Upon Further Review: A Brief History of Instant Replay

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Instant replay in sports has sparked about as much controversy as it has eliminated since the feature was introduced more than 50 years ago, but it's hard to imagine watching games today without it. Here's a look back at the men behind the invention and how various sports have incorporated the use of instant replay through the years.

Instant Replay Pioneer

George Retzlaff, a Toronto-based producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's wildly popular "Hockey Night in Canada," used a hot processor to produce a wet-film replay of a goal during the 1955-56 season.

Retzlaff annoyed the advertising agency that sponsored the show by not providing advanced notice that he was planning to employ this innovative technique, and the program's other production studio in Montreal didn't have the equipment to replicate the method, so Retzlaff never used it again. Still, Retzlaff's not-quite-instant replay was a seminal moment in the history of sports broadcasting and ranks No. 24 on the CBC's list of the greatest Canadian inventions of all time.

The Origins of Videotape-Based Replay

Tony Verna, who was hired as a director at CBS by future Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL innovator Tex Schramm, had experimented with videotape while working the 1960 Rome Olympics. Verna spent a lot of time directing football games and was determined to find an interesting way to fill the lulls in the action between snaps. He also wanted to be able to show viewers the game that was taking place away from the ball on a given play. "If it didn't happen on TV, it didn't happen," Verna told Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2003. Verna eventually developed a system—using audio tones added to the cue track of the videotape—that enabled him to rewind to the point just before the ball was snapped on the previous play for instant playback.

Instant Replay's Big Debut

Verna debuted his instant replay technique on December 7, 1963, during the annual Army-Navy football game. While technical glitches with the 1,200-pound videotape machine that Verna had transported to Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium prevented him from using the feature in earlier in the game—one replay camera was focused on Navy quarterback Roger Staubach and another on Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh throughout the day—it was finally introduced on Stichweh's one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. As the touchdown was replayed at full speed, and therefore indistinguishable from live action, play-by-play man Lindsey Nelson declared, "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again." According to Verna, the first replay tape, which has since been lost, was recorded over a tape that included episodes of I Love Lucy. Verna went on to a distinguished career in television and detailed the invention of instant replay in a 2008 book.

Early Spread and Opinions of Instant Replay

Instant replay slowly became more ubiquitous. In 1965, the New York Times reported on a new feature of baseball broadcasts on ABC, which was the first network to use slow motion replay. "At least one station plans to introduce 'instant replay' and also a 'stop motion' or 'freeze' technique that could prove whether a base umpire's call on a runner was in reality right or wrong," Val Adams wrote. "The day of reckoning for umpires may be near." Former baseball slugger Ralph Kiner, a commentator for the Mets, had a different opinion. "I never saw the camera yet that could countermand an umpire, considering that the camera angle is just as prone to error as anything else," Kiner said. "In fact, video tapes seem to show how few mistakes umpires make."

A Costly and Useful Innovation

Instant replay, especially in the early days, was an expensive production. In 1966, the Pacific 8 college football conference voted to outlaw the television device that enabled football coaches to view instant replays on the field. Most of the schools that voted against the device, which provided a competitive advantage, did so because of the cost associated with purchasing one. There were other instances when coaches wondered when instant replay would be adopted to improve the game. One such example came in 1966, when Florida defeated rival Florida State in a game that featured a controversial finish. Officials ruled that FSU receiver Lane Fenner was out of bounds when he caught what would have been the winning touchdown. "I know it's a judgment call and there is nothing I can do about it," Florida State head coach Bill Peterson said. "But with all the electronic devices we have in football, why don't we have videotape or something like it to help officials?" Dave Nelson, a secretary for the NCAA, replied, "It is not true that pictures don't lie." College football wouldn't adopt a form of instant replay to determine calls until 2004.

In-Stadium Discretion

While leagues didn’t initially adopt instant replay for use by umpires and officials, teams took advantage of the technology to improve the in-stadium experience for fans. In April 1977, the four-man umpiring crew of a game between the Braves and Astros in Atlanta left the field in protest of the scoreboard operator’s decision to show a controversial replay. Predictably, the crowd began to boo the umpires after the replay revealed that they had made an incorrect call. The umpires received word from Braves management that close plays would not be replayed in the future before returning to the field. In fact, the Braves installed a former major league umpire in the press box to decide whether a specific play was too controversial to show.

