GREATEST MOMENTS | TV first plugged into live sports at Columbia in 1939


Columbia-greatest-moment-2A single TV camera on a wooden stand overlooking Columbia’s Baker Field on May 17, 1939, changed more than the way we look at sports.

It revolutionized it.

The second game of the Lions’ doubleheader against Princeton that day was the first live sporting event televised in the U.S., the sports moment judged the greatest in Columbia history.

NBC broadcast the game on experimental station W2XBS, though “broadcast” might be an overstatement. With fewer than 400 television sets in use, there was a narrow audience. There were no network facilities and only the one camera.

Those watching, or in attendance, saw Columbia’s Hector Dowd pitch all 10 innings of Princeton’s 2-1 victory. (The Tigers also won the first game, 8-6.)

They also saw one of Columbia’s greatest athletes, shortstop Sid Luckman, who went on to a Hall of Fame career as quarterback for the Chicago Bears.

From one network and 400 TVs in use there are now 44 sports networks in the U.S., including American Sports Network, with a potential audience of more than 100 million TV households. From one camera there are now 360-degree replays utilizing multiple cameras. CBS used 70 for its broadcast of Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 3.

In 1939, NBC’s broadcast cost $3,000. Since 2011, NBC and six other networks have paid a combined total of more than $12 billion for rights fees to only five pro leagues — MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL and Premier League soccer. CBS and Turner paid another $20 billion to televise the NCAA men’s basketball tournament through 2032.

“Television got off the ground because of sports,” pioneering television sports director Harry Coyle told the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

“Today, maybe, sports need television to survive, but it was just the opposite when it first started. When we (NBC) put on the World Series in 1947, heavyweight fights, the Army-Navy football game, the sales of television sets just spurted.”

A spurt of broadcast firsts followed in 1939 —  the first televised MLB game on Aug. 26 (Cincinnati Reds-Brooklyn Dodgers); the first televised college football game on Sept. 30 (Waynesburg-Fordham); and the first televised NFL game on Oct. 22 (Brooklyn Dodgers-Philadelphia Eagles).

The world’s first live televised sporting event was American Jesse Owens winning the 100-meter final at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. But that was available only in “Public Television Offices” in Berlin and Potsdam.

Today, more than 2 billion viewers from more than 160 countries can watch the Olympics on TV.

And it all started at Columbia with a primitive telecast.

“So,” wrote Columbia alum Leonard Koppett, “Columbia bears the distinction of (if not the responsibility for) launching the vehicle that would lead to the Super Bowl, March Madness, runaway Olympics, and a wrestling craze that could lift a man to the governorship of Minnesota.”

Jesse Ventura, you are welcome.

• Columbia Athletics Hall of Honor

• Columbia Athletic highlights

Above: NBC broadcasts the first televised sporting event in the U.S. from Columbia’s baseball field on May 17, 1939. (Courtesy Columbia University Archives)

• Monday: Cincinnati and Cleveland State
• Tuesday: Coastal Carolina
• Wednesday: Colgate and Colorado College
• Thursday: Columbia and Connecticut
• Friday: Cornell and Clarkson

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.