A television camera on the sidelines of a soccer field.

The Evolution of Sports Broadcasting in North America From Television to Streaming

Some may argue that it is better to watch sports on T.V. rather than venture out to a stadium and watch the game live. You are in the comfort of your own home. You can make yourself a snack without having to wait in line. And more times than not, television gives you the perfect view of the action; you can see the entire playing field. Watching sports on T.V. also saves you money. Rather than paying for an expensive seat in a ginormous stadium, you can just tune in to your local sports station and watch the game for considerably less money.

The way we watch sports has definitely changed. At first, sports were hardly reatured on televiosn stations. Next, dedicated sports channels emerged. Now in 2021, streaming services are emerging as the popular form of sports broadcasting. But how did we get to this point? Let’s take a journey through the history of sports broadcasting.

The Early Years

Before the advent of television, sports games were broadcast in a variety of ways. During the early 1900s, game descriptions were sent over telegraph wire. Someone would then announce the result to a gathered crowd. As the 1900s progressed, sports events were broadcast over the radio. Listeners had to use their imaginations to fill in the action being described. Other times, sports highlights were shown in movie theaters prior to film showings. Audiences got to see their favorite players perform in their respective sport. However, outside of these mediums, the only way people watched a sporting event was to attend the event in person. Otherwise, they read about it in the next day’s paper or in a sports magazine.

A group of people listening to the radio. The picture is in black and white and was likely taken in the 1930s.
Radio was the main form of sports broadcasting in the 1930s and 1940s. Source: APM Reports

In the 1930’s, early television sets made their debut at the 1939 New York World’s fair. This new medium was perfectly suited for broadcasting sports. The first televised U.S. sports event was a college baseball game between the Columbia Lions and Princeton Tigers on NBC. However, the first internationally televised sporting event was the 1936 Summer Olympics. During World War II, sporting events in the U.S. continued to be broadcast on television. However, most Americans could not afford a television set. It wasn’t until the war’s end that televisions became affordable.

The 1950’s

The 1950’s began a decade of prosperity for the United States. Therefore, more Americans had spending cash, and with that money many bought  T.V. sets. Boxing, hockey, basketball, and baseball were popular sports to watch on T.V. Television even helped popularize professional football. Millions of Americans watched the exciting finish to the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. As the 1960’s began, color television added a new dimension to sports broadcasting. Now people could watch a sports game in bright vibrant color instead of grainy black and white.

Television Stations

A advertisement for RCA Victor color television. The poster is a color drawing of a man and woman admiring a television set.
The advent of color television in the 1960s brought a new element to sports broadcasting. Source: Sound & Vision

Initially, the major American television networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) were the primary broadcasters for sports. Outside of these three networks, the only other source of sports broadcasting lay with syndicated television networks. Syncated networks were local stations affiliated to one of the major networks. For example, a T.V. station in Detroit may be a branch of NBC. The Hughes Television Network is an example of this. The station broadcast NFL and NHL (National Hockey League) games for a number of years before being sold in the 1980s.

Even though the major networks and their affiliated local stations showed various sporting events, sports broadcasting still remained limited. T.V. stations only devoted a select amount of time to sporting events; the rest was filled with other programming like the news or television shows. For many sports fans, this left a serious void. They wanted a channel that was dedicated 24/7 to sports. And in 1979, they got their wish.


It’s safe to say that ESPN revolutionized sports broadcasting. ESPN launched in 1979 as a basic cable channel. Their programming focused on all sports, from ordinary games like basketball to oddities like darts and bowling. Their flagship program was Sportscentre, a sports news show. Sports fans now had a program that only featured sports news and highlights; sports were no longer relegated to a minor section of a news broadcast. ESPN exploded in popularity once the channel secured the rights to broadcast the annual college basketball tournament known as March Madness.

ESPN has grown in size. Along with the flagship channel, ESPN has seven other related channels which are broadcast in over 200 countries. The channel also has many popular shows, such as Around the Horn and Monday Night Football. In 2018, ESPN launched its streaming service, which is called ESPN+.


The poster for the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The poster states the fight will be broadcast via closed circuit television.
Closed circuit television was an early form of pay-per-view. Muhammad Ali appeared on many closed circuit telecasts. Source: The Fight City

Before we talk about streaming services, we should first look at pay-per-view (PPV). In essence, PPV is a type of sports broadcasting in which the viewer pays to watch a sporting event via a private telecast. Early forms of pay-per-view included closed circuit telecasts. These telecasts usually showed professional boxing fights in theaters or arenas. People paid an admission fee to watch the fight. The first closed-circuit telecast boxing match was the championship fight between Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott in 1948. The fights of Muhammad Ali during the 1960s and 1970s were popular closed-circuit telecasts. For example, Ali’s championship fight against George Foreman in 1974 garnered 50 million buys worldwide.

The 1980s-Modern Era

Closed circuit telecasts were eventually replaced in the 1980s. It was in this decade when home pay-per-view was introduced. Before hand, closed-circuit telecasts were shown in theaters or arenas. Now people had the ability to order a PPV event from the comfort of their home. Boxing remained the popular PPV sport. Mike Tyson was a major PPV draw; his fights often gained millions of buys. However, in 1985, the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) entered the PPV scene with Wrestlemania. Ever since then, professional wrestling companies have been broadcasting their major events on pay-per-view.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has had major success with PPV. In the beginning, the mixed martial arts league struggled with PPV buys. However, the company experienced a surge in popularity during the mid 2000s. Suddenly, UFC PPV’s were getting thousands of buys. Mixed martial artist Conor McGregor is arguably the biggest PPV draw in the UFC. His fights with Nate Diaz for UFC 202 and Khabib Nurmmagomedov for UFC 229 surpassed 1 million and 2 million buys respectively.

