LAS VEGAS — When Joe Montana floated a corner route to Freddie Solomon deep in Bengals territory on Jan. 24, 1982, he was trying to win the 49ers’ first Super Bowl, not make television history.
Yet one play later, after Montana scored against Cincinnati on a quarterback sneak, John Madden and the CBS crew introduced a new wrinkle that changed sports broadcasting forever. As the production team showed the replay of Solomon’s grab, Madden drew over a freeze-frame of the play, diagramming how Solomon sprung open.
It was the first time a sports broadcast had used a telestrator.
“Bad circles,” Madden quipped about his penmanship during Super Bowl XVI.
Fast forward 42 years. During the 49ers’ eighth Super Bowl appearance this Sunday in Las Vegas for the 58th edition, the broadcast will feature augmented reality, cameras inserted into the uprights, drones and more TV magic. But it all stems from the telestrator, which was invented by a NASA scientist and revolutionized how football games are seen and understood by fans watching at home.
“When John Madden first started using the telestrator, he fell in love with it,” said Dennis Deninger, a Syracuse University sport management professor and longtime ESPN production executive. “Madden’s description of (the telestrator) was that it helped make the fan smarter. You can just show the fans what it is you know as a coach and illustrate it for them.”
Madden was such a passionate educator that he once taught an extension course at the University of California, Berkeley, titled “Man To Man Football.” There he drew plays on a chalkboard for his students, just as he later did for America with the telestrator.
Deninger traced the history of football productions back to the first Super Bowl in 1967. The networks then treated the game as simply an “extension” of the regular season, he said. Production crews went from about seven or eight cameras to 11 and 12 for the main event.
Then Monday Night Football began in 1970, and every other broadcast had to catch up. ABC, the Monday game’s home until 2005, valued the production quality and used double the number of cameras as the Super Bowl did back then, Deninger said.
“And that was it until you got to the telestrator era,” Deninger said. “What happened then was the whole concept of television sports changed. When it first began, it was, ‘We will bring the game to you at home.’ It was a vestige of radio. And then, when (ABC executive) Roone Arledge put Monday Night Football on the air in 1970, it turned into, ‘We will bring you to the game.’”
That trend has continued — in excess. Broadcasts now do more than bring fans to the game: They bring an enhanced, theatrical viewing experience to them. And they do it for more fans. The 1982 game remains the highest-rated Super Bowl ever, with a 49.1% household share, but that meant roughly 85 million Americans watched. This Sunday could set a record with 115 million.
This year, CBS has 165 cameras — well more than they could feasibly use in one telecast. There are a record 48 4K cameras with super-slow-motion capability. The crew has 24 robotic cameras, 20 pylon cams, 23 augmented reality cameras and three drones. There’s a camera at the highest point in Vegas, at the top of the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Hotel.
For the first time ever, they have “doink” cameras built into the uprights. The idea came to CBS executives last year when Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker missed a field goal off the left goalpost. CBS earned the NFL’s approval by testing the groundbreaking technology in the preseason. On Sunday, three cameras on each goal post with 4K zoom and slow-motion capabilities can capture not just missed kicks but other scenes that unfold on the field from a unique perspective.
“It’s all about the storytelling,” said Harold Bryant, CBS Sports executive producer and executive vice president of production. “We’re not going to force any elements. We’re going to find out what works to help tell the story of the game. The story of the moment.”
When the 49ers defeated the Bengals for their first Lombardi Trophy, there was no score bug at the bottom of the screen. When each offense broke the huddle, the down and distance would flash in yellow block font. Now there are three-dimensional and augmented reality graphics.
Comparing the production of this Sunday’s broadcast to 1982 would be like comparing a Martin Scorsese film to a grade-school theater production. The scale is just so different.
CBS and parent company Paramount have 115 hours of programming planned for the week leading up to the Super Bowl across multiple platforms. Both CBS and Nickelodeon are broadcasting the actual game, the latter for the first time ever in an effort to appeal to young fans. Augmented reality versions of cartoon icon SpongeBob SquarePants and his buddy Patrick Star join two traditional broadcasters, and animations of slime will fill the screen after touchdowns.
CBS chairman Sean McManus described the technological evolution through the years as “quantumly.”
“Every time technology changes, creative people find ways to use that technology,” said Deninger, who wrote a forthcoming book about the Super Bowl’s impact on society.
All advertising time slots are already sold on both channels, CBS executives said. A single 30-second ad goes for roughly $7 million; for Super Bowl XVI, that figure was $324,300, per USA Today.
McManus declined to detail how much production costs, but the advertising revenue of more than $500 million will more than pay for it.
“The investment that we’re making is the best use of our Paramount dollars that I could imagine,” McManus said. “Because so much of the image and the prestige of Paramount Global will be determined by how good a job we do.”
Even in the broadcast booth, where commentators have more or less the same job now as they always have, it’s hard to draw parallels from Super Bowl XVI to LVIII. Madden, who died in 2021, was a former coach who is regarded as the greatest football announcer ever for his ability to both educate and humor fans. Tony Romo, this Super Bowl’s color commentator, is a former quarterback who initially impressed audiences by predicting plays before they unfolded with uncanny accuracy.
More recently though, some fans have soured on Romo’s schtick, tiring of his enthusiasm with partner Jim Nantz and occasional word salads.
“Well, it’s a normal arc of someone’s career,” Romo said when asked about the criticism. “Honestly, I think a lot of people were rooting against (Patrick) Mahomes just because he’s been there. They want to see people new. It’s just part of an arc when you do something at a high level, I think that’s normal.”
With all the new gadgets and gizmos, doink cams and slime, Madden’s beloved telestrator has remained a constant. When Romo draws on the screen, he’ll be explaining a play by Mahomes or Purdy, not a Montana pass. But after all these years, the broadcast will still bring about half of America to the game.