When we think of sports radio broadcasting, we think of so many captivating moments. Verne Lundquist's "oh my goodness" call to Tiger Woods' chip-in birdie in 2005. Johnny Most's "Bird stole the inbounding pass" in reaction to the Pistons in 1987. And of course, the famous and inspirational, "do you believe in miracles" line Al Michaels gave in response to the United States hockey team's amazing comeback during the 1980 Olympic Games.
Yes – sports radio has a magical way of making us feel like we're right there watching the game when all we can do is hear it! Sports radio broadcasting was one of the first types of radio shows to be developed, and has an extremely rich history. For our next Live365 History of Radio article, we'll be replaying this history for you – as well as explaining why sports radio broadcasting has survived for as long as it has (especially with the rise of games being broadcast on TV).
Without further ado, let's play ball! Or rather, let's crack open the sports radio history books.
The First Sports Radio Broadcasts: American Football
Believe it or not, sports radio broadcasting has been happening since 1912. The problem was that in the first decade sports were being broadcast, not many people had radios. Only nerdy radio lovers – nicknamed "hams" – tinkered around with the technology and saw the potential in it.
The first broadcast of an official football game happened in 1912. The man behind the event, Professor F.W. Springer, created an experimental radio station where hams could dial-in to listen to a game from the University of Minnesota. This is considered the very first broadcast of sports radio, but many overlook it due to the fact the broadcast was only available to a handful of people at the time.
Once the 1920s rolled around and more humans had radios, a more accessible football game appeared as a part of sports broadcasting history. Delivered by Harold Arlin in 1921, the event covered a match between West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh on KDKA. The game was big – even receiving sponsorship from local brands.
In 1922, another match-up between Chicago and Princeton universities aired on the radio and was touted as the “greatest game of the century.” This was the first sports radio transmission to be broadcast long-distance (Chicago to New York) via the WEAF station. American Football was able to grow in popularity and became "nationalized" thanks in part to radio coverage. It was still relatively young at the time – as the sport was only 50 years old at that point. By the time the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, broadcasts of football games were a way to bring struggling people closer together. Without Professor F.W. Springer's efforts, we may not have the NFL today.
Ray Vs. Dundee: The First Live Boxing Event Broadcast
One of the most popular sports to listen to on radio back in the day was boxing. The first official boxing match to be broadcast on the radio happened in 1921, on April 11th. A sportswriter named Florent Gibson reported through KDKA on the boxing match between Johnny Ray and Johnny Dundee.
While the match wasn't particularly exciting (the ten-round fight apparently ended with no decision), it was a pioneering moment in radio history. The Associated Press said about the broadcast, "[Radio] operators were treated to the action of the ring battle with all the realism of each blow and each bit of ring strategy enacted the instant it occurred...[Radio] brought the sounds of the conflict, the clang of the gong and the shouts of the fans."
The second broadcast to emerge in boxing happened three months later, on July 2, 1921. A promoter named George Rickard arranged a fight between French champion Georges Carpentier and American champion Jack Dempsey in New Jersey.
KDKA Covers Baseball
KDKA also covered another beloved sport in the 1920s: baseball.
The first instances of baseball broadcasting weren't as exciting as they are today. Stations – such as WWJ in Detroit, which covered the World Series – would just announce the final scores of games, and that was it. Boring! So in 1921, 4 months after Ray vs. Dundee, KDKA decided to cater to peoples' desires and broadcast the first major league baseball game in Pittsburgh on the August 5, 1921. They wouldn't just include the scores: they would detail the whole game from start to finish.
It was the Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phillies. (The Pirates won 8-5 that day.) In order to deliver the play-by-play as quickly as possible, KDKA used a staff member passing notes to a broadcaster to provide an in-depth overview of the game. And who was the announcer for the game? None other than Harold Arlin: the same guy who delivered the 1921 football game between West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh. He's lucky to have made history twice!
After the Pittsburgh baseball broadcast was a success, RCA decided to cover the World Series, also in 1921. Once that happened, the spread of sports talk radio became viral. However, it was met with concern from baseball teams, as managers were worried the ability to listen to sports broadcasting would stop consumers from attending games in person. In fact, because of the decreased revenue in ticket sales due to radio, the New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants), the Yankees, and the Brooklyn Dodgers banned all broadcasts of their games from 1934 to 1939!
