The NFL hasn’t always been a league saddled with labor grief and hard hitting fines. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a casual fan who would know what “Anti-trust” law meant in regards to sports in general. It used to be a lot more of a monopoly. Way back when. With the labor situation moving forward and an April 6th first hearing approaching. I thought it would be a good idea to take a look back at the history of America’s number one watched sport.
This is the game as it once was and how it lead to where we are today. While many of you will remember some of the names of players, you won’t remember how three generations watched the game, or followed it. This is the NFL, the game and the way it used to be covered.
It would be a complete oversight on my part to not mention the league in the 1960’s but because I really want to keep this more a first person experience, I can’t speak with any authority as I wasn’t born until 1969. So I don’t remember the white hankies in Miami, or the first Super Bowl, or Joe Namath‘s guaranteed Super Bowl win from a hotel pool lounge chair. I simply wasn’t there and surely wasn’t watching TV. We have all seen it replayed a million times. So for now, I will pull some of what was related to me by my father and others I have spoken with over the years regarding it.
Since this is a Dolphins site, I’ll begin in Miami.
The game came to Miami a year before my father did. A Coast Guardsmen, Miami was his first tour stop and to give you an idea of how news traveled, he and my mother had no idea what Manatees were. In fact, both of them being from northern Ohio, they were surprised to find these “cow like” mammals swimming beneath bridges around the city that was becoming one of the most popular destinations in the entire world.
The Miami Dolphins couldn’t sell tickets like they do today. In fact, my parents went to games quite often because the team gave tickets away to get people in the stands. My parents became fans immediately. I was born in May of 69 and attended my first game before I was a year old. It’s safe to say I was born to be a PhinPhanatic.
Television I simply don’t remember. I do recall, vaguely the early 70’s that took us back to Ohio and a television that was rather large. Not the screen, the entire wood framed unit or console. I remember it had large sharp corners and was heavy as hell, taking both of my parents to move it. I remember the sound of football on Sunday’s as I got older. The channel tuner got 3 channels on the VHF dial.
Despite what you hear today, remote controls were very much a part of those early TV sets. It’s amazing to me how remotes have gone backwards these days. Wireless infrared beams that you can’t see and a million buttons to do a job that used to be simply voice command. “He Brian, go turn the channel and turn up the volume”. That remote worked brilliantly.
The dials were big and round and when you turned the VHF dial, it clicked. You got three maybe four channels and the UHF dial simply turned like an old radio dial. Both needing antennae reception from a giant metal tree attached to your house. Football was a mixture of green lines that “scrolled” your set until you adjusted what was called the “vertical and horizontal” holds. They were located on the back of the set so when you tried to fine tune them, you couldn’t see the TV to know if the picture was coming in clear or not. Which normally meant you needed to people to do it.
In terms of the game, I don’t really remember. Why? Simple, living in Ohio we didn’t get Miami Dolphins games. While the Dolphins would appear on MNF way back when, the telecast started way after my bedtime. Sorry, no TIVO or recording device to watch later.
I’ll spring forward to the late 70’s and 80’s when the game and the way it was covered began to change. Television is what changed the game, don’t ever let anyone tell you different. It started, for me at least, when television contracts with the NFL brought the game into every home on a more regular basis. The NFL despite it’s growing popularity was still the little sister of America’s favorite sport, Baseball and until the late 70’s and 80’s you got maybe one game a day.
Television contracts brought the NFL to the fans on Sundays in one way. A game early, and a game late. Meaning one at 1 and one at 4. There was not three games on Sundays and there surely wasn’t NFL Sunday Ticket. No Sunday night games, Thursday night games, nothing. What made this worse was of course you received local games ONLY if they were sellouts. Regional coverage after that.
If you wanted to keep up with your favorite team, good luck. NBC was the driving network behind the AFC games and I remember watching any game that was on, simply to find out what the Dolphins were doing. There was no Internet and the half-time shows rarely showed much in the way of highlights, in fact, you would get a big board that showed up and flashed the scores for all the other games. NBC and CBS would add that board to the live telecast that you were watching and just before going to a commercial break but no more or less than 15 minutes apart the scores would flash on the screen for about 30 seconds.
