On September 16, 1937, London-based Arsenal played its own reserve team as the British Broadcasting Company televised the match’s first 15 minutes. It was the first time soccer had been publicly broadcast on live television.
Wedged between “British Movietone News” and a cartoon, the specially-staged Arsenal Football Club match between the first team and the reserves took place at 3:40 pm on a Thursday at Highbury, the Gunners’ historic (and now former) north London stadium.
Interestingly, this event wasn’t to be Arsenal’s first historic broadcast: In 1927, the club played host to a 1-1 draw against Sheffield United in the first-ever radio broadcast of a soccer match.
As per a written preview by The Manchester Guardian (because footage doesn’t survive to today), the team was introduced by manager George Allison. The preview also noted that the coverage would “show tactics on the field, shooting in goal, dribbling and goalkeeping.” Footage from the match went directly from Arsenal Stadium to the nearby Alexandra Palace—the BBC’s headquarters at the time—and then out into the world.
Unfortunately, a looming rainstorm and dark skies above may have made things difficult for the few north London viewers that caught the match over the airwaves. A post-report of the broadcast noted that the picture became duller as the 15 minutes progressed.
Despite the rough weather, the actual test proved to be a technical success. All told, three cameras captured the action, with one up in the stands and the other two near the goals.
A successful private broadcast had been run the day before as well, with the radio waves being sent to a television theater run by the G.E.C. (possibly the General Electric Company, a British engineering company that shuttered its doors in 1999).
The final result of the game itself is unknown. I assume it’s possible that the teams did not play out a full 90-minute match because the broadcast only lasted a quarter of an hour.
Even at 6 p.m., when the light was falling, one could see clearly the farthest touchline and spectators in the far corner. Not once did I lose sight of the ball. The players were distinct.
A journalist watching a test of the broadcast from a television theater
After the initial test, the BBC ran a second broadcast the day after. Following those initial successes, the company broadcast an international match between England and Scotland in April 1938, as well as the final for the FA Cup—England’s premier knockout tournament—later the same month.
As for Arsenal’s 1937-38 season, the club won the English 1st Division for the fifth time by edging the Wolverhampton Wanderers by a single point in the league table. The Gunners did not fare quite as well in the FA Cup, however, and were ousted in the fifth round.
In terms of being involved with broadcasting advances, Arsenal has certainly kept up with the times. Here’s a quick list of the club’s notable achievements:
- 1964: Part of England’s first “Match of the Day”.
- 1999: Part of the first “interactive match”, where viewers could select various camera angles and statistics.
- 2010: Part of the first sporting event to be broadcast in 3D.
- 2015: Part of the first match to be broadcast in 4K.
The football demonstrations from the Arsenal ground showed that eve on the small screen television can give something worth seeing from a game covering so great an amount of ground.
A London newspaper’s report of the broadcast
To my knowledge, no tape of the live broadcast survives online, unfortunately. While not of the actual broadcast, you can see the 1937 Arsenal team in training via this newsreel:
Luckily, an image of the Arsenal players gathering around one of the cameras used for the broadcast exists. Because this image is one of the lone captures of the event, it has great historic value. I am unclear if the players are viewing footage of their play, but they look to be having a good time:
- In 1937, London-based soccer club Arsenal played its reserve team in a match that had 15 minutes televised live by the BBC. This was the first time soccer had been broadcast on live television.
- No record of the match’s result—or, indeed, knowledge of if there even was a result—exist.
- Arsenal has had a history of technological firsts. The club also participated in the first: soccer match broadcast by radio (1927), “Match of the Day” (1964), “interactive match” (1999), sporting event broadcast in 3D (2010), and soccer match broadcast in 4K (2015).
- Daily Herald, September 16, 1937 via The British Newspaper Archive
- Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, September 17, 1937 via The British Newspaper Archive
- The Manchester Guardian, September 10, 1937 via Newspapers.com
- The Observer, September 19, 1937 via Newspapers.com