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SBJ/April 4-10, 2011/People and Pop Culture
Champions: Bill Rasmussen, ESPN creator
The man credited with creating sports giant ESPN carries on with a passion and a lot of fans in Bristol
Published April 4, 2011, Page 29
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On this night in early February, the nattily attired Rasmussen — the man credited with creating ESPN more than three decades ago — is addressing about 150 members of the Center City Proprietors Association. The afternoon before, Rasmussen gave a similar talk at Villanova University, which followed talks to the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, Princeton University and The Center for Sports Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The script is always similar. Speaking without notes, the 78-year-old Rasmussen regales the crowd with familiar stories he’s told hundreds of times over the past three decades.
Rasmussen and his family were in Bristol last September for a ceremony in his honor.
There’s the story of how he signed the NCAA, ESPN’s first big programming coup. That was in 1979.
There’s the story of how ESPN wound up being headquartered in the sleepy little burg of Bristol, Conn. Rasmussen paid $18,000 for the first acre of ESPN’s now-sprawling campus. That was in 1979, too.
There’s the story of a Texas woman who named ESPN in a lawsuit she filed to divorce her husband in 1980.
Dressed in a dark, pinstriped suit, with perfectly knotted red tie and an American flag lapel pin, Rasmussen delivers each of these stories with a flourish and a smile. He knows exactly when the audience will laugh when he speaks of the divorce proceedings from Texas: at the point when he talks about the different reactions of a gloom-and-doom ESPN lawyer and the glee of Rosa Gatti, ESPN’s longtime communications executive, who thought the publicity would help the nascent network.
George Bodenheimer’s interest in ESPN’s history led him to reach out to Rasmussen.
The most interesting part of Rasmussen’s talk comes at the end, when he fields questions from the audience. The audience wants to know the likelihood that ESPN brings NHL games back to its schedule. They ask how ESPN will deal with a potential NFL lockout next season.
Rasmussen virtually beams as he answers. He is in the moment. He doesn’t offer specifics — he doesn’t know the specifics anymore — but he answers smartly, drawing a parallel to the early days.
If ESPN wants the NHL, Rasmussen says, it has enough cash to outbid all other channels. That leads to a discussion of how he negotiated the NCAA contract in 1979.
If the NFL loses games, ESPN has plenty of programming to fill in any holes, Rasmussen tells the audience. As evidence, he tells a story from 1980, when he was pitched a sport called New York Rooftop Platform Tennis as a potential TV sport.
Rasmussen (left) and Bristol Mayor Michael Werner shovel and smile at the 1980 groundbreaking ceremony for ESPN’s campus.
ESPN launched in September of 1979. Rasmussen hasn’t been involved in ESPN’s day-to-day operations since the end of 1980, and he sold his shares in the company in 1984. For the past three decades, Rasmussen has had to watch from the outside while his dream became the biggest profit center for the Walt Disney Co. and an undeniable force on the American media landscape.
It’s a familiar story: An entrepreneur launches an idea, but the entrepreneur leaves before the idea really takes off and misses out on much of the riches that follow.
What makes this story different from others is the genuine affection Rasmussen has for what ESPN has become. His eyes twinkle and his face lights up when he talks about his creation. People that know him well say that he harbors no jealousy or ill will for the company that forced him out three decades ago.
“This is a guy whose idea gave birth to, arguably, the most successful media story of our time,” said Jim Miller, a best-selling author who has been researching ESPN more than 2 1/2 years for his upcoming book on the company. “He was pushed out in 1980, and he basically harbored no resentment. I don’t think there are a lot of people that could have gone through what he went through and emerged like that.”
It wasn’t always that way. Rasmussen was upset when he was pushed out as ESPN president at the end of 1980, a little more than a year after the network launched.
It’s understandable. The channel was Rasmussen’s idea. He founded the network. He helped convince NBC Sports President Chet Simmons to leave broadcast television to run a fledgling cable channel. But Rasmussen’s entrepreneurial style clashed almost immediately with the hard-charging Simmons, causing him to fall out of favor with executives from Getty Oil, which provided most of ESPN’s initial funding.
At the end of 1980, Simmons and the Getty Oil executive overseeing ESPN, Stuart Evey, moved Rasmussen into a ceremonial role. He stayed around for about a year before leaving the network. In 1984, he sold his stock in the network, and he stayed away from Bristol for the next 15 years. He didn’t reach out to ESPN, and ESPN didn’t reach out to him.
