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Adam Hermann | | February 28, 2020

First televised college hoops game featured Pitt, Fordham in 1940

  A scene from the historic evening, when Pitt and Fordham did battle on TV.

The first televised college basketball game was played Feb. 28. 1940, when Pitt faced off against Fordham at, fittingly, Madison Square Garden.

Quick Facts
What First televised basketball game
Who Fordham vs. Pittsburgh
When February 28, 1940
Where Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY
Broadcast By NBC on W2XBS
Viewers Estimations vary from 400-1,000
Result Pittsburgh won 57-37

The most famous arena in the country and home to plenty of famous college basketball moments to come was the perfect spot to debut the new technology. The double-header that day in 1940 included a second act with No. 1-ranked NYU (!) against Georgetown. 

The game was broadcast on W2XBS, one of a handful of experimental stations started as forerunners to the modern television broadcast networks. Today, W2XBS is known as WNBC, or Channel 4 New York, the flagship station of the NBC television network.

Imagine: the ability to go back in time, to take in the sights and sounds of the first basketball game ever broadcast on television. Except… it wasn’t all that big of a deal. It was so readily ignored by the majority of the public that finding artifacts from the game itself isn’t easy. The photos above and below come courtesy of Fordham's Joe Di Bari.

Fordham University also has a pair of photos from that night atop this article from the 75th anniversary of the game, and Getty Images has a pretty great photograph from the game at this link as well. But coverage of the game (and especially coverage of the historic moment in television history) is hard to come by because television simply wasn’t a big deal at the time. According to Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism and mass communication at NYU, “before 1947 the number of U.S. homes with television sets could be measured in the thousands.”

  An NBC Sports promotional poster, featuring pictures from the game.
Radio was still the name of the game. The radio was so ubiquitous that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had an entire page dedicated to radio listings for each night’s broadcasts. By contrast, neither the Pittsburgh Press nor the Post-Gazette mentioned the impending television history in their respective game previews on Feb. 28, and neither the Associated Press story used by the Post-Gazette nor the stringer report used by the Press the day after the game made note of the historical moment at Madison Square Garden. The Fordham student newspaper, The Ram, also failed to make mention of the televising in its game story.
  The Pittsburgh Press's story from Feb. 29.
Folks simply didn’t care much about the game being televised. Sort of hard to imagine these days.

Interestingly enough, just five months earlier the first televised football game also featured Fordham, and a small corner of a page in the next day’s New York Times was devoted to the hosts’ win against Waynesburg: “The Rams had the televised game well in hand by halftime” was the only mention of TV’s moment in the Times’ story.

As for the basketball game itself, Fordham kept things close in the first half, trailing 28-23 at halftime. But the Panthers used a 14-2 run in the first eight minutes of the second half to open up a huge lead and went on to win by 20 points, ultimately outscoring the Rams 29-14 after the break. 

Fordham would finish that year with an 11-8 record, Pitt with an 8-9 record, and neither reached the NCAA tournament, which that season was in just its second year.

They both, however, held a piece of history.

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