How one man's idea became the world-wide leader in sports broadcasting

ESPN Founder Bill Rasmussen addressed students at the University of Connecticut last week, and  in a Forbes magazine article recalls how it all began, highlighting a series of marvelous, insightful and often-ironic anecdotes, as well as some sit-up-and-take-notice numbers:

  • “A salesman once told me that every sale starts with a ‘no.’ We knew we were going to be really be big because we got lots of ‘no’s’ in the beginning. Now there are over six U.S. networks and 46 international networks that have grown from the original ESPN.”
  • “I met with the man from RCA along with my son, Scott. He told us all about what satellite packages were available, including a 24-hour package that no one had ever bought. When Scott went over the pricing structure, he realized the 24-hour package was the best option. Of course, we didn’t have any money, but I called the man from RCA the next day and said, ‘We’ll take one of those things.’ ‘One of what things,’ he asked. ‘One of those 24 hour things.’”
  • “When we first went out to meet with the cable systems around the country, we asked them to pay the ridiculously exorbitant $.01 (cents) per day per subscriber -– a cost of $.30 (cents) per month -– triple that of Ted Turner‘s already established SuperStation WTBS. They practically laughed us out of the meetings.”
  • “We ended up costing cable systems 2.4 cents per subscriber per month – and when the word started to get out, especially during the 1980 NCAA Basketball tournament, we had cable systems calling us trying to get on board. Now ESPN charges $5.13 per subscriber per month and has over 100 million households in the U.S. alone.”
  • “NBC had the national TV contract back then, but only aired the Final Four and some regional tournament games, a handful of contests in all. I told Mr. Byers (NCAA President), ‘We want to do every single game you haven’t committed to the (major) networks.’ He said, ‘Every single one?’ I said yes.”
  • “We (Bill and Scott Rasmussen) were in traffic on I-84 in Connecticut, it was sweltering hot, and we had all the windows rolled down. And we were trying to come up with ideas to fill 8,760 hours a year of television programming. We had been talking back and forth for a while, until Scott finally said something like, ‘Play football all day, for all I care.’ And suddenly, the ideas started coming fast and furious during that car ride, we came up with the idea for ‘Sports Center.’”

And how did it all begin?  “In 1978, I was working as the Communications Director of the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association, and when the Whalers didn’t make the 1978 WHA playoffs, most of the front office staff – including me – were fired.”  So, Rasmussen began working on an idea he had to telecast Connecticut college sports – somehow- and provide more than the traditional three-minutes on the evening local news that were traditionally devoted to sports.  Needless to say, one thing led to another, and the quickly incorporated E.S.P. Network soon evolved into ESPN, among the most recognizable sports broadcasting brands in the world.