No other sport can rival football in the way it has grown so quickly to become television's darling. FIFA.com traces the long affair between the world's most popular sport and the small screen.
We take it for granted today that any important event taking place anywhere in the world (or even on Mars) can be accessed instantaneously through the magic of television. Crystal clear images from every conceivable angle, sharp colour and state-of-the-art satellite technology ensure that those sitting at home can see more detail than those actually attending. Yet the current sophistication of techniques took many decades to perfect since John Logie Baird invented the medium in the1920s. Indeed, this would probably not have occurred unless there had been a large, regular audience for outside broadcast programmes. And this market was in large part provided by football, which is one of the few activities that could guarantee an economic return on the huge investments needed to reach the standards we now expect as of right.
It all began in 1938The story began in 1938, when the BBC, under the iron hand of Lord Reith, decided to embark on a series of experiments to test the viability of the new technology to broadcast some of the great occasions of British national life. In May of that year, the FA Cup Final between Preston North End and Huddersfield was chosen as the first event to be screened, learning from the German experience at the infamous 1936Berlin Olympics, when the fledgling German television service broadcast key parts of the athletics to special "viewing parlours" where small numbers of people could watch the new invention in action.
The Second World War saw the end of television for the duration but it was not long before sport in general and football in particular were back on the agenda, while advances in technical expertise made during the war provided a pool of personnel and machinery which was impossible to foresee back in 1939.
Part of the post-war European reconstruction involved the setting up of Eurovision, which was a federation of European television services to facilitate the exchange of cultural programmes. Although its lofty objectives were never really fulfilled, the one area of success Eurovision has consistently enjoyed has been sport. Moreover, it was the Europe wide transmission of football that has become the mainstay of cross-border Eurovision programming.
1954: The World Cup on TVEurovision and the developing technology led to the first significant football televised in Europe, which was the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland and an assortment of friendlies between clubs. Europe was learning from experiences in the USA, where the NFL Championship game was televised in 1940 and baseball's World Series made national TV screens in 1948. However, on both continents, penetration of television sets was still minute and the events were seen by few viewers. It would be some time before TV replaced the press and radio as the public's main source of information. Nonetheless, experiments continued throughout the 1950s with regular coverage of league matches in Italy, begun by the state broadcaster RAI in 1956, and clips from English games screened on the BBC's new flagship sports programme, Grandstand.
The first real breakthrough in viewer numbers came at the end of the 1950s with the popularisation of European club games, both friendlies and in the new competitions run by UEFA. By the time of the great Real Madrid victory over Eintracht Frankfurtin Glasgow in 1960, televised football had finally arrived, alongside cheaper sets, more airtime and an inexorable rise in the number of set owners. Significantly, for future generations of football supporters, the USA was already experimenting with pay-per-view. From small-scale attempts in the early 1950s, the idea had grown in popularity to the extent that in 1962, the world heavyweight title fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston was available in homes for a payment of $3.
Germanyand Spain lead the way.The 1960s ushered in an era of great sociocultural change and televised football was not immune from the effects. Germany and Spain led the way, closely followed by England, which began regular football broadcasts on the BBC in 1964 with the arrival of Match Of The Day. Meanwhile, staid, newsreel-type commentaries reminiscent ofpre-war days were giving way to a more discursive style.
Similarly, technology was catching up with the demands of the huge-volume market television had now become across the world. In Latin America, television had still not penetrated domestic markets but the 1962 World Cup in Chile was filmed for television and the pictures flown out for screening in Europe. The following year a major earth station was constructed in Brazil and the stage was set for major development.
The slo-mo revolutionFor football fans, a new invention which would revolutionise viewing had made its appearance in the USA in November 1961. Although it would take a few years to cross the Atlantic, its impact was immense. It was the slow motion action replay machine, which, for the first time, allowed the television audience to gain a better view of the important action than those attending the match itself.
The action replay was the first of a great flood of technological change which revolutionised televised sports coverage over the next twenty years, all driven by the massive viewing figures football delivered to the television companies. Now, the observations of commentators were more relevant to the pictures on screen. The replay machine enabled panels of experts to analyse matches after the initial transmission was complete. With these new developments a new age for football was about to dawn.
Within a few short years, most major footballing nations had concluded deals with television for the screening of league matches. For the most part, this meant edited highlights or delayed as-live transmissions. Suddenly football was not just seen by the crowds who paid at the turnstile but by everyone who wanted to watch, and games that were essentially of regional interest became national events.