One year earlier, the New York Yankees were fined $1,000 and reprimanded by the league after using their instant replay scoreboard to “produce fan reaction against the umpires.” A Yankees team spokesman responded in The New York Times, “We would like to point out that we have only the fans in mind when we use our scoreboard for instant replays. The board cost us $30 million and we see no reason why fans at the ballgame should see any less than the fans at home.” Today, most leagues have policies about what replays can be shown in stadiums and arenas. In the NFL, only the broadcast feed is shown on video screens and it must not be shown after the referee makes his call. You’re unlikely to see a replay of a close play on the scoreboard at a baseball game, especially a questionable ball or strike call.

The NFL’s Trial Run and Instant Replay Adoption

The NFL implemented a trial run of instant replay during seven preseason games in 1978. “We’ll do a dry run on the replay on officiating decisions,” Commissioner Pete Rozelle told reporters. “We’re not going to implement anything, but it will be part of a study.” In 1986, the NFL approved replay for use in regular season games. A game official in the press box reviewed plays on the same feed that viewers at home saw and had the authority to reverse any call that was “totally conclusive.” The league mandated that any replay decision be made within 15 to 20 seconds so as not to disrupt the flow of the game. “It will be expensive,” Tex Schramm said at the time. “But money doesn’t make any difference to this league.”

Communication between the replay official and the on-field was initially a problem. During a Monday night game early in the season, the on-field officials nullified a Denver Broncos touchdown because of what they ruled was an illegal forward lateral. The official in the replay booth reviewed the play and determined that the call was wrong, but by that point the Broncos had already run another play. Toward the end of the season, The New York Times and CBS Sports conducted a poll about the system. Sixty-six percent of fans thought it improved the game; 20 percent thought it made the game worse. Coaches and owners voted to drop replay in 1992, complaining that it slowed the pace of games, but voted 28-3 in favor of reinstating it as a challenged-based system before the 1999 season.

Baseball Resists

Perhaps in the interest of preserving the heritage of America’s national pastime, baseball has been the most hesitant of the major sports to adopt replay. In 1988, MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth declared, "There will not be instant replay of any sort. We're just not going to do it. The umpires making split-second decisions is part of the flavor of the game. We don't want to lose that flavor. You can make a dish so bland that it's not worth sitting down at the table." Ueberroth’s announcement came one week after an umpire used a scoreboard replay to reverse one of his calls.

In 2008, the league instituted replay of disputed home run calls. This season, Armando Galarraga’s imperfect perfect game, in which first base umpire Jim Joyce botched a call on what should have been the final out of the game, brought baseball’s replay debate front and center once again. The Little League World Series began using instant replay in 2008 and switched to a challenge-based system this year. Each manager receives one challenge per game, and if the umpire's call is overturned, the coach retains his or her challenge.

Replay Rules and Systems in Other Sports

Here is a sampling of how replay is currently used in other sports:

National Hockey League: The NHL began using instant replay in 1991. In 2003, the league adopted a replay system that took the responsibility of making controversial calls out of the hands of an in-stadium replay official and bestowed it upon NHL staffers watching every game live from a Toronto office often referred to as the “War Room.” In addition to reviewing disputed goals, the office staffers, who have access to every television broadcast of every game, watch for illegal hits that may warrant a suspension or fine.

National Basketball Association: The NBA began using instant replay to review last-second shots after the 2001-2002 season. Since then, instant replay has been expanded to include reviews of flagrant fouls and to determine if a field goal attempt was a 2-pointer or a 3-pointer. Replay is also used to review possible 24-second shot clock violations and to determine which player last touched the ball before it went out of bounds during the last 2 minutes of regulation and overtime.

Tennis: The Hawk-Eye computer system, which processes the trajectory of a ball using several video cameras and displays a computer rendering of the ball’s path, has been used to review disputed tennis calls since 2006. In 2008, the sport’s various organizing bodies developed a uniform system of rules for utilizing the technology and decided a player would be allowed three unsuccessful challenges per set. Cricket uses the Hawk-Eye system to help determine difficult calls as well.

Soccer: Instant replay isn’t used, though some fans would like to see that change, especially after some of the disputed calls at this year’s World Cup.

Instant Replay Outside of Sports

In 1967, the Federal Highway Administration announced that it would repurpose Verna’s innovation and use video and replay capabilities to monitor busy intersections. According to an article in The New York Times, the FHWA developed a video device that would be triggered by the sound of a crash at a busy intersection. The resulting signal would preserve the video from 20 seconds before impact, which aided in the investigation and analysis of collisions. Today, the U.S. military uses the same technology the NFL uses for instant replay to analyze thousands of hours of video from Afghanistan and Iraq.

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October 13, 2010 - 7:40am
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