SI Vault
William Johnson
December 22, 1969
Some view it as a godsend and others as a monster, but a decade of television has created more changes in sport—and the interests of its fans—than anything in the history of play. Part I of a series
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December 22, 1969

Tv Made It All A New Game

Some view it as a godsend and others as a monster, but a decade of television has created more changes in sport—and the interests of its fans—than anything in the history of play. Part I of a series

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The epoch of Super Spectator is upon us, and it is stupefying to behold. Consider the major land mass of the North American continent on Sunday, Jan. 12, 1969. From sea to shining sea on that afternoon—from Gloucester saltboxes to pink Cucamonga bungalows, from Sun City retirement cottages to snowbanked South Dakota farms—60 million citizens arranged themselves before television screens. In darkened parlors, behind drawn sun-porch blinds, beneath lightless bulbs in kitchen ceilings, in a million dim basements with knotty pine nailed over cement blocks, the country sat, and the multitude was as one, oblivious to the afternoon beyond. No butterfly, no snowflake, no street fight or car wreckage at the corner could vie for attention.

No, this was Super Sunday for Super Spectator, the Jets vs. the Colts in Miami; the 60 million (which is equal to 800 sold-out Orange Bowls, or 400 times the population of Plato's Athens) were bathed as one in the moon-gray glow of black-and-white cathode tubes or the ghosty green-peach of living color. They gazed, as one, entranced by the miniature facsimile of the game on their screens. For them the Super Bowl was played by electric Lilliputians: Joe Namath was no taller than a highball glass and, on occasion, the entire Baltimore team could have walked on the palm of a child. No matter. Many times the game faltered to a halt, the teams faded from view, the screen filled with cheerful pictures calculated to convince at least a few that they must soon purchase Gillette razor blades or Schlitz beer or a sedan made by Chrysler. No matter. The 60 million did not take open offense at the spiel of salesmen in their parlors. To be sure, it had cost up to $135,000 a minute to advertise that day on TV, but most of the 60 million watchers did not find that significant. Indeed, they took advantage of the lull in the athletic action to go do other things. As nearly always happens during commercials on major telecasts, the running of water all over America sent pressure dropping.

This is how the mass of America takes its sports at the beginning of the eighth decade of the 20th century. Insulated, isolated, miniaturized, in gloom of darkened room, essential plug in essential socket, electronic window aglow, a kindly brewer to pay the freight while the world steps out for a quick drink of cold water.

Now make no mistake, Super Spectator is by no means a creature born of or restricted to Super Bowl Sundays. It is true that he disintegrated when the plug was pulled that day, that when the tube went dark he atomized into a shoe clerk in Spokane, a meter reader in Richmond, a barber in Lincoln. But Super Spectator lives again each time TV pokes its $85,000 Plumbicon camera into a sporting event. He may be only 13 million strong for a bowling show (but that equals the population of Queen Victoria's England) or 24 million for a college football game (double the citizenry of Australia). Admittedly, he is a technological freak, a multi-ultraelectric Hydra. He is a conglomerate being conceived in the bloodless circuits of MassCom (mass communications), an offspring of the passionless miracles of engineers, a product of the frigid market research and performance requirements of advertising men. But sport as we know it today can no longer do without Super Spectator.

In the past 10 years sport in America has come to be the stepchild of television and, in a sense, handmaiden to the vicissitudes of Madison Avenue. In the very time of its ascendancy—in the affluent and chaotic decade of the '60s that launched it toward a new Golden Age—sport finds its greatest benefactor is electronic technology. This does not mean that the World Series has been or is about to be restyled by the clerks who concoct our usual lotus-eater's TV fare, that which assaults the mind by night with flying nuns and by day with the natter of grown-ups playing guessing games. No. Nor have the men dedicated to stamping out Dandruff Shoulder, Denture Stain and Dragon Mouth inherited the Kentucky Derby. Nor have technocrats made headwaiters out of the numerous statesmen of sport. The subservience has not come to that.

But it has come to this: the impact of television in these last 10 years has produced more revolutionary—and irrevocable—changes in sport than anything since mankind began to play organized games.

Because of TV markets, the venues of the major leagues extend into the deepest American bush. The very skyline of the land has been changed by a proliferation of stadiums, arenas, auditoriums, Palaestras, Palladiums and amphitheaters. Because of TV money, our star athletes are fliers of Lear Jets and presidents of corporations. The fortunes of our most spectacular sport franchises are soaring when they might otherwise be sinking into bankruptcy. Because of TV's power, no sensible entrepreneur buys a team, stages a major event, builds a stadium or even sets the starting hour of a game without first clearing it with a man from MassCom.

The geography, the economics, the schedules, the esthetics, the very ethos of sport has come to depend upon television's cameras and advertising's monies. And how does this strange passage of affairs strike the strong men and clear thinkers in our midst? Surely Vince Lombardi has an opinion, for isn't he football's most single-minded exponent of The Game Is the Thing? Has he not cursed any trace of outside influence in his domain? Was he not savage in his denunciation of TV attempts to post cameras at his sidelines or in his locker rooms? Yes, yes.

But Vince Lombardi has changed his thinking somewhat. He now says: "Considering the money involved, we do have to put forth some cooperation with television. If they ask us to start a little later so more people can see the game, we have to cooperate somewhat. We can't be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Given today's budgets, there wouldn't be a single franchise left in the National Football League without television...."

Well. Then what of Bear Bryant? What does a college football coach, perhaps the best in America, think of the influence of television on the traditions of his sport? "We think TV exposure is so important to our program and so important to this university that we will schedule ourselves to fit the medium. I'll play at midnight if that's what TV wants."

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