Football goes globalIt was not long before the national became international. In 1966, television covered every match extensively and these pictures were transmitted around the world, making the World Cup the first global sporting event, building on the more modest efforts that characterised the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Even 1966, however, paled into insignificance compared to what was about to happen. The last half of the 1960s saw what was arguably the single most important development since television began: the widespread use of communications satellites. Thus the 1968 Olympics and the 1970 World Cup in Mexico became the first to be seen live in virtually every country of the developed world. Football as a global television product had arrived, just as colour was emerging as the new standard.
As consolidation followed expansion and the expertise in coverage improved, there were few new television companies in the traditional European market for football to exploit and as a consequence, coverage began to stultify and become conservative. In Latin America, however, there was intense rivalry between companies. While this failed to realise large sums of money, it did help to position football as a key component of nation-building. In Brazil, the 1970 World Cup was the first time satellite telecommunications had broadcast the same event simultaneously to both the north and south of that vast country. Football was central to the people's feeling of belonging and was one of the main ingredients in fuelling national pride. It is no coincidence that in Brazil, a national championship replaced state leagues once the public had been able, via satellites, to see the World Cup.
Show-business approachThe next great leap forward came with the deregulation of European television in the1980s and new camera techniques pioneered, it must be said, not by television companies that showed football, but by the USA with its domestic sports and Australia with cricket.
The main elements were a huge increase in the number of cameras used and a more show-business approach to the presentation, including music and imaginative editing. Conservatism was finally being superseded by a more modernistic approach. Panels of experts gave way more and more to instant responses from players and coaches. Countries as far apart as Spain (with its Estudio Estadio programme, filmed specifically for highlights) and Australia (with SBS's World Soccer, which screened the best from around the world) showed the game in new ways, while RAI in Italy experimented with the Philips Telebeam, a sort of early virtual reality replay, which claimed to be able to verify or refute offside decisions.
Rights fees soarHowever, the prime movers in the new world of televised football were the French television company Canal Plus, who revolutionised the screening of the game through a massive influx of resources to radically improve production values, and another development taken from the USA, subscription revenue. Now the game could be seen from almost any angle, everything could be replayed and, perhaps most important, the number of games shown was dramatically increased. This went hand-in-hand with another new development which would soon sweep across Europe, the move to live games and a dramatic increase in rights income, which moved television from a marginal economic activity for football to its most important source of revenue. Not everything went according to plan, though. Chilean television devoted so much money to its coverage of its team's progress in the 1982 World Cup, it used up a whole year’s budget. Viewers were left dissatisfied in the extreme when the team performed poorly and subsequent television schedules relied on repeats and old films.
Until the mid 1980s, live transmissions were few and far between, restricted mainly to an occasional country such as Spain or international matches and show-piece events. But the public's taste was changing. With large sums of money now available for rights fees, football authorities were willing to allow far more live broadcasts and once again the scenario began to change with England leading the way by introducing regular live league matches in 1983.
Wall-to-wall footballThe 1990s saw further developments along the same lines as competition heated-up when new media services proliferated across the world. More channels, more advertising and sponsorship broke the old monopolies that had existed more or less undisturbed for 40 years. Japan's J-League was formed with substantial television coverage. Global, wall-to-wall football was the result, and the lucky viewer can now watch games virtually around the clock in most countries of the world. A huge new impetus was provided with the arrival of the Champions League, which gave television a massive series of live events, all under the central control of UEFA.
The new services came at a price, though, as the funding of televised football shifted from advertisers and public service broadcasters to the viewer, through subscription charges, as companies like Sky, Premiere, TelePiu 2+ and ESPN saw the success of Canal Plus and acted likewise. This is a trend that may gather pace in the years to come as economics dominate more and more.
Future innovationsThe exceptions are the big events like the World Cup, which still see their future essentially on free-to-home broadcasts. USA 94 saw global audiences reach 32 billion viewers. Meanwhile, FIFA took a leaf out of the NFL's book and provided statistical information for viewers, first in Italia 90, then on a grander scale for USA 94.
The experience of Brazil in 1970, when the nation united over their third World Cup win, may now be experienced on a planetary scale. As troubles, wars and disputes seem forever to grow, the world stops and pauses only for the great events and games. The future will see many technical innovations; digital transmissions, the extension of pay-per-view, which has already begun in Europe, and the virtual stadium. But one thing is certain: football will become more popular with viewers the world over and the common language of the game, albeit with differing dialects, will be understood as long as sport is played. And the vehicle for that understanding will be the small (or increasingly large) screen in the corner of the room.