The “Worldwide Leader In Sports” turns 37 today.
The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network [ESPN] is a U.S.-based global cable and satellite television channel owned by ESPN, Inc., a joint venture between the Walt Disney Company and the Hearst Corporation, which owns a 20 percent minority share. Available to nearly 100 million paid television households in the U.S., the network broadcasts primarily from its studio in Bristol, Connecticut. ESPN also operates offices in Miami, New York City, Seattle, Charlotte and Los Angeles. In addition to its’ flagship channel, ESPN operates seven related channels in the U.S. The cable network broadcasts 65 sports, 24 hours a day, in 16 languages in more than 200 countries throughout the world.
After being fired from his job as communications manager for the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers in May 1978, Bill Rasmussen had an idea to create a cable television network that focused on covering all sporting events in Connecticut.
That summer, Bill’s son Scott [who, after also having been let go by the Whalers, became his father’s partner], learned that it was less expensive to broadcast their channel across the country via 24-hour satellite than sending the signal across Connecticut using landlines. After modifying their original concept and deciding to show all types of sports 24 hours a day, the Rasmussens’ made a deposit on a satellite transponder and bought a parcel of land for $ 18,000 on a former dump site in Bristol, Connecticut.
ESPN’s first telecast took place in early September 1979, with the airing of Sportscenter, the channel’s flagship program. Taped before a live audience inside the Bristol studios, it was broadcast to over 1.4 million cable subscribers throughout the U.S. Lee Leonard, who anchored the show with George Grande, opened the telecast with, “If you love sports…if you really love sports, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to sports heaven.” The first score reported was Chris Evert’s victory over Billie Jean King at the U.S. Open. The program lasted 30 minutes and consisted mainly of videotaped highlights. After the telecast, the network aired a slow-pitch softball game, followed by wrestling and college soccer.
The network’s first big break came when it obtained—buoyed by an infusion of cash from Getty Oil, an early investor– the rights to cover early rounds of the 1980 NCAA basketball tournament. The deluge was the beginning of “March Madness” and launched the broadcasting career of Dick Vitale, who had just been fired as head coach of the Detroit Pistons.
Additional funds came from Anheuser-Busch, who spent one million dollars—then the largest in cable television history—to become the official beer of the cable network. “We gave them one million in that first year, and if we hadn’t, they would have gone under,” said Michael Roarty, Anheuser-Busch’s marketing director. “I believed the beer drinker was a sports lover. The next year we gave them five million.” Roarty, who created the “This Bud’s For You” and “Weekends Were Made for Michelob” slogans, later said “it was the best investment we’ve ever made.”
In April 1980, ESPN created a made-for-TV spectacle when the network began televising the NFL draft. ABC’s purchase of ESPN in 1984 legitimized the network’s status with professional sports leagues, who prior to that time would not contract with cable networks. In 1987, ESPN secured a contract with the NFL and launched Sunday Night Football, which for the next 17 years would produce the league’s highest-rated games.
The network added Major League Baseball to its’ lineup in 1990. ESPN Radio was launched in 1992, creating a national sports talk radio network. One year later, ESPN2 [“The Deuce”] was launched, introducing the Extreme Games [later X-Games] and professional poker tournaments to sports television. In 2004, the network broadened their reach with ESPN Deportes, a Spanish language channel aimed at the U.S.’s Hispanic population. The Disney Company purchased ABC and ESPN in 1996. Almost two decades later, ESPN generated more revenue for Disney than all of its’ other properties combined.
Although the network continues to expand with entities like the ESPN Film division, which began airing the popular 30 for 30 documentary series in 2009, Sportscenter remains its’ flagship program. Sportscenter changed the way sports news was delivered, providing highlights from every game. Sportscasters were made celebrities while blurring some of the lines between entertainment and news.
Sportscenter made foreign the idea of sitting down and watching an entire game, shortened our attention spans and contributed to the demise of the newspaper in America. It has entertained us with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, informed us with analysts Peter Gammons and John Clayton, saddled us with Chris Berman and turned the musical version of “Dadada, Dadada” into a phenomenon.
At 7 pm Eastern Time on this date in 1979, approximately 30,000 viewers tuned in to watch ESPN’s first telecast, the inaugural airing of Sportscenter.