There was no broadcast commentary about the games going on elsewhere. You literally had to wait 15 minutes to see the scores of other games. And you counted down to when that would happen. As the games progressed, the networks would show the scores every ten minutes, then every 5 as the games neared conclusion. I would sit on the floor and wait for the Dolphins scores to flash on the screen. Miami 24 – NY – 10. 15 minutes later: Miami 24 – NY 17. 15 minutes later Miami 24 – NY 24 OT.
The worst part? A game that went into overtime was never covered at the end of the telecast you were watching so you prayed that something would happen before the network ended their game telecast. Then you would hurry up, walk up and change the channel and hope that the next game was going to be televised and then wait for a result to flash across your screen.
Do you think the waning minutes of a game are stressful now? Imagine knowing that the game is tied and having to wait sometimes an hour before you found out what happened.
Cable television had been around for over a decade by the time the late 70’s rolled around, but it was nothing close to what it is today or was even in the 80’s. It was not in every home or even half the homes. But it too would change the way fans connected with the game they loved.
As the years progressed, This Week In Sports was the only broadcast that gave you a few highlights of the previous weeks games. Unless you lived locally or your local team played your favorite team, you waited until Saturday for TWIS to broadcast. That would be replaced by a groundbreaking show called “Inside the NFL” which appeared on HBO in 1977. By the time my family signed up for cable and eventually HBO, (early 80’s) Nick Buoniconti was already a staple with Len Dawson on the program.
The coverage didn’t change much in 1979 when ESPN was born, and the NFL draft was telecast to the public for the first time in 1980. I don’t remember exactly when I first recalled having cable in our home. But I remember being enamored with MTV, you know back when they actually played music videos. I remember watching my first NFL draft in 1983 and was appalled that the Dolphins selected Dan Marino. We had David Woodley who had just taken us to the Super Bowl. We had Don Strock, we also had just moved on from HOF’er Bob Griese. Why waste a pick on another QB.
It was literally my first recollection of the NFL draft. Needless to say, I have not missed a draft since. Which is ironic since I have held job requiring me to work weekends, somehow the NFL Draft never fell on my weekends.
I watched the game evolve to what it is today through ESPN. While many fans these days deplore the network in how they present the game today, without them football would never have become the giant that is today. Suddenly, you didn’t need to wait an hour to find out who won a game. As the infant network grew, live game tickers began to scroll the site and you only had to wait for it to cycle around to find out that the Dolphins won in OT on a field goal. The networks of NBC and CBS followed suit shortly after and the 15 minute tickers changed to rotating scores in the upper corner. Some would argue that the broadcasts have gone too far, but when you had nothing to begin with, you don’t mind having too much now.
This sounds so much like walking to school in 2 feet of snow for over a mile with no coat to go to school. But it literally is no exaggeration. In fact, some would likely say that I understated how hard it was to find information on your team. I remember one stop in my tour of living around the East and Mid-West of this country that there were times when I wouldn’t find out the score until I looked at the Monday morning paper. That’s where I got to read a two or three paragraph on how the team won the game. I actually cut out the articles and saved them in a scrapbook that somehow long ago ended up in a scrap pile.
Today, we enjoy watching football 24/7 with ESPN and NFL Network. Our games are brought to us on Fox, which at one time was a UHF broadcast channel, CBS, NBC who actually gave up their NFL contract for a few years, NFL Network, ABC where Monday Night football was once broadcast, and of course ESPN where MNF lives now.
We no longer wait for the delivery of a newspaper nor do we wait for the 15 minute ticker to show us the scores. We live our lives inundated with highlight reels and sound bites. Coaches no longer conduct media interviews outside of the stadiums following the games on their way to the team bus but instead in front of sponsored banners at a podium.
I remember one game in particular. The Miami Dolphins played the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. They lost. It was 1986 and Dan Marino was only a three year veteran. John Offerdahl was a rookie with a banged up right arm. I waited outside the player entrance (something you could do back then) and found myself hanging out with Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. I will let you know about those conversations in one of our next articles about the players.
For now, just imagine Don Shula surrounded by a ring of reporters answering questions as to why his team lost. No sponsor banner, no microphone, no team official telling the crowd there would be one more question. And one kid who stood in that same crowd and listened. I drew his attention at one point and got to speak to the legend himself, but that too is better suited for another time.
Join me again when I take look two at the “The Game: Part II – The player evolution – Don Shula”