Sports Broadcasting Develops
Because of KDKA's success in covering three sports – as well as radios becoming more accessible (almost everyone had them in their homes by the 1930s) – the development of sports broadcasting flourished. And not just in the United States!
In Australia and New Zealand the earliest sports commentary happened in 1923, broadcasting from the Nelson station on the Australian boxing matches. Over in the U.K., with the formation of the BBC in 1926, radio broadcasting of sports events flourished. In January 1927, a match between Arsenal and Sheffield United was broadcast on the BBC, becoming the first football match in the country to be on radio. Listeners had to reference a grid published in a magazine, the Radio Times, to understand the position of the players that the commentator was referring to in their broadcast.
By 1964, the first sports talk radio show in history was launched, hosted by Bill Mazer on New York’s WNBC. Emmis Broadcasting's WFAN in New York in 1987 was the first all-sports radio station. The success of the station and its programs, such as Mike and the Mad Dog, caused many all-sports stations to pop up around the United States. While only one other sports radio show besides Mike and the Mad Dog attended the 1990 Super Bowl, about 100 attended the 2004 Super Bowl's "radio row."
Even today, sports-only radio channels and sports talk radio shows remain relevant, with hundreds of channels and shows dedicated to different sports airing across the world. Even with the rise of sports television and the founding of the ESPN in 1979, sports radio is still important. There are currently more than 780 AM/FM sports radio stations in the United States, and around 8 in 10 listeners say that they rely on sports radio stations as their primary source of insights for big events like the Super Bowl.
But in painting you a complete picture of sports radio history, we do have to mention the demographic that has been largely excluded in its development: women.
The University of Cumbria’s Mike Huggins has pointed out that women’s sport, apart from tennis, has received notably less coverage from radio broadcasters in the U.K. In comparison, women's sporting events were given more attention on screen and in print. A FULL DECADE after the live broadcast of its first men’s football match, the BBC finally began commentary on women’s hockey, billiards, and figure skating in 1937. And of course, the BBC was dominated by male sports commentators at that time.
Even though sports radio has developed greatly and remains popular today, very few women cover sports on the radio. Though there are still more men than women covering sports on television, print, and other digital media, more women are present in these media. Sports radio seems to still lag in closing the gender divide. Additionally, radio coverage still emphasizes traditional forms of male-dominated sports, often disregarding coverage along the lines of gender, age, and disability.
To be clear: there are community radio stations that do cover and promote grassroots sports. But more can be done to ensure a diversity of sports and players are given more time in the spotlight. As history goes on, we hope sports radio continues to grow in being more inclusive. We long for the day when we can hear more lady sports broadcasters on the airwaves!
Why Has Sports Radio Broadcasting Survived?
Simple answer: it's all because of the presenters.
Despite the presence of sports TV, sports radio broadcasting has survived for as long as it has because of the energy of the presenters. It's a more intimate form of listening to a game. Instead of being able to see everything on the field, listeners must rely on the narration of presenters in order to "watch" their favorite sports. For some, the act of imagining a game in their head instead of simply seeing it is far more thrilling. Not to mention sports radio comes in handy when you're driving on the road, wanting to catch up on a game, but are unable to glue your eyes to a television set.
With sports radio broadcasting, not only do listeners form a connection with the athletes, but also the presenters. The personalities of people like Harry Caray, Jim Nantz, Mike Francesa, Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, and of course, Harold Arlin, have helped make sports radio broadcasting an amazing mode of entertainment.
That's it for our recap on the history of sports radio! Eager to learn about other parts of radio's extensive history? Check out our previous History of Radio article here. Happy broadcasting!
- The Most Iconic Calls In Sports - bleachereport.com
- The History of Sports Talk Radio Stations - Radio Fidelity
- This Day In History (April 11) - History.com
- The history of radio and sport - sportanddev.org
- BBC radio and sport 1922–39 - Mike Huggins | University of Cumbria
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Article Image: (Top Left) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert is interviewed by a radio sports news reporter during the Notre Dame versus Navy NCAA Emerald Isle Classic college football season opener, (Bottom Left) A 1930s sports announcer watches a game from his broadcasting booth, (Right) Photo of CBS' Ted Husing: a sports broadcaster from the 1930s. (Official Navy Page from United States of America, Archives of the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle, and Harris Ewing Collection [All Available through Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.)