I grew up with television sports. We had one channel at first, then two, then three. Live sports events appeared only on Saturdays and Sundays, mainly baseball and football. The NBA was strictly nowheresville, a small-time enterprise. Wilt Chamberlain’s famed 100-point game was not filmed at all, played as it was in a dark school gym in Pennsylvania somewhere. (Snippets of a radio broadcast survive.) A baseball fan in the Midwest might be forgiven for assuming that the only important team was the New York Yankees. In football, television made its first big breakthrough with the 1958 NFL Championship Game, called “the greatest game ever played.” Nobody called it “The Super Bowl.”
That game, between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, survives in a remarkably well-made video. I say “remarkably” because it dates back to the time when TV cameras weighed as much as a Volkswagen, when they couldn’t readily be moved, and when instant replay videotape did not exist.
Technology dictated the sports we watched and how we watched them. A TV camera could be posted at home plate, at third base, and at first base. That was how we saw baseball. The new, more flexible, more mobile equipment made its most significant impact on football. With mobility and re-play capacity, the game — which is essentially a repeated series of set pieces, with short intervals between — could be broken into isolated segments for better understanding and higher drama. Result? The NFL brand of football overtook baseball as “America’s National Pastime,” such time being passed increasingly in front of a television set.
THIS CHRISTMAS SEASON MARKS the breakthrough in the consumer market for high-definition, big screen television sets. Prices are dropping fast. TV insider Max Robbins, the editor of Broadcast and Cable Magazine, said recently in a radio interview that consumers should “Wait till after Christmas” to buy — i.e., that prices would come down even further.
Digital and high-def could conceivably change not only the way we watch sports, but which sports we watch.
It took time for the first video revolution to take hold, the NFL’s ascendancy being only the most obvious. That revolution blossomed throughout the 1970s, with ABC’s Roone Arledge exploiting it most fully. ABC’s Wide World of Sports, especially its Olympics broadcast, took complete advantage of portability and replay to educate the television viewer in a whole passel of new sports, sports that are with us to this day: skating, gymnastics, skiing, bobsledding.
No futurist, so far as I know, predicted the offshoots those sports gave birth to, namely the “trash sports” like the X-Games and the Gravity Games. And no one can predict the impact of an unexpectedly influential personality, like Muhammad Ali in the ’70s or Tiger Woods in the ’90s.
WHAT CAN WE ANTICIPATE from high-def sports? What will be new? What will be popular?
In 1958, perhaps no football insider could have appreciated it the changes to come. A video technician might have. Let’s try to look at sports the way that video nerd would look at them. High-def big-screen TV will, above all, make certain elements of sport more visible (or indeed, visible at all). Those sports with small balls or pucks moving fast against large backgrounds, with many fast-moving players involved in complicated plays, stand to gain most from digital visibility.
Most obvious, hockey will probably get much more popular. Set against other major sports, hockey still looks innocent and vital. I hope to see more of the international variety of hockey, with its fast passing and highly coordinated team play, rather than the brawling NHL game.
With a new generation of American kids having played the game throughout their school years, soccer may come into its own in the United States — just about the only major market it has not penetrated, compared to the rest of the world.
For the rest, the world offers a remarkable cornucopia. Rugby? Australian rules football? Bowling? (Hi-def won’t add much.) Horse racing? (I’d bet on British style steeplechase, absolutely.) Boxing? (Not without cleaning it up.) Auto racing is already more fun on TV than in person. So is golf, other than once in a while. (It’ll be great to see the ball fly from more than one angle.) Jai-alai? Interactive TV features make fast-paced gambling easy.
But some things you just can’t predict, and some TV has nothing to do with technology at all. ESPN hit a mini-jackpot with pool. And nothing, to me, accounts for the popularity of broadcast poker.
High-def could boomerang, too. Does anybody want to see the personalities of today’s NBA — up closer and more personal?