TiVo, launched in 1999, certainly has uses that are independent of sports, but no invention has insured that the most ardent, but busy, fans get their fix whenever it is most convenient for them.
Pretty much every cable and satellite company has their own inceptions of digital video recorders (DVRs) built-in with their service, thus giving sports fans multiple options to choose from. Now you can watch the game on your schedule, not theirs (and skip the commericals.)
The technology for high definition television dates back all the way to the 1930s (!), but the concept wasn't commonplace in American households until the early 2000s.
And the biggest reason for its success is sports.
Watching games in the highest possible resolution (and on bigger, brighter screens) ensures you see everything, and in greater detail than ever before. Seeing every blade of grass on the pitch and every bead of sweat on the players makes fans feel more connected to their heroes than ever.
Streaming video over the internet has been around since the 1990s (a stream of the audio from a Yankees and Mariners game in 1995 was the first example of streaming sports radio), however bandwidth and hardware issues hindered the medium from getting any real traction until the mid-2000s.
Major League Baseball was a pioneer in the online broadcast of their games, and ESPN was (and still is) at the front of the movement with their new online-only network, ESPN3.com. Launched as an on-demand service in 2005, it now broadcast hundreds of live events and also stores many of them for on-demand viewing later on.
Now, even obscure sports and leagues that get shunned by the big networks can find a home for their videos.
The technology is still in its infancy and only an elite group of people can reasonably afford a full 3D set-up (including the glasses required to watch the thing), but as the technology improves and becomes cheaper, 3D could eventually demote HD to where standard definition currently stands.
The 3D television wasn't available to the public until 2008 and have been available at major retailers for only the better part of the last two years. ESPN's 3D channels, which continuously broadcast sports in three-dimensions didn't really become readily available until 2010.
3D televisions that do not need glasses aren't too far beyond the horizon and once that technology is attainable by most people, viewing sports may never again be the same.
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