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Volume 22 No. 39
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Closing Shot: DaDaDa, DaDaDa

On Sept. 7, 1979, ESPN flipped the switch on what would grow into a sports media giant. Founder Bill Rasmussen still looks back with a smile on his face.
There were plenty of doubters when ESPN launched in 1979. Bill Rasmussen gives credit to the entrepreneurial spirit among staffers for proving the skeptics wrong.
Photo: ESPN Images
There were plenty of doubters when ESPN launched in 1979. Bill Rasmussen gives credit to the entrepreneurial spirit among staffers for proving the skeptics wrong.
Photo: ESPN Images
There were plenty of doubters when ESPN launched in 1979. Bill Rasmussen gives credit to the entrepreneurial spirit among staffers for proving the skeptics wrong.
Photo: ESPN Images

As ESPN rolled toward the 40th anniversary of its launch date last week, founder Bill Rasmussen visited with the network’s staff in Charlotte, the first stop in a four-city tour. Sports Business Journal got to be a fly on the wall for that meeting and chatted with Rasmussen afterward. Here are highlights of his role in making sports media history.

 

■ On the idea for ‘SportsCenter’: “I had always thought that we needed longer to deliver sports [than the time allotted on traditional newscasts], so now we’re creating a new network, why not make it what we want? At first … we came up with the idea of ‘Sports Central.’ By the time we came on the air, of course, it was ‘SportsCenter.’ The idea was a half hour of nothing but sports. That turned out pretty well.”

 

■ On the naysayers: “People criticized us and said, ‘Do you realize you’re going to be going up against the ABC, NBC and CBS evening news? They control 93% of the audience. How are you going to get noticed?’ I said we’re going to go for the other 7%. Well, I think it may now be more than 7% today.”

 

One other story shared by Rasmussen: ESPN mainstay Chris Berman started a month after the network went on the air. ESPN offered him $16,000, to which Berman attempted a counter. Since he was already working nearby, he said, the network wouldn’t need to pay his moving expenses so could they offer $16,500? ESPN turned it down, but Berman signed regardless and continues there today.

■ On the early challenges of selling advertising: “We had a lot of brilliant minds working on this in the early days. In one moment of insanity we had sat down and figured out if we had eight sponsors at $2,760,000 each … we could make this work and pay off any debt we incurred.” (Editor’s note: Anheuser-Busch heard the pitch and offered $500,000, which ESPN turned down. A-B returned with a $1,380,000 counter and became ESPN’s first exclusive sponsor.)

  

■ On the qualities of the culture that remain: “The overall culture then was we want to win. We’re the best. We’re going to be the best. It still is.”

 

■ On his battle with Parkinson’s disease: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could, the same way ESPN conquered sports and has millions and millions of people talking sports … if we could turn that same kind of enthusiasm, experience and absolute can-do attitude to raise money until we get this problem solved?”

 

■ On his advice to those working for the new ACC Network: “I have a really, really simple approach to life. Always be curious about what you’re doing. Never, never be complacent. You’ll win. It’s that simple.”

 

■ On his pride in founding ESPN: “I’m proud of it all, not only the people, but the reaction of the fans, everywhere I go. I don’t go and talk about ESPN, but somebody will say, ‘I saw this game’ or ‘What did you think of that game?’ And inevitably somebody will say, ‘Weren’t you involved in ESPN?’ … Just to walk through an airport and to see everyone glued to the set and see ESPN, that’s pretty cool. They don’t know who I am. I’m just another passenger. But I smile when I see that.”