It is hard to imagine that football on television -- a staple in today's American culture -- started with such humble beginnings.
On Sept. 30, 1939, Fordham played a season-opening match at home against Waynesburg. The game was meant to be somewhat of a warm-up for Fordham, a college football power at the time. As the war in Europe and President Roosevelt’s insistence of keeping the U.S. out of it dominated news headlines, while Notre Dame football’s 300th win and the Yankees’ run to the World Series occupied the sports section, a small corner of a page in the next day’s New York Times was devoted to the hosts’ win against Waynesburg. One small sentence in the story from Randalls Island turned out to be the beginning of something much bigger:
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“The Rams had the televised game well in hand by halftime.”
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The story continued to describe how Fordham coach “Sleepy Jim” Crowley, he of Notre Dame “Four Horsemen” fame, was dissatisfied with his team’s performance, thinking his players were looking past Waynesburg toward more formidable opponents like Alabama and Tulane. But it made no further mention of the fact that a television camera was there and the game was broadcasted over the air.
Thanks to the research of Stanley Grosshandler, provided by Fordham Athletics, we now know a bit more about the beginning of football on the broadcast medium. A pair of iconoscope cameras captured the action and sent a signal to a relay station, which sent it on to the Empire State Building to be broadcast via RCA and NBC on W2XBS, an experimental station started for the World’s Fair in New York City that year. Estimations of the television audience vary from 500 to 5,000, while 9,000 attended in person.
For the participants of the game, it wasn’t much more of a significant occasion than the Times made it out to be. Grosshandler relayed Fordham fullback Dom Principe:
“The fact that the game was being televised had no significance to those of us playing,” Principe said. “Waynesburg had been considered sort of a warm-up, and we reacted accordingly. I do recall that we apparently had regarded them too lightly because they scored the first touchdown. But it is rather difficult to remember anything different about the first TV game.”
Then there is the account of game official Jack McPhee:
“As we walked out I saw a vehicle that looked like a boxcar in the southwest corner of the field on the running track. It was near the 10- or 15-yard line. There was a camera on a tripod near it. I looked at it briefly and then got to my business of getting ready for the game.”
McPhee continued, “When I got home, I told my wife the game had been on TV. She said, ‘What is it? How does it work?’”
As for the game itself, Fordham won 34-7. Crowley's Rams surrendered a surprise early touchdown before running away with it. Bill Stern, a well-known radio announcer, called the game. Television was not ideal for Stern's career, however -- often his radio commentary would not reflect the exact events of the game. His habits of exaggeration and dramatization did not translate so well with audiences on the new medium.
NBC was said to have invested $100,000 in the project, bringing in little in return. But dedication to football on television continued, bringing about growth and audiences that could not have been imagined by the first participants.