As the man who founded the ESPN cable network, Bill Rasmussen gave sports junkies and couch potatoes a heaven in which to indulge their obsessions. His creation fed the public's growing appetite for sports. It legitimized the all-sports concept as a recipe for success in various markets and mediums, and it turned into a broadcasting giant, powerful enough to transform sports television, creatively and financially. Yet it all began with two words: "You're fired."
Rasmussen was born October 15, 1932, in Oak Lawn, Illinois, and attended high school in Chicago. He graduated from DePauw University in Indiana, spent two years in the Air Force, and then started an advertising service business in New Jersey. On his thirtieth birthday, he sold his business and went into radio broadcasting at WTTT in Amherst, Massachusetts. From there, he moved to an ABC affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then to an NBC station in the same city, where he served as sports director and then evening news anchor. In 1974, when the World Hockey Association's New England Whalers moved to Hartford, Connecticut, Rasmussen began tenure as the team's communications director.
In Hartford, Rasmussen hit upon the idea of syndicating the Whalers games and University of Connecticut basketball on the state's cable systems. But just after Memorial Day, in 1978, he was suddenly fired. It was the very beginning of the cable revolution, and now Rasmussen not only had the dreams, he had the time to turn them into reality.
Rasmussen and his son, Scott, met with an RCA salesman selling channel space on a communications satellite, and learned that it was no more expensive for him to broadcast nationwide and 24 hours a day than locally and five hours a day. He opted for the 24-hour channel. "Luckily," wrote Jim Shea, in a four-part series on FSPN, published in the Hartford Courant, "RCA never does a credit check, never questions how the Rasmussens are going to pay. If they do, the dream dies instantly of acute asset deficiency."
Because the Rasmussens weren't required to put any money down, their biggest worry wasn't about payment, it was about programming. How would they find enough sporting events to fill 24 hours a day, seven days a week? The answer reportedly came one morning in August, while Rasmussen and son were stuck in traffic. As the story goes, they were trying to figure out how to fill the station's airtime, when a frustrated Scott Rasmussen snapped, "Play football all day long for all I care."
Eureka! The moment evolved into the realization that college football games could be replayed, that there were literally thousands of collegiate events not broadcast on television, that the format would require a nightly sports show and a nationally known announcer. The creative side of the plan was rolling, but Rasmussen knew he needed financial backing.
When the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the impending cable boom, Rasmussen realized he had stumbled upon a technological gold mine just day before the rest of the nation. On Valentine's Day, 1979, the Getty Oil Company offered to finance the network. Soon after; Rasmussen received a commitment from the NCAA to televise a package of games and a $1.4 million advertising deal with Anheuser-Busch. "We all had a sense that it could be pretty big," he recalled. "Would I have guessed that it would be in more than 60 million households? I don't think anybody guessed cable television would be in 60 million households."
Originally called Entertainment Sports Programming Network (E.S.P. Network), it was decided to change the name to ESPN-TV. When a printing error returned a logo reading simply ESPN, it was left at that. No one could have known that ESPN would become, as Shea put it, "as recognizable a monogram as CBS, ABC, perhaps even the U.S.A."
The network was formally launched on September 7, 1979, and announcer Lee Leonard inaugurated the first edition of "SportsCenter" by saying, "If you love sports, if you really love sports, you'll think you've died and gone to sports heaven...
But nobody was quite sure of what to make of the network. Sports Illustrated called it "certainly one of the strangest creations in the history of mass communications... Nonstop sports around the clock, 24 hours a day, 8,760 hours a year. The first live event to air was the Professional Softball World Series. ESPN was a haphazard collection of full-contact karate, Australian Rules football, tractor pulls and other less-than-minor sports. Broadcasting a few hours each weekday and all weekend, the station lost millions of dollars.
"Is ESPN really the network of the future? Can a sports network flourish indefinitely on a full-time menu of off beat and minor league events?" asked Sports Illustrated. "It appears likely that ESPN will remain an upstart unless it can obtain the rights to more major events."
And that it did, along with luring Chet Simmons from NBC Sports as the new president and announcer Jim Simpson, also from NBC, as the early face of ESPN. Soon, the network found a handful of anchors and analysts-Chris Berman, Tom Mees, Bob Ley, Vitale-who would prove to be mainstays in the operation. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird also played a role in ESPN's eventual success. Their 1979 dual in the NCAA Finals had carried college basketball to new heights, but the early rounds of the 1980 NCAA Tournament still had no national TV coverage. So ESPN stepped in with live and tape-delay coverage, which proved to be a boon to both parties involved.
But as ESPN's following grew, a corporate mentality
grew with it. Seeing his decision-making role greatly reduced, Rasmussen
decided to leave the network late in 1980. He stayed on as a member of the
board of directors through 1981, and eventually cashed out for some $25
By 1983, Simmons was gone, replaced by executive vice president Bill Grimes, who made the fateful decision to turn the tables on the cable companies who carry the network. Instead of paying them five cents per subscriber; ESPN asked them to pay for the right. The plan worked, and within a few years the network was making a profit. In 1985, ESPN began broadcasting NHL games. In 1987, NFL Sunday night football began, marking the cable network's arrival as a significant player in sports programming. Two years later; ESPN signed a $400 million deal with Major League Baseball.
Today, ESPN is America's largest cable network, reaching more than 63 million homes, broadcasting more than 4,500 live or original hours of sports programming each year and covering more than sixty-five sports. A big financial loser at the start, ESPN is now worth in excess of $1 billion, and it continues to grow. ESPN Sports Radio was launched in 1992, ESPN2 was unveiled in 1993, and ESPN Enterprises, Inc., has expanded the company's interests into ancillary businesses, such as pay-per-view series and video games.
As the most significant force in modern sports television, ESPN is a player-directly or indirectly in virtually every decision regarding TV sports packages. The 24-hour all-sports notion has been imitated on television and radio in dozens of cities across the country, so much so that words like "saturation" and "overexposure" have crept into sports media analyses.
As for the network's founder; he remains ESPN's biggest fan. "It's probably like raising kids and watching them grow up to be successful lawyers and doctors," said Rasmussen. "I guess, as you're growing up, you always dream about doing something worthwhile that people will remember you for. Well, they won't remember me particularly, but ESPN is certainly going to be around for a while."
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