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

CURT HUDSON
Bill Rasmussen is standing with a microphone in a cramped law firm lobby on the 13th floor of a Philadelphia office building.

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.
ESPN
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.

ESPN
George Bodenheimer’s interest in ESPN’s history led him to reach out to Rasmussen.
“Well, the lawyer left,” he tells the crowd. “The lady from PR is today the senior vice president of communications. She’s been there for 30 years. And she is from Philadelphia.”

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.

NEWSCOM
Rasmussen (left) and Bristol Mayor Michael Werner shovel and smile at the 1980 groundbreaking ceremony for ESPN’s campus.
Rasmussen first came up with the idea of producing sports events for cable television in May 1978, just a week after being fired as communications director of the New England Whalers of the old World Hockey Association. Rasmussen’s original idea was to produce local sports for Connecticut cable systems. By August of 1978, Rasmussen and his son, Scott, had expanded that idea. They decided that a national sports channel could work on cable and were confident they could find investors.

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.”

THE ENTREPRENEUR

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.

Cable show was kickoff

Bill Rasmussen believes that a regional cable industry convention in 1979 turned out to be one of the most important events in ESPN’s history.

On Feb. 7, 1979, one day before the start of the Texas Cable Show, Rasmussen was at the NCAA’s headquarters in Shawnee Mission, Kan., trying to convince the association to allow an announcement of its programming deal with the fledgling network at the convention.

ESPN still was seven months away from launching, but it was starting to build some momentum. The NCAA deal would convince cable operators that ESPN had enough programming to survive. And Rasmussen was deep into discussions with Anheuser-Busch for an advertising contract that would be worth more than $1 million, convincing cable operators that ESPN would be financially viable.

The Texas Cable Show in San Antonio is where it all came together. Rasmussen came armed with an agreement in principal with the NCAA, and promises that the Anheuser-Busch deal was coming soon. It finally was signed in May.

“I convinced the NCAA to let us announce the agreement at the cable show,” Rasmussen said. “We were going to tell the world that we’re going to be doing more NCAA sports than you have ever thought possible. Cable systems across the country are going to have people flocking to them.”

The convention had a session where eight potential programmers would give five-minute pitches about their planned services. Organizers cut microphones off at the five-minute mark.

Rasmussen felt lucky when ESPN was selected to give the last presentation.

As he walked onto the stage, one of his co-workers put a model truck on the dais, and Rasmussen began his spiel. “I’m there with my little toy truck,” he said. “I looked out at the cable operators and said, ‘We’re going to have seven of these traveling around the country.’”

Rasmussen closed his presentation by reading a press release announcing the NCAA deal. He left the stage completely satisfied. He thought he nailed it.

Cable executives in the room said they were impressed, even if they still had several questions.

“They talked about the Entertainment and Sports Network,” said cable pioneer Paul Maxwell. “I remember somebody saying, ‘Where’s the entertainment?’ That’s what ESPN stands for, but nobody remembers that. They were going to do stuff other than sports because originally they didn’t think that they could get all the rights right away.”

At the time, Tom Soulsby was with Communications Properties, a cable operator that eventually was bought by Times Mirror. He remembers being excited by Rasmussen’s pitch, an excitement that was tempered soon after the network launched.

“I remember when it went on the air, and they had some dog shows on there, and we thought, ‘This thing may not make it.’” Soulsby said. “Then they started getting some product and they turned around and became the monster that it is today.”

For Rasmussen, the best part of the day occurred as he exited the stage. “A guy from Bartlesville, Okla., I have no idea who he is, approached. … He said, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do all that, but if you’re half as good as what you told us here today, this is going to be the biggest success cable television has ever seen.’ I’m thinking, ‘Boy, I hope he’s right.’”
— John Ourand
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.”

ESPN (2)
Bodenheimer welcomed the Rasmussen family to his office in September.
Rasmussen said he had to deal with that kind of doubt frequently in the early days.

“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.”

Rasmussen (or ‘George’) shares bond with ESPN veterans

Bill Rasmussen was driving through Iowa last Sept. 7 when his phone rang. He looked down and saw it was Chris Berman, the ESPN anchor who started at the network in 1979, when Rasmussen was its president.

Rasmussen smiled as he heard Berman’s familiar, booming voice come through the phone, “Hello, George. Where are you today?”

Rasmussen was not surprised to get the call. Berman calls every Sept. 7 to commemorate ESPN’s birthday. And he always refers to Rasmussen as “George” — as in, George Washington, the father of our country.

Every year, for as long as Rasmussen can remember, the two have caught up on a phone call that lasts several minutes. “Chris really keeps the alumni association going,” said another ESPN anchor, Bob Ley, who started at ESPN around the same time Berman did.

Rasmussen didn’t hire any of the early anchors, like Berman or Ley. That was a job for Scotty Connal, a former NBC executive who was brought on board to help launch ESPN. But Ley said the early anchors share an affection for the man credited with creating the all-sports network.

“It’s as if, with anybody from that era, we have a kinship born of that communal moment that we share something very special,” Ley said. “A lot of it is not verbal. You don’t need to express it among ourselves. We just know that we shared something very unique.”

Dick Vitale referenced that bond, too. Vitale, who was hired just after Ley and who also started at ESPN during Rasmussen’s reign as its president, said he remembered his first assignment: providing analysis for a DePaul-Wisconsin basketball game.

“We had this little trailer that we operated out of in Bristol,” Vitale said. “Now, to see what a giant it’s become in the world of sports! I love Bill, but I’ll tell you what: I like it a lot better now owned by Mickey Mouse because the checks are a lot bigger.”
That early culture — working out of trailers and cramped office spaces — is embraced by executives, allowing them to remember modest roots before ESPN became such a dominant force.

“ESPN is so big now, but people forget that when we started, we didn’t even have a computer. We didn’t have fax machines and Internet and e-mail and all that stuff,” Rasmussen said. “We did it the old-fashioned way, with stamps and envelopes. We’d pick up the phone and meet face to face.”

Vitale said the change from a small network happened quickly. He pointed to the 1983 Final Four when he first realized how big ESPN could become.

“Seeing people come over and asking for autographs and pictures, I said, ‘Wow. This has become absolutely something that I’m really happy to be part of,’” Vitale said.

Rasmussen shares that pride. Last September, ESPN honored him with a ceremony dedicating the main flagpole on the Bristol, Conn., campus in his name. The honor meant a lot to Rasmussen, who showed up with his wife, his daughter and three grandchildren.

About 500 people attended the ceremony, including several dozen ESPN employees who have been with the company since its start. Berman and Ley served as emcees.

“We spend a lot of time on our culture at the company, so the opportunity to hear Bill regale some of the employees with the early days was worthwhile,” said ESPN President George Bodenheimer. “He was beaming with pride, and rightfully so. It was just a really nice day for us and for our employees because many of them had never had the chance to meet Bill.”
— John Ourand



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