In 1937, the National Basketball League (NBL) was created by three corporations: General Electric, Firestone and Goodyear. Most of the teams in the league played in the Midwest, and the league remained in existence for over ten years. In 1946, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was formed, with 11 teams the first season. Though the NBL boasted more talent, the BAA was seen as more successful, and in 1948, four of the NBL’s best teams – Fort Wayne, Rochester, Indianapolis and Minneapolis – moved to the BAA. A year later, the NBL folded, and the remaining teams jumped to the BAA, forming the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The NBA in the Fifties was a very secondary sport. (Deford, Frank, When the NBA was Young, Sports Illustrated). And, its relationship with the television networks reflected that status. The NBA negotiated a television contract with the DuMont Network in 1953, its eighth season. This was the first year the NBA had a national television broadcaster. DuMont paid $39,000 to the league for the rights to televise 20 Saturday afternoon games. DuMont’s first game aired on December 12, 1953, with the Boston Celtics defeating the Baltimore Bullets 106-75. Games on DuMont were usually blacked out in the cities where they were played; for example, the three Boston Celtics home games included in the 1953-54 package were blacked-out in Boston, however, WJAR-TV in nearby Providence (whose signal covers most of the metropolitan Boston area) did carry the two regular-season Celtics’ home games that were part of the DuMont package. The Saturday afternoon package moved to NBC for the 1954–55 season, mainly because NBC could clear the games on far more stations that DuMont could. In 1956, the first NBA Finals game was nationally televised, Game One of the Philadelphia-Fort Wayne series. 1959 marked the first time that the NBA All-Star Game was nationally televised. However, NBC only broadcast the second half at 10 p.m. Eastern Time. (The NBA on Network Television: A Historical Analysis, by Mario R. Sarmento, December 1998.)
Excessive fouling and a slow style of play threatened the league’s television future. A rule change (the 24 second clock) in 1955 sped up the game, and may have saved the league as well. The Minneapolis Lakers was the dominate team in the league in the early-mid Fifties. The Boston Celtics took over that status in later part of the decade. By the end of the 1950s, the NBA emerged as a league with growth potential.
College basketball had to overcome gambling scandals of the early 50s. New York District Attorney Frank Hogan indicted players from four New York schools, including City College (CCNY), Manhattan College, New York University and Long Island University. Gamblers paid college players thousands of dollar over the course of a season to influence the outcome of games, depending on the betting point spread. Winning or losing was not the most important result; the gamblers were playing the point spread and needed a result above or below the expected total number of points. This was called “point shaving.” Eventually, DA Hogan arrested 32 players from seven colleges, who fixed 86 games between 1947 and 1950.
NBC’s relationship with college basketball dates as far back as February 28, 1940, when W2XBS (the future flagship station for NBC, WNBC) presented a doubleheader at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The University of Pittsburgh faced off against Fordham University, followed by Georgetown University against New York University. Going into the Fifties, college basketball was more popular than pro basketball. The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was the premier post-season tournament, not the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In the early Fifties, it was possible for a team to play in both the NIT tournament and the NCAA tournament. CCNY won both in 1950, defeating Bradley U. in both games.
Although the NIT was created earlier and was more prestigious than the NCAA for many years, it ultimately lost popularity and status to the NCAA Tournament. In 1950, following the double win by CCNY, the NCAA ruled that no team could compete in both tournaments, and effectively indicated that a team eligible for the NCAA tournament should play in it. Not long afterward, assisted by the point-shaving scandal, the NCAA tournament had become more prestigious, with conference champions and the majority of top-ranked teams competing there. The NCAA tournament eventually overtook the NIT by 1960.
In the 1950s, there was no extensive TV coverage of either the NCAA or the NIT tournaments. If anything the networks might broadcast the final four, or just the final. In 1954, NBC paid $7,500 for the first national broadcast TV rights to an NCAA title game; converting that to today’s dollars, that first televised title game cost just under $60,000. Interest in college basketball was still so regional that the telecast of the 1962 NCAA final, in which Cincinnati defeated Ohio State, was seen only in Ohio.