10 Ways Television Has Changed Sports

Image Gallery: Evolution of TV Television cameras can give you a whole new perspective on your favorite games. See more pictures of TV's evolution.
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In the stands, a baseball game is about hot dogs, foam hands and soft ice cream that you eat out of a plastic baseball cap. Oh, and there are some guys trying to hit a twine-wrapped cork with a stick way down there on a field. When they do, you cheer or boo.

But on television, it's another story -- you watch from the batter's eyes as the pitcher shakes off one sign, then another, then nods. He spits once, delivers, and you can see the curveball's arc. The batter swings and misses. And then it's time for commercials.

Television hasn't done much to baseball, other than making it more up close and personal -- a story instead of a backdrop for a sunny summer's eve. Other sports have followed similar televised trajectories. Football is full of color, cheerleaders and end-zone dances -- all of which you might miss without television.

But what about those pesky TV timeouts? And instant replay? And changing golf's match play to stroke play?

For better or worse, all of these are due to television. So how else has TV changed the sports we love? And how has TV helped to create these very sports? Keep reading to find out.

Stories Over Sports

In the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette laid down an almost flawless short program, two days after her mother died suddenly from a heart attack. She would go on to win the bronze. In 1996, Kerri Strug ensured an American gold in gymnastics over the Russian team by scoring 9.712 on her second vault -- on an ankle that then required medical treatment for third-degree lateral sprain and tendon damage. And who can forget Tonya versus Nancy in a bitter figure skating rivalry? Or Brett Favre's four touchdowns, 399 yards and passer rating of 154.9 in a Monday night football game the day after he lost his dad?

These fascinating sports stories only work if we know the players, and we can know the players better through the magical television powers of close-ups, commentary and commercials. We need Morgan Freeman's famous tear-jerking mini-profiles of Olympic athletes for VISA in 2008. We need to know that after Strug's first vault, she asked her coach, Bela Karolyi, "Do we need this?" To which he replied, "Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold" [source: Weinberg].

TV allows us inside the lives, families and even the minds of athletes, making sports as much about personalities as it is about scores.

Amateur Goes Pro
Thanks to TV, skiers like Bode Miller have become household names. Here, Miller competes in the 2011 Alpine FIS Ski World Championships in Germany.
Thanks to TV, skiers like Bode Miller have become household names. Here, Miller competes in the 2011 Alpine FIS Ski World Championships in Germany.
Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Let's go back to the Olympics again for a second. Before big TV contracts, we saw underfunded athletes toiling away on neighborhood tracks and rinks for no other reason than the love of the sport and the chance to compete at its highest level. After big TV contracts, skaters, gymnasts, skiers, sprinters and even beach volleyball players became household names, replete with the accompanying endorsement contracts.

TV killed the radio amateur athlete -- at least the top amateurs in telegenic sports.

The same is true of college football and (for a couple of weeks in March) college basketball. It's hard to consider such high-profile college athletes amateurs when they're being hyped on TV every week.

Death of the Minor Leagues

Before televised sports, if you wanted to catch a game, you had to go in person. Now, given the choice, many fans opt to stay home, munch a TV dinner and watch the top teams from around the world.

Hugely hurt by this TV trend were minor league baseball and everything below the Premier English soccer league. Why would you watch AAA when you can watch MLB? And why would you watch Maidstone United of the Isthmian League when you could watch Manchester United of the Premier?

This same power of viewers picking from a wider palette of games means that viewers concentrate on the top college teams. Would you rather sit in the bleachers to watch your local junior college, or would you rather catch Ohio State versus Nebraska? And college teams aren't just competing for viewers -- they're also going head-to-head for recruits. The conferences that get bowl games also get the best talent. If you were a top high school player, would you go to your local college, or would you sign on the dotted line of the Big 10, Pac 10, SEC or Big 12, expecting your skills to be seen by millions of at-home bowl fans around the country?

Rise of Telegenic Sports
TV cameras put you up close and personal with pitchers like Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies, shown here in an April 2011 game against the Atlanta Braves.
TV cameras put you up close and personal with pitchers like Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies, shown here in an April 2011 game against the Atlanta Braves.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

An average TV hour is 36 percent commercials [source: Marketing Charts]. This includes commercials bookending the show and two commercial breaks during the action. Coincidentally, this almost exactly matches the pace of baseball, in which commercials come every three outs, plus pitching changes, plus the seventh-inning stretch.

And who can deny the inherent appeal of the pitcher-versus-batter close-up? It's as if baseball players were made for the camera, posing just long enough for a long lens to capture the droplets of sweat dripping from a pitcher's nose -- as much cowboy movie as it is sporting event.

Football does all right, too, due to the rhythm of punts and timeouts. Basketball is just a bit trickier, but fouls and quarters break up the game enough to ensure ample ad time. When in doubt, use the TV timeout!

But not so much for soccer and hockey. How is a beer advertiser supposed to work with 45 minutes plus injury time of continuous action, followed by a halftime break during which the audience is almost certainly away from the screen? Add to that the fact that you can't see the darn puck in hockey and the fact that the ball tends to be passed off in any direction in soccer (negating the potential for the all-important close-ups), and you have the rise of telegenic sports and the demise of the rest.

