Saturday, May 7, 2016

Sundays with Sacco: The marriage of football and television

+Jim Saccomanno contributing to +Denver Broncos

How professional football began its relationship with television.

When we watch the NCAA Final Four or some other major event on television, we take it completely for granted.

But we should, because once something is invented and reaches mass market status, we quickly forget that it once did not exist. The same goes for cell phones (remember the flip phone, the wall phone, the party line, or even no phone at all?).

The Broncos' Super Bowl 50 win was seen live by the entire country and most of the globe; such is the interest of fans and the growth of both TV and its relationship with the NFL.

But as with everything, there was a beginning that came before the present. Before there was the robust young adult, there was the birth, which has been carefully chronicled by kenn.com.

In the 1940s, there had been games televised here and there, but there were not enough TV sets in public use to justify more.

Things all changed in 1950. As with so many things, the first golden age of pro football spawned the marriage of sport and new technology. The Los Angeles Rams became the first NFL team to have all of its games, home and away, televised to its home market.

The Washington Redskins followed the Rams in arranging their games to be televised, with other teams making deals to have selected games shown on the new medium.

In 1951, the Rams tweaked their policy and decided to televise only road games, figuring that televising home games would hurt sales at the gate.

That same season saw the NFL Championship Game televised nationwide for the first time. The Dumont Network paid the staggering fee of $75,000 for the rights to the game, in which the Rams defeated the Cleveland Browns, 24-17.

Once it began, neither the NFL nor TV went back. Everyone could see the potential, and Park Avenue eyes opened like manhole covers.

The NFL's policy of blacking out home games was challenged in court in 1953, but upheld.

The title game continued to be televised by DuMont, but competitive bidding had begun almost as soon as that first game was shown, and in 1955 NBC replaced Dumont as the network for the title game, paying a rights fee now up to $100,000.

In 1956, CBS became the first network to broadcast some NFL regular-season games to selected television markets across the country.

As with so many things, where we are today had its birth in the post-World War II decade of the 1950s and its growth to full maturity in the turbulent 1960s.

A gigantic leap forward came in the 1958 title game, still referred to as The Greatest Game Ever Played. Entire books have been written about that seminal moment, with key elements coming together like a Big Bang theory for the combination of football and TV.

The Colts (with superstar Johnny Unitas at quarterback) beat the New York Giants (the biggest of big city franchises) in the first "sudden death" overtime game ever played in NFL Championship Game history. Not only did a national TV audience watch, but the pro football fandom was captivated by the concept of sudden-death overtime.