Why Football Is a Sport for Television, Not Radio

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For a long time, the only way to catch a hometeam pro-football game was to listen to it. Thank goodness those days have passed.

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Reuters

The sports media world is abuzz about the National Football League's "flurry of new deals that will require its three Sunday broadcasters to pay substantially more than they have ever paid," as the New York Times reported the other day. But having to listen to my New York Jets play (and get shellacked) on the radio, since their game against the Eagles did not merit television coverage way out here here in Los Angeles, reminded me that once upon a time it was radio and not television that as often as not was the only way to follow the hometown team (the New York Giants in my case before the Jets had come onto the scene and when they were still routinely being identified "The New York Football Giants" so that no one could confuse them with the baseball variety even after Willie Mays and company had fled to San Francisco).

Back then, when pro football was first establishing itself as our preeminent spectator sport—in the decade, say, between the 1958 NFL championship between the Baltimore Colts and those New York Giants (still, and I suppose forever, "the greatest game ever played") and the inaugural Super Bowl in 1967—radio was often the only way to take in an NFL game. Taking to its cold, calculating heart the apparent lesson taught by those major league baseball teams that watched home game attendance plummet as fans stayed home and watched on television (Brooklyn Dodgers' attendance dropped by more than 40 percent in the final decade before the team moved to Los Angeles) the NFL enforced a rigid policy against televising a team's home games in that team's home city. It didn't matter if the game was sold out—it was blacked out. It didn't even matter if it was a championship game. That epic 1958 Colts-Giants game was played at Yankee Stadium and was not televised in New York City or the vicinity, and that first Super Bowl played in Los Angeles's Coliseum was blacked out in that city as well. Home game = No TV. No exceptions.

If that was carrying things too far, the NFL certainly paid no price for it. If anything the opposite was true. The non-availability of a chance to watch a game beyond the walls of the stadium for most of the team's fans became an integral part of the brand the League was building so successfully. How better to make something "in" by shutting off those who are "out"—even, perhaps especially, among those who were "out." Demand for tickets to home games escalated and those who had them were not shy about advertising their good fortune. They were the envy of their friends—and enjoyed the status of aristocrats football fandom's class system. Most notably, in a New York sports scene suddenly bereft of two of its three major league baseball teams after 1957, pro football found a ready made niche to fill, and the New York Giants of Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, Sam Huff, and Rosey Grier filled it.

To those New York Giant fans on the outside looking in, radio provided the only link to the home team on its home turf—except for those who trekked to Connecticut just beyond the black out zone to watch games on motel room television sets. Perhaps listening to half our team's games on the radio was easier to accept back then in a much more constricted media environment. But no one has ever argued that football is better on radio than on television—an argument that can plausibly be made about baseball. True, radio football could have its moments on occasion, as when the Giants' excitable announcer Marty Glickman highlighted a particularly tense moment in a Giants game with the admonition, "If you're driving, get off the road." But as I listened to the Jets play the Eagles I knew that I would much rather be watching it on television—and wished too that those long lost Giant games that I had once listened to on the radio had been on television, even if only in black and white. When it came to television the NFL played a long game—and won.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.
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