PhillyPhanatics.com’s Ron Opher recently had the privilege of interviewing ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen, who is in the Philadelphia area in conjunction with the release of his book, “Sports Junkies Rejoice: The Birth of ESPN.”
PhillyPhanatics.com: Can you please tell us the core concept behind ESPN?
Bill Rasmussen: The belief was there are sports fans everywhere and we thought that people would watch live sports, no matter what. We were a nation back in the 1970′s that got to watch a little bit of sports on what were the three major networks at the time (ABC, CBS, NBC), but was thirsty for more. Sports fans love competition, and we love the uncertainty of the outcome, of what might happen in a game.
So the idea developed, influenced by the fact that 24 hours of satellite time cost about the same as about a game’s worth of time, for a 24-hour sports network. But to do 24-hour sports, we had to have a source of programming and the resources to pull it off.
PP: Were there naysayers in the early days?
BR: Oh yes (laughing), there were quite a few. One in particular was a colleague of mine working in the cable TV industry in Denver who said flat-out “This is never going to work. It will not work. But if it does, I want to be your first customer!” So I knew right then that the tide was turning.
PP: As a teenager growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I can remember getting the October 1979 programming guide with the Canadian Football League and Auto Racing on the cover, and later the NHL and lots of Hartford Whalers games from the Mall and not being able to get the goal song “Brass Bonanza” out of my head after watching those games.
BR: Boy, I haven’t heard that in a LONG time – you have a good memory!
PP: Well, it was a catchy tune – I’ll never forget that crazy game with the Washington Capitals hosting the Quebec Nordiques which you must have shown about a dozen times, where there were something like 10 goals scored in five minutes. But those were the early days. Was there a breakthrough moment where you knew that ESPN had succeeded and was going to have staying power?
BR: From an investment point of view, having Getty Oil involved was huge. With their financial resources, assuming we delivered, they would make it happen. And also getting a $1.3 million contract with Budweiser, before we went on the air, for a one-year exclusive beer sponsorship was also important.
From a programming point of view, it was the first NCAA March Madness tournament in March of 1980. We went on the air September 7, 1979 – and as you mentioned, we had sports like kickboxing and rooftop platform tennis and just about anything else you can imagine other than the main sports. But when we were able to talk with Walter Byers, who was the first Executive Director of the NCAA, and learned that he was very enthusiastic – almost in disbelief in fact – that we would show schools like Lamar Tech and Weber State, in many cases live, he was on board with the concept from the beginning.
Once we pulled that off, our subscriptions went on a dramatic straight line up. In fact, in one month in September 1980, we added 5.5 million new subscribers. It had been building from that NCAA tournament – there were so many teams that never had a chance to be seen, and so everyone was talking about it, and it really launched us. ESPN now has over 100 million subscribers in the U.S. and about 450 million worldwide.
PP: It’s an institution now, a staple in American sports. And those breakthroughs happened in your first year – both financial and programmatic – that’s phenomenal.
BR: And they both helped each other. We had the resources to do all those basketball games, and the basketball games got those letters “ESPN” on the national consciousness, and boy is it ever there now.
PP: Let’s shift gears and ask you about Philadelphia as a sports town. What are your thoughts there?
BR: It’s one of the really solid sports towns in the country. I remember going back to the Philadelphia Athletics, and I grew up on the south side of Chicago and were were devastated losing 7-0 when Steve Van Buren scored the only touchdown in the snowstorm (when the Eagles beat the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL Championship in 1948). I’ve been aware of Philadelphia as a sports town since my childhood. It’s a great town – the Philly fanatic as a concept is well known.
PP: Didn’t the Cardinals actually win the year before (#10 on PhillyPhanatics’ list of the Eagles’ most disappointing playoff losses)?
BR: Yes, 28-21.
PP: So it was the Eagles’ turn in ’48?
BR: It was, but we didn’t think that way in Chicago – we wanted to win it, and we were very disappointed.
PP: You know that after the A’s, the ’48 and ’49 Eagles and the ’73-75 Flyers are the only repeat champions in Philadelphia – so that was a special team here and for you to remember it for us now is very much appreciated.
BR: Thank you. That’s an interesting point about the Flyers’ Stanley Cup years – when I worked for the New England Whalers in the 1970′s, we had Howard Baldwin running the team, who had worked for Ed Snider and the Flyers, and we came down frequently and saw quite a few games at the Spectrum, and now when I fly in and still see the Spectrum, I think back to those days – and so I do have a connection with Philadelphia in that way.
PP: The Spectrum is dying hard – there’s a big hole in it, but I don’t know how they’re going to bring it down.
BR: It’s not coming down very easily – I’ve heard about that.
(hear the audio for this portion of the interview)
PP: When I grew up here, there were a handful of us teenage boys who were really into sports – including my colleague on PhillyPhanatics.com, Eric Fisher. We had – if you can call it – the ‘sports geek’ kind of label and we were all guys. Nowadays, it seems like women are every bit as much into sports as men. What are your thoughts on that and on ESPN’s role in contributing to that?
BR: I think that is absolutely true. I was recently in Seattle and a couple came up to me after one of my talks, and the lady asked me “What do you think of K-State?” And here I am in Seattle and a woman wants to know my opinion on Kansas State football. So I had happened to be on campus the preceding summer and start mentioning that I think coach (Bill) Snyder is doing a great job and she is clearly very passionate about her team and asking me more questions and her husband says “You’ve started it now – she’s a bigger sports fan than me.” And I find that in a lot of places. And women are not just casual sports fans, many are very knowledgeable. I think the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball in particular have paid close attention to that, and have tailored their marketing efforts in recognition of that.