Rasmussen and ESPN finally made amends in 1999, when ESPN President George Bodenheimer invited him to the company’s 20th anniversary party. Bodenheimer had started at ESPN in January 1981 and never worked directly with Rasmussen, who already had assumed his ceremonial role at ESPN. Bodenheimer has always felt that understanding ESPN’s history was an important piece to the company’s success, and he wanted to establish connections with ESPN’s past. That meant reaching out to Rasmussen.
For the past decade, ESPN’s current management team has embraced Rasmussen’s role as the creator of the world’s biggest sports media entity.
This culminated last year in the formal dedication of the main flagpole on ESPN’s campus in Rasmussen’s name.
“I have always been interested in the early history of the company,” Bodenheimer said. “That would be Bill Rasmussen, if you’re talking about the early days.”
Like just about everyone else who has come into contact with Rasmussen over the years, Bodenheimer marvels at the ESPN founder’s unshakable optimism and entrepreneurial spirit.
“I admire him so much,” Bodenheimer said. “His passion and can-do attitude really sums up the spirit and the culture of the company today. That’s him.”
Many executives that came in contact with Rasmussen during ESPN’s infancy reference that can-do spirit. Paul Maxwell, a cable industry pioneer who founded several industry trade publications, said Rasmussen’s faith in ESPN provided a stark contrast to how others viewed the startup network at the time.
Maxwell recalls sitting in an Anaheim, Calif., bar with cable industry icon Bill Daniels, who helped convince Getty Oil to fund ESPN in the early years. It was right after Getty had invested in ESPN, probably 1980. Evey, the Getty Oil executive responsible for overseeing the network, approached the duo, with a look of worry on his face. He asked, “Are we ever going to make money?”
“It was the first thing he asked Bill,” Maxwell said. “Bill knew it would work. We both thought it was brilliant.”
Bodenheimer welcomed the Rasmussen family to his office in September.
“Some of the Getty folks might have doubted it, because they’re big corporate folks and they have to do everything in a committee meeting or board meeting,” Rasmussen said. “We weren’t constrained by that. We just charged ahead.”
Rasmussen has embraced that entrepreneurial image throughout his career. It is part of every business venture he has undertaken since 1984.
|Rasmussen visits with anchors Robert Flores and Sage Steele.|
His current venture, called Power Grid TV, is one of the reasons he’s been traveling so much recently. It is devoted to streaming college sports games that don’t make it onto a traditional television network. For the past year, Rasmussen has scoured the country, visiting smaller schools and gauging their interest in committing to such a service. From his home in Seattle, Rasmussen travels at least once a month to big and small markets as he tries to pitch people on his next big thing.
“It feels pretty much the same as the early days of ESPN,” he said. “ESPN produces and generates programming that it sends to the cable systems. We’re skipping all of that. Now, we’re going to be a channel that’s going to promote all the schools that participate. They’re the cable systems.”
To open those doors, Rasmussen trades on his legacy as ESPN’s founder. It’s a celebrity that was evidenced at the Center City Proprietors Association event in Philadelphia last month.
Following a 15-minute talk, Rasmussen retreated to a conference room to sign copies of his book, “Sports Junkies Rejoice: The Birth of ESPN.”
He sat at the head of the table in a conference room, with ESPN’s coverage of a St. John’s-Connecticut college basketball game appearing on a flat screen over his shoulder.
Rasmussen diligently signed each book that was handed to him — the line remained 20-deep for at least 30 minutes — and listened to the many stories that the association members had.
Many of the people in line were born well after ESPN launched, but they all identified with his creation and seemed genuinely thrilled to meet its creator.
A woman wanted a signed copy for her boyfriend, “who wants to be a sports agent.” A man picked one up for his son-in-law, who “loves everything about ESPN.” A man who looked to be in his 40s confessed that “he could not go to sleep without ESPN.”
Rasmussen couldn’t have looked prouder. He listened intently to each guest and smiled broadly with each compliment.
“It’s kind of like watching your kids grow up,” Rasmussen said of watching ESPN achieve great heights. “I had no choice in 1984 [when he sold his stock]. But that’s OK. I wouldn’t have been doing all the things that I’ve been doing in 28 years if I hadn’t sold.”