How ESPN Revolutionised Sport Coverage 40 Years Ago

Sacking proved catalyst for the channel which changed everything
06:25, 07 Sep 2019

Today, ESPN is a multi-media powerhouse, backed by Disney cash with a dedicated audience of millions across the globe. Through social media, TV and magazines, ESPN is one of the most influential brands on the planet.

The sports network celebrates its 40th birthday on September 7 but its humble origins deserve greater investigation as it approaches this notable milestone.

Founded by Bill Rasmussen, his son Scott and Ed Eagan, a former insurance agent, ESPN now enjoys an exalted place in the US marketplace, accessible by more than 93 per cent of audiences with pay-TV. But it needed Bill Rasmussen to be sacked from his job as communications manager at the New England Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes) for the idea to get off the ground.

Bill Rasummen knew Eagan through the hockey team and the pair had held informal discussions about setting up a monthly cable TV show covering sport in Connecticut.

The idea of setting up the cable channel rather than just making one show gained some support from Eagan’s associate Bob Beyus who owned a video production company. With interest from potential investors, the idea grew into the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (simply 'ESP') but only five from twelve local cable operators were on board with the idea.

The seven who didn’t sign up just could not see a future for a dedicated sport channel and certainly didn’t believe it could generate revenue. Undeterred, the trio held a press conference to talk through their plans with reporters - 35 were invited but only four turned up. So disheartened was Beyus, he actually walked out of the press conference before it finished.

Having been talked round, Beyus returned to the group but the emphasis switched to satellite broadcasting which despite being seen as untested in the States, was starting to gain popularity in Europe. Following a meeting with technology giant RCA, the trio discovered it was just as easy to broadcast to the entire country with a satellite rather than the local nature of cable, and this was, if anything, more cost-effective.

Happy with this explanation, a transponder for the satellite was purchased and the channel started to resemble what we know now. Coverage was spread over 24 hours meaning a need for staff, vehicles and equipment, the cash being thrown in by family members. A headquarters was established in Bristol, Connecticut and more investment was attracted from external parties including Getty Oil. This was an especially important move as it gave the fledgeling brand credibility in the marketplace, inspiring Anheuser-Busch, the brewery behind Budweiser, to invest millions in TV advertising.  

It’s worth remembering that there were no 24-hour channels of any description back then. CNN was still a year away and MTV only launched in 1981. Yet ESP was able to pick up the rights for College basketball relatively cheaply and this paved the way for an additional 17 College sports.

The channel changed its name to ESPN TV then ESPN is a bid to differentiate between other three-letter broadcasters like ABC, CBS and NBC. So in just 14 months, the channel had grown from the germ of an idea to a fully-fledged 24 hour operation.

“Years ago dreams of Jules Verne and Buck Rogers were made of wild imagination,” said Rasmussen on launch night. “Today, modern technology has taken those dreams and imagination and turned it into a reality which allows us to send an image into your home via satellite.”

As more and more sports were added to the channel’s schedule, including NBA basketball, the number of viewers soared and the channel went from strength to strength. As the channel grew, ABC bought the channel for a substantial fee in 1984.  

Many of the channel’s original programme concepts are still popular today such as SportsCenter - a highlights magazine show which ultimately morphed into a rolling news network in its own right. The channel also gained credibility for its documentary series and started to broadcast events which had previously not attracted coverage such as the NFL Draft. Back then the move was seen as an easy way to pad out the broadcast schedule but now the Draft is a must-see event for NFL fans.

It’s difficult to imagine the multi-channel sport landscape we have now without ESPN, an idea which may never have happened if Bill Rasmussen stayed in his job.