In terms of ESPN, the staffing of ESPN early on was groundbreaking. We paved the way with Gayle Gardner (who later moved to NBC), then Linda Cohn who’s still there, Robin Roberts who now has moved on to the ABC side with Good Morning America and later Chris McKendry and Hannah Storm (who came over from CNN), to name a few.
Remember, when I was doing television in the 1970′s, there were no female sports anchors – you had weather as pretty much the exclusive domain of women, and then maybe a co-anchor on the news.
So I would say that ESPN has made a very conscious effort and a huge contribution to encouraging young women to be involved – not just as sideline reporters – but in all aspects of the operation (see bio on ESPN’s Senior Coordinating Producer, Stephanie Druley as an example).
PP: Are you a fan of any particular team or teams?
BR: I almost hate to say this (sitting here in Philadelphia and speaking with PhillyPhanatics.com) – but the New York Giants.
PP: I thought you were going to give us the Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, being a South Sider.
BR: I left the Midwest right after college, so I did follow the 1959 Go Go Sox pennant team, but that was about it. I felt pretty far removed once the White Sox finally won a World Series (in 2005). I’m now a Yankees fan – who I know the Phillies don’t like.
PP: Well, we think the Phillies one-upped the Yankees this off-season, but we’ll see…
BR: We will see – the 1954 Indians’ rotation won 93 games (the team won 111, but lost to the Giants in the World Series – punctuated by Willie Mays’ famous catch off Vic Wertz).
(I then proceeded to get schooled by Mr. Rasmussen, who rattled off all five names as if he’d just seen them pitch this past week – aside from the Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, there was Mike Garcia (who won 19) and Art Houtteman (who won 15). Feller only had 13, while Lemon and Wynn each had 23.)
PP: Please tell us a bit about your background before starting ESPN.
BR: I went into the Air Force when I graduated college in the 1950′s, and then went to Rutgers for my Master’s degree. I started a small business in 1959, but I knew I loved sports and wanted to work in sports. I got started in the radio business in 1962 and television in 1965, was an evening sportscaster for 8 years and news director there for 2 years. I wasn’t as enthusiastic about news as sports, so I went to work for the New England Whalers of the WHA, both in broadcasting and on the marketing side.
When I was fired from the Whalers after the team missed the playoffs in the spring of 1978, I started thinking about and developing, along with my sons, the concept of what would eventually become ESPN.
PP: I want to understand, Bill, if you have a philosophy about the on-air personalities and whether they become celebrities by design or by happenstance – what’s your opinion on that?
BR: I think it was by happenstance. Remember, that with very few exceptions, we hired all rookies. People who were fresh out of school, or new in the cable industry or ‘just wanted to do this.’ We did hire Jim Simpson, who was a national network guy and George Grande (who was the first SportsCenter anchor, and who had done television in New Haven).
But when you talk about the rookies – the late Tom Mees (who hailed from Delaware), Lou Palmer, Bob Ley and Chris Berman – they all would go on to develop their own distinctive styles, and they set the tone for those who followed. Berman, the “Boomer” (as he’s called, with his booming voice) – he became the leader of the pack, and of course he developed the nicknames for the players during SportsCenter. The network people we had recruited to run the programming had never seen anything like that and were of the mind that you don’t do that on television, so they shut him down. And the fans screamed for the nicknames to come back, and so they did.
Now I love watching the free-wheeling style of Berman’s NFL pregame show – the Sunday NFL countdown – with Mike Ditka, Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson and Tom Jackson, and if you look around the league at what the network shows do, they seem to have adopted more of that style. So we have ESPN setting the tone, the culture and excitement and the fans seem to love it.
PP: Do you have an affinity for that early crew, do you stay in touch?
BR: Yeah, yeah, as a matter of fact Chris Berman calls me every September 7th. Pretty amazing, huh? I was in Bristol (Connecticut) this past year, with him and the rest of the crew. He calls me the “George Washington of ESPN” – or just simply “George.”
The year before, I was driving across Iowa, and the phone lights up and it’s Chris and he says “George! How are ya!” and each year it’s a different greeting. It’s pretty neat (to be remembered that way each anniversary).
PP: That’s terrific – maybe you can get Buddy Valastro, the Cake Boss, to make a cake for an upcoming anniversary – since you contributed so significantly to cable television’s success?
BR: There you go (laughing).
PP: Now you are promoting a book you’ve written, called “Sports Junkies Rejoice: The Birth of ESPN” and that has brought you to Philadelphia, among many other places, so is there anything we didn’t cover here that you’d like to share?
BR: The book is about everything that happened to create ESPN until the moment we went on the air (9/7/79 at 7:00pm). It goes through the trials and tribulations to get us on the air. It was a rat race; it was really amazing. I look back and sometime wonder “how did we do that?” We were rapidly making progress and also changing directions – I would be set to go to the airport and get on a plane and the phone would ring and suddenly I didn’t need to go – things like that.
It’s a pretty fast read – here’s one story from the early days – it was our first live event, the World Slow Pitch Softball Championship from Louisville, Kentucky. And we had Budweiser lined up as our exclusive beer sponsor, and the announcer comes on and says “Welcome to the Professional Slow Pitch Softball Championship between the Kentucky Bourbons and the Milwaukee Schlitz, brought to you by Budweiser, the King of Beers.”
That was kind of a funny night – the Budweiser representative was standing right next to me, and that was a dicey moment, but we got through it all right.
PP: I imagine he recognized that Bud got top billing there.
BR: Yes, they were OK with it, but when you’re just starting out, you just hold your breath in a moment like that and hope it goes OK. But it was fun, and there were so many memorable moments, and I’m happy to share them with sports fans everywhere.
PP: Thank you so much, Bill, for your time.
BR: Thank you – I appreciate you taking the time to chat.