ESPN’s 25th Anniversary: Building a TV Sports Empire

Sep 6, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

Let’s go to an ESPN flashback: Bill Rasmussen is a journeyman sportscaster who finds himself out of work after being cut as the director of communications for the Hartford Whalers of the NHL. Deciding to launch an entrepreneurial venture with his son Scott, Mr. Rasmussen announces in the summer of 1978 that they will form a regional cable sports network and that they have the TV rights to University of Connecticut athletic competitions.

A few weeks later, stuck in traffic, father and son get to talking. Space on the RCA transponder costs the same whether you are sending out your signal two miles or 20,000 miles. Why not think national?

Flash-forward to present: ESPN, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, is the best-known TV sports franchise in the world.

“We signed up for $9,000 of time on the RCA satellite,” said Mr. Rasmussen, who has written of the early period in a book, “Sports Junkies Rejoice! The Birth of ESPN.” “And they agreed not to bill us for 90 days.”

Securing some rights to NCAA basketball games on Valentine’s Day 1979, and financing from Getty Oil, which was looking to diversify, Mr. Rasmussen drove 14 miles west of his home in Hartford, Conn., to Bristol, a small, historic city once known as the worldwide center for clock manufacturing. Mr. Rasmussen found property in an old industrial area, and ESPN put down its roots in central Connecticut.

The network debuted Sept. 7, 1979, at 7 p.m. to a potential 1.4 million subscribers, with TV personalities Lee Leonard and George Grande hosting “SportsCenter,” a show that used plenty of footage to bring viewers sports news and highlights.

There was only one problem: “We couldn’t even get clips at first,” said Mr. Rasmussen. “CBS was going to sue us at one point because we used some of their coverage. It took a while before we could get reciprocity going with the networks. They realized we were not going away.”

“For more than two years Nielsen said we were too small to rate, and TV Guide wouldn’t list us either,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “They said because we had four letters it wouldn’t fit. It took a few years before they did list us, and even then it was, at first, as `ESN.”‘

Chet Simmons, the former head of NBC Sports who became ESPN’s first president, credits an early advertiser relationship with helping the network get off the ground. “What got us going besides college basketball was Anheuser-Busch,” Mr. Simmons said. “They recognized the potential and invested $1million to be the exclusive beer advertised on the network. Remember, this was before CNN and other cable networks had even launched, so that was quite an investment.”

With that support in place, Mr. Simmons granted his on-air personalities a little room to have fun. “These guys are my heroes,” said sportscaster Chris Berman, who joined ESPN a few weeks after it began. “I had little experience at the beginning, but Chet said, `Just let him go. He’s a little rough at the edges, but let him go. We don’t want to be like everyone else.”‘

Nor was ESPN sports coverage going to look like that of every other network. From the outset, it strove for technical innovations that brought the audience ongoing information about games they were watching and games elsewhere.

A sampling: In March 1980, ESPN introduced the electronic cut-in format during its first coverage of the NCAA Tournament, which allowed the network to cut away from one game in progress to another.

Three years later, ESPN offered the first sports telecast in stereo. In 1985 came the ESPN Sports Update, a new system for providing scores and news graphically as the action continued onscreen. (Eventually ESPN bought SportsTicker, the company that developed the crawl at the bottom of the screen.)

ESPN introduced the in-game box score during Major League Baseball telecasts in 1995, a feature that has become standard for even local broadcast game coverage. Six years later came “K Zone,” for the first time accurately outlining strike zone boundaries with an onscreen box. The technology won a Sports Emmy Award in 2002 for Innovative Technical Achievement, one of 87 ESPN has won in the 16 years it has been eligible.

Even the faces of ESPN were different from those of the glamorous network pretty-boys and -girls. Besides Mr. Berman and the boisterous hoops caller Dick Vitale, they have included the late Tom Meese, Bob Ley, Dan Patrick, Bill Lee, Keith Olbermann and Craig Kilborn.

Cultural impact is hard to measure, but Bob Molinario of the Virginian-Pilot was right on target when he wrote that ESPN “hasn’t just satisfied the public’s appetite for sports, it has created an even greater hunger. It has turned a nation of sports fans into 12-months-a-year, round-the-clock grazers.”

ESPN can also boast a fan in the White House. U.S. News and World Report reported that President George W. Bush’s favorite TV show is “Baseball Tonight.”

As for marketing reach, that’s easier to quantify. ESPN2 was the fastest-growing cable channel in the United States in the 1990s and now is available to more than 75 million subscribers. More than 25 international channels, wholly or partly owned by ESPN, reach 168 million households and have made ESPN as authoritative in the presentation of cricket as it is in women’s basketball.

“Our international channels are one of the fastest-growing parts of the business,” said Russell Wolff, senior VP and managing director, ESPN International. “Our goal is to be as locally relevant as we can be. You can’t be a sports channel in India and not offer cricket. We have the rights to everything from Mexican college football to polo. And our ESPN Deportes, a Spanish-language domestic network, just rolled out this year and is on seven of the top 10 [multiple system operators].”

The ESPN name is seemingly everywhere there is sports. “Everything we do, we do with the fan in mind,” said Rick Allesandri, who as senior VP and general manager, ESPN Enterprises, oversees most of the ESPN businesses other than the domestic and cable networks. “That includes providing sports information in a variety of ways,” he said. “But it also means enterprises such as the ESPN Golf School, which is offered in 46 different markets.”

ESPN has blended sports and entertainment in ways purists thought not possible by creating ESPN Original Entertainment, an entity that produces original series, movies, reality-based shows, documentaries and game shows in an effort to appeal to younger adults and the more casual sports fan.

One example of this programming strategy is “Cold Pizza,” a two-hour early morning talk and information show on ESPN2 that premiered in October 2003.

“We think we know our viewers,” said Jim Cohen, VP of programming and production for ESPN Original Entertainment. “We call [it] the show with everything, and we feel it is on a network that can give the viewer about everything,” he said.

Of course, there have been hurdles to jump. Late last year a squabble developed with MSO Cox Communications about carriage rates, which spilled over into mass, corporate-image marketing campaigns for both companies. George Bodenheimer, ESPN’s president, brushed that issue aside, saying, “It ended in a win-win situation for everyone. We give Cox great value and they for us. These issues are to be expected.”

“We take sports seriously,” said Mr. Allesandri. “But we present it accessibly.”