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televised football

Tech Throwback Thursday: The history of televised football

February 03, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

The American football season may now be over, but don't pack up those jerseys quite yet. Now is a great time for the first of a couple of tech throwbacks looking at some of the innovative technologies involved with viewing sports programs.

Televised sports

camera pointed at sporting eventTelevision and professional football go together like beer and wings. The current record for the most watched television broadcast in the United States is an astounding 112 million viewers of Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. But when did this perfect combination begin?

The first televised football game dates back to September 1939, and was between Fordham and Waynesburg Colleges. The professional league was not far behind, when the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers faced off in the first televised pro game. Unfortunately for Philly fans, the Eagles dropped this game 23-14.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics actually holds the distinction of being the first live sports event to be televised in the world, although those games were only live in Germany. The first televised sport to be seen in America, not surprisingly, was baseball, a scant four months before football made the small screen.

Instant replay

It is impossible to talk about football broadcasts without also talking about the instant replay. While now a staple of televised football, for 30 years broadcasts were unable to quickly reshow clips from the game. In December 1963, only two weeks after the Kennedy assassination, Tony Verna, a director from CBS, broadcast the first instant replay during the Army-Navy game. 

While it was Verna’s intention to provide replays throughout the game, the machine did not work as expected, producing a lot of static and occasionally not playing back the right material. However, by a stroke of luck, the game-winning touchdown was caught on camera and tape correctly. Quickly it was queued up and broadcast. Since this was without precedent, the announcer had to inform the audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!" While slow-motion replay would also be implemented a few years later, the innovative uses of instant replay have continued to evolve even up to the present.

For more detail about the first use of instant replay, check out this archived article.

Magic first-down line

first down line on football game on tvEver watch a football game and notice the magic yellow line that marks the first down? No matter the camera angle or the lighting, it magically appears beneath players' shoes and bodies, in full sunlight and in shade. While I could wax poetic about the technology involved with this innovation from 1998, this article from Sports Illustrated is so good that I highly recommend people read it instead. This video from Newsday and the Associated Press is also a nice primer for this technology.

Suffice it is to say that $25,000 per game was a small price to pay to use this cool and helpful innovation.

There are many other incredible technological innovations involved with broadcasting and watching live sports. Next time I visit this topic, I will talk about the radio helmet, retractable roofs, Jumbotrons and the sports stadium. Until then check out my previous Tech Throwback Thursday article about connected cars.

Oh, and as a native of New England: Go Pats!

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.
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