Streaming Services

A picture of various streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Streaming services have become the primary way people watch content. Source: Towards Data Science.

Now let’s talk about streaming services. But what are they exactly? Basically, it is a media service offered to users over the internet. People often pay a monthly service rate in order to use the streaming service. Popular streaming sites include Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime.

With the increased popularity of streaming, it was not long before sports entered the world of streaming media. The first sporting event to be streamed was an Ohio State college football game in 2001. The game was streamed by local T.V. station WBNS-TV using a compressed video player called RealVideo. While primitive by today’s standards, this broadcast was exciting for the time. Fans were now able to watch a sporting event over the internet; this was a revolutionary concept.

Pros and Cons of Sports Streaming

There are many pros and cons to consider when subscribing to a sports streaming service.

One benefit of sports streaming is the sheer number of sports events that are available to watch. The average cable package only provides a limited number of sports channels. These channels only broadcast a select number of games. For example, major networks will broadcast some baseball or hockey games. The rest are broadcast on local affiliate stations. So if you want to watch a baseball or hockey game but don’t live in the specific region, your out of luck. Streaming sites take care of this problem. Many platforms allow users to watch any game they want, regardless of their location.

Another plus is the international aspect of streaming services. Many sports streaming sites feature sports from around the world. For someone living in Canada who is a big European football fan, it’s hard to find channels actually showing a football match. With a streaming service, that fan has access to a number of European Football league games.


The cost of subscribing to a sports streaming site is always a drawback to consider. Most sites are reasonable when it comes to their subscription rates. Some even offer a one-month free trial period. However, once the month ends, users will have to pay the subscription fee. For those on a budget, signing up for a sports streaming site is not a viable option. And for those subscribed to multiple sites, the cost begins to add up.

A notable disadvantage of streaming sites is the varying video quality. In contrast to cable broadcasts, the video quality on sports streams is not always consistent. Often times, the video appears in crystal clear HD quality. Other times, the quality appears choppy and pixelated. Users might also experience occasional freezing or lag times in their stream. All of these issues can arise from your internet connection. If your connection isn’t stable, chances are your stream will experience problems with video quality.

The Best Sports Streaming Sites.

As technology increased, the number of sports streaming services increased as well. Below is a list of some of the best sports streaming services in 2021.


An advertisement for UFC on ESPN+. Ufc fighters Cody Garbrandt and Holly Holm appear in the advertisement.
ESPN+ holds the rights to stream UFC main event pay-per-views. Source: Business Insider.

As mentioned earlier, ESPN decided to enter the streaming world by launching ESPN+ in 2018. ESPN+ owns the rights to broadcast several professional sports events such as College Football and Bundesliga games. However, the main reason to get ESPN+ is for their PPV events. The service partnered with the UFC to broadcast major fights. Many major UFC events, like the third Conor McGregor Dustin Porier fight, are exclusively streamed on ESPN+. Boxing pay-per-views are also shown on ESPN+. Soon, subscribers can purchase the PPV for the third Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury fight. Outside of sports streaming, subscribers can watch popular ESPN shows like 30 For 30.

ESPN+ ranks as a top sports streaming site because of its combat sports PPV’s, as well as the popular shows it offers.


This global streaming service (pronounced Da-Zone) was launched in London, England in 2015. The following year, DAZN launched in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan. In recent years, DAZN launched in Canada and the U.S.

DAZN holds the rights to stream a variety of sports. Their main sport is boxing. Instead of streaming another company’s broadcast (for example, HBO Boxing), DAZN has its own broadcast team for boxing events. The first DAZN boxing stream was a fight between heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua and Alexander Povetkin. Johsua has become DAZN’s main audience draw; the site has streamed many of Joshua’s fights. Arguably, their most watched boxing stream was the stunning knockout victory of Andy Ruiz over Anthony Joshua.

Outside of combat sports, DAZN streams the Premier League and other European football leagues. However, depending on your home country, DAZN will either show the full game or only highlights from the match. For North American viewers, the incentive to subscribe to DAZN is the NFL Game Pass. This feature allows subscribers to stream any NFL game. Added features include a library of NFL related shows, like Hard Knocks and America’s Game.

With its extensive library of sports, DAZN ranks as a premier sports streaming service.


Out of all the sports streaming services, this one may offer the most features. fuboTV launched in 2015. The site focused on streaming football games, both international and North American. In 2017, fuboTV broadened its services by streaming NFL, NHL, MLB (Major League Baseball), and NBA (National Basketball Association) games. What makes fuboTV unique is that it’s not primarily a sports streaming site. fuboTV features regular T.V. programs in addition to its sports content. The site also allows subscribers to record games to watch later. Other incentives include reliable streaming connection and a 4k video quality. All of these features make fuboTV one of the best sports streaming services available.

A New Era

A man sitting on a couch watching a sports broadcast. He is cheering.
Sports broadcasting has evolved since its inception. Source: iStock

Sports broadcasting has entered a new era. Slowly but surely, streaming sites are replacing televisions as the traditional way fans watch sports games. More and more people are switching to streaming based on the features those sites offer. This shift demonstrates the incredible evolution of sports broadcasting. At first, people had to use their imagination as telegraphs and radios were the only sources of sports broadcasting. Film and television finally brought the visual element to sports broadcasting. And with the advent of television came new ideas. Millions viewed or bought the closed-circuit telecasts and pay-per-views of famous combat sports fights. ESPN began the era of dedicated sports channels. And finally, sports streaming emerged during the mid-late 2010s. We can only guess what the latest form of sports broadcasting will be.

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