Although pro-football and television are presently joined at the hip, this week marks the 60th anniversary of an event that reminds us that this was not always the case. On Sunday, November 4th, 1951, the San Francisco 49ers made their Northern California television debut when they faced the Los Angeles Rams in L.A.’s Memorial Coliseum. One would think that such a significant step in the history of the 49ers would have been met with unanimous approval at the time, but careful research reveals that not everyone was on board with the Niner’s decision to appear on the small screen.
The pairing of TV and sports dates back to before the advent of network television. On October 22, 1939, NBC’s experimental station W2XBS became the first entity to televise an NFL game when it carried a contest between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Eagles live from Ebbets Field. The game, won by the Dodgers 23-14, was attended by only 13,050 fans, but seen by many others who happened upon the RCA Pavilion at New York’s World’s Fair, where several monitors tuned into the game were set up for visitors. How many of the 500 people who actually owned sets in New York at that time witnessed the broadcast is unknown. While clearly a groundbreaking moment, the Dodger-Eagles telecast was merely a vehicle to promote innovations in the still new invention known as television. The idea that television could be a major source of revenue for the NFL was still many years away.
The NFL received no network coverage in the early days of commercial television, but a few teams did negotiate local deals. In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams sold the TV rights for their entire schedule for $50,000, apparently unaware of how home television could effect their live gate. The Rams had averaged over 50,000 fans per home game in 1949, but drew less than half of that in 1950, as Southern Californians preferred watching the games at home for free, or seeing the games at their favorite taverns than venturing out to the L.A. Coliseum. Having learned a valuable and expensive lesson, the Rams limited their TV coverage to road games beginning the following season.
Appearing on television was not an option when the San Francisco 49ers began play in 1946, as there were no TV stations in the Bay Area until KPIX signed on in December of 1948. After four seasons in the All-American Football Conference, San Francisco joined the NFL in 1950, debuting with a disappointing 3-9 record. Thanks to players like Frankie Albert, Gordy Soltau, and future Hall of Famers Y.A. Tittle, Leo Nomolini and Joe Perry, the 49ers were vastly improved in 1951, running their record to 3-2 on October 28, by beating the Rams for the first time, 44-17 at Kezar Stadium. With a rematch with the Rams scheduled for the following week in Los Angeles, the San Francisco 49ers announced that the November 4th game would be televised on KRON (channel 4), marking the first time the Niners would appear on local television. The decision to air the game was clearly to use the telecast as a promotional vehicle, as the $4200 the team collected from KRON did not exactly represent a financial windfall. By the Fall of 1951, there were approximately 300,000 TV sets in the Bay Area, with 1 million potential viewers.
No sooner was the 49ers telecast announced that opposition to the broadcast was expressed by two local colleges. The unbeaten USF Dons were scheduled to meet the Santa Clara Broncos at Kezar Stadium on the same afternoon as the 49ers-Rams game, and officials at both schools were convinced that KRON’s showing of the game would dramatically reduce the size of the crowd at Kezar. Santa Clara Head Coach Dick Gallagher predicted the attendance at the USF-Santa Clara game would fall 10,000 short of the previously anticipated 35,000, while USF Head Coach Joe Kuharich saw the 49ers appearance on home television as “another spike in the coffin which may seal the doom of college football on the Pacific Coast.” As it turned out, over 32,000 witnessed the Dons beating the Broncos 26-7, as the San Mateo Times estimated the crowd’s size was lowered by the 49ers telecast to the tune of about “2,000…tops.” But Coach Kuharich wasn’t wrong about the future of college football, at least as far as his school was concerned. Despite an undefeated year, USF dropped football after 1951 season.
Football fans tuned to KRON at 2 pm on that November 4th Sunday had a much different viewing experience than what we enjoy 60 years later. Announcer Bud Foster described the action without the help of instant replay, slow motion, isolated cameras or even a color analyst. Those lucky enough to have access to the black and white telecast saw the 49ers take a 16-13 4th quarter lead courtesy of a Gordy Soltau field goal, only to see the Rams counter with a 76 yard touchdown pass from Bob Waterfield to Elroy Hirsch and a 38 yard field goal by Waterfield. The 23-16 victory by the Rams was significant as Los Angeles, on their way to their only NFL championship, won the division with an 8-4 record, followed by San Francisco at 7-4-1. But more important than the game’s outcome was the fact that the San Francisco 49ers and their fans were given a one day peek into the future. Within a few years, the NFL would sign a contract with CBS, and soon every contest would receive television coverage. The $4200 the 49ers received from KRON for one game in 1951 represented the team’s entire revenue from television for that entire year. Today, the San Francisco 49ers annual take from TV stands at $120 million.
Trivia: Both the San Francisco 49ers and the San Francisco Giants made their local television debuts at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Giants first televised game took place in April of 1961 against the Dodgers, who played their home games at the Coliseum from 1958 to 1961.