Time Delay

We want it all, right when we want it, and with time delay and rebroadcasting of sports from around the world, we can have it. Do you think Indian cricket and soccer are too horribly boring to even consider watching? You should see just the highlights -- they rock!

This, in turn, creates more expectation and demand for exciting sports. And this demand for excitement fuels some of the rule changes we'll look at a little later.

On the flip side of time delay is the desire, if at all possible, to see sports live. This means that baseball games last into the wee hours of October mornings on the East Coast in order to catch prime-time viewers in the West. It also means that the NBA playoffs include 16 teams, which play well into June. If there's an audience to be had, TV sports will have it.

More Color
TV brings out the color in sports and their fans, such as this Green Bay Packers cheesehead.
TV brings out the color in sports and their fans, such as this Green Bay Packers cheesehead.
Brian Bahr/Allsport/Getty Images

Before TV, tennis balls were white, the NHL centerline was solid and uniforms were almost uniformly drab. But a white ball was hard to see, as was that solid centerline. And who wants to see the old Cleveland Browns uniform in close-up? Color plays well on TV, so color is the new norm.

TV coverage allows colors to pop not only on the field, but also in the stands. Think about the Raiders Nation or Lambeau Field's cheeseheads. TV allows players and fans alike to be seen in close-up, rather than as pawns jostling for position on a faraway pitch. Players and fans become characters in an event that's as much story as it is sport.

And this includes not only adding literal color to a game, but figurative color, too -- end-zone dances and slam dunks both developed in direct response to the evening highlight reel [source: Zoglin et al].

Rule Changes

Not only do sports look different due to big TV contracts and the all-powerful influence of the close-up, but TV has rent asunder the very fabric of the universe on which sports sit. TV has changed the rules.

For example, golf went from match play to stroke play to help ensure that the big name golfers were in the final stages, when most people watch TV. And in the 1970s, tennis introduced the tiebreak to replace long, boring deuce games. The NFL first cut down halftime to help games squeeze into a 2.5-hour time slot. Then they went the opposite way -- TV timeouts pushed the average length of an NFL game from 2 hours and 57 minutes in 1978 to 3 hours and 11 minutes in 1990 [sources: Harris and Zoglin et al].

In his game-changing book, "Sport in Society," Jay Coakley points out five objectives of rule changes in commercialized sports:

  1. Speeding up the action
  2. Increasing scoring
  3. Ensuring competitive balance to keep outcomes uncertain
  4. Maximizing dramatic moments
  5. Providing commercial breaks

It's easy to see television's impact on this list!

Cheerleaders, such as this squad from Duke University at a 2011 basketball game, help add to the excitement of sports, even for those watching the game on TV.
Cheerleaders, such as this squad from Duke University at a 2011 basketball game, help add to the excitement of sports, even for those watching the game on TV.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The birth of organized cheerleading took place on Nov. 2, 1898, when University of Minnesota student Johnny Campbell led the crowd in a cheer of, "Rah, Rah, Rah! Sku-u-mar, Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity, Minn-e-so-tah!" [source: The Kennedy Center]. Then, pre-World War II, male "yell captains" appeared at sporting events.

These cheerleaders proved sufficient to whip up excitement in the stands. But have you ever seen cheerleaders from a seat high in the bleachers? It's not nearly as immediate an experience as seeing the same cheerleaders shot close-up from either a high or a low angle.

The modern conception of cheerleaders is a product of television.

Instant Replay

The first instant replay was of the winning touchdown in a 1963 college football game between Army and Navy. But that's just about how people view the game -- more controversial and perhaps with more impact on games themselves is the use of replay by officials. Replay at its most extreme is seen in rugby, where a TV ref helps the on-field ref make decisions. Or remember the red card given to Zinedine Zidane for head-butting an opponent in the chest during the 2006 World Cup? The ref missed it completely -- until he saw it replayed on the big screen.

Sure, we can see a quarterback's arm in super-slow motion from almost every conceivable angle to discover (almost) definitively whether the arm had started its forward progress when the ball popped out. But should we? Certainly in this era of instant replay, fewer bad calls affect the outcomes of games. But the antiquated theory was that bad calls were part of the sport -- the way the ball bounces.

Increased (Not Decreased!) Participation
After watching their sports heroes on TV, children are likely to want to get out on the field and imitate them.
After watching their sports heroes on TV, children are likely to want to get out on the field and imitate them.
Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Thinkstock

When TV blossomed into the major vehicle for sports, the bigwigs of those sports had two worries: that fans would stop attending games, leading to swaths of empty bleachers, and that people would prefer watching sports to playing them, making American children fat and slow. Yes, as a nation, Americans may be a couple pounds south of svelte, but it's not sports television's fault. People report that interest in sports is heightened by watching great athletes perform, and young people report wanting to emulate their sports heroes on the playground [source: Coakley].

Rather than jailing people in front of their sets, sports television inspires people to participate themselves. In the end, television itself has a hand in creating the future of the great sports it shows.

For more great information, check out the links on the next page.


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  • Harris, Richard Jackson. "A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication." Routledge. May 21, 2009.
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  • Weinberg, Rick. "51: Kerri Strug fights off pain, helps U.S. win gold." ESPN. (April 11, 2011)http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/espn25/story?page=moments/51
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