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ESPN's Founder On The Global Appeal Of 24-Hour Sports

A control room in the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn.
mike dunn
/
Flickr
A control room in the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn.

At 7 p.m. on September 7, 1979, ESPN hit the airwaves with the first episode of its flagship program, SportsCenter. Although ESPN has become a staple of international sport and television, cofounder Bill Rasmussen says that when he first pitched the idea of a 24-hour sports network, reactions were mostly negative.

ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen on the set of 'SportsCenter'
Credit Provided
ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen on the set of 'SportsCenter'

“I had people off the street say [a 24-hour sports network is] never going to work. I had business people say it’s never going to work,” Rasmussen said.

But he believed his idea was a good one.

“If you think about it in terms of demographics, [sports fans are] absolutely the largest demographic we have in the world. North, east, south, west, young, old, rich poor, male, female, the list just goes on and on… It was so clear to me and such a mystery to other people,” Rasmussen said.

Since that first broadcast in 1979, ESPN has expended to reach a global audience with 24 networks broadcasting to 61 countries in four different languages. Rasmussen attributes this partially to the power sports has to bring people together across cultures and borders.

“The picture and the sport tells its own story … [people] don't have to understand the language just to understand the sport. It's a marvelous way to bring cultures together,” said Rasmussen.

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Interview Highlights

On The Early Days Of ESPN

It was really interesting. I was all excited,"Let's go talk about 24-hour sports" and people would say, "you're going to do what? That's not going to work. That never going to work." I had people off the streets say it's never going to work. I had business people say it's never going to work, and the one that was most impressive to me when we were looking for money was the Taft Broadcasting Company – the big broadcasting company of the day headquartered in Cincinnati – and they invited me to a board meeting to make my presentation. We had a wonderful lunch, and they were absolutely, exquisitely perfect – manners and everything. When we were all done, we started out, and the chairman walked me out the door and he said, "We really appreciate you coming in," and, figuratively I guess, patted me on the head and said, "You're a nice young man, but you realize this idea will never work. Not only that, cable television won't even be here in three years." Taft Broadcasting went out of business about eight years after that conversation, so I guess cable won. So it was that attitude that was just amazing. It was so clear to me and such a mystery to other people. And that persisted as we tried to get to the cable industry and do many things.

On Fandom Before Sports Television

Well sports fans, if you think about it in terms of demographics, it's absolutely the largest demographic we have in the world. North, east, south, west, young, old, rich poor, male, female, it just goes on and on. And when you can get fans engaged, it gives them something to think about. Back in the 60s, 70s, and so on, there was nothing to root for except your local team. There was no television, there were no televised games, and so you became a fan. And I can remember my grandfather saw the 1906 Chicago White Sox-Chicago Cubs World Series – the only one ever played between those two. And he passed that on to me, and then I passed it on to my kids. So those old roots, they were fiercely fanatic about them, but it just one little pocket. So basically ESPN, the principal idea was let's give fans all over the country an opportunity to see not only what they're used to, but to see other teams that they only hear about.

On Taking Risks In Sports Broadcasting

I was in Dallas – I guess about a year ago right now – and ESPN Dallas has opened as one of their five regional markets. And they basically took over some ABC studio space, and one of the people that they retained was the guy that was in charge of the ABC radio operation when it was there, and he was now working with the new ones. And I said to him, "What's the difference between the two?" And he said, "That's easy." And I thought, "That's going to be an interesting answer." He said, "ABC was ruled by New York, and they said to everybody outside of New York City, ‘Whatever you do don't rock the boat.’” ESPN has said, “Whatever you want to try, try it. If it works, great, we'll do it other places. If it doesn't, cut your losses and move on.” And I think that's what has made ESPN grow, and I think they'll continue to do the same thing. Every piece of technology that comes along, there's somebody there that has a lot of experience, and they will keep trying and challenging.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Bill Rasmussen, welcome to World Views.

BILL RASMUSSEN: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

CRUISE: Well I'm really excited to talk with you about the founding of ESPN, which you and your son, I understand, founded about 35 years ago. And perhaps today it seems kind of basic that we would want to have 24-hour sports, but back then this was really, really unusual and you really had to do some pressing the flesh to get people to understand that this was something that we all are going to want to watch. Can you maybe talk about those early days?

RASMUSSEN: It was really interesting. I was all excited,"Let's go talk about 24-hour sports" and people would say, "you're going to do what? That's not going to work. That never going to work." I had people off the streets say it's never going to work. I had business people say it's never going to work, and the one that was most impressive to me when we were looking for money was the Taft Broadcasting Company – the big broadcasting company of the day headquartered in Cincinnati – and they invited me to a board meeting to make my presentation. We had a wonderful lunch, and they were absolutely, exquisitely perfect – manners and everything. When we were all done, we started out, and the chairman walked me out the door and he said, "We really appreciate you coming in," and, figuratively I guess, patted me on the head and said, "You're a nice young man, but you realize this idea will never work. Not only that, cable television won't even be here in three years." Taft Broadcasting went out of business about eight years after that conversation, so I guess cable won. So it was that attitude that was just amazing. It was so clear to me and such a mystery to other people. And that persisted as we tried to get to the cable industry and do many things.

CRUISE: And now ESPN has millions of viewers, several stations in the United States and abroad in over 200 countries, I understand. There just seems to be something about sports. On occasion we do hear about conflict, but oftentimes we hear about sports bringing people together. We see it in reconciliation processes. We see people – families maybe that haven't talked in quite some time – and they come together in sports. Communities that are struggling come together for the team. We hear these stories all the time. You somehow saw this as a need in broadcasting. But what is it about sports, do you suppose, that has this effect?

RASMUSSEN: Well sports fans, if you think about it in terms of demographics, it's absolutely the largest demographic we have in the world. North, east, south, west, young, old, rich poor, male, female, it just goes on and on. And when you can get fans engaged, it gives them something to think about. Back in the 60s, 70s, and so on, there was nothing to root for except your local team. There was no television, there were no televised games, and so you became a fan. And I can remember my grandfather saw the 1906 Chicago White Sox-Chicago Cubs World Series – the only one ever played between those two. And he passed that on to me, and then I passed it on to my kids. So those old roots, they were fiercely fanatic about them, but it just one little pocket. So basically ESPN, the principal idea was let's give fans all over the country an opportunity to see not only what they're used to, but to see other teams that they only hear about. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, we could only see 25 football games a week: Oklahoma, Michigan, Texas, SouthernCal, were limited to three games, three appearances. Period. End of story. It didn't make any difference if Oklahoma's first three games were done by the middle of October and they were undefeated, national-championship-bound and so on. You never, ever would see them again. That was crazy. I mean, are Oklahoma fans fanatic? Of course they are!

CRUISE: Absolutely [laughs].

RASMUSSEN: Wouldn't you think that somebody in Television Land would say, "there's something wrong with this system"? Well basically that's what we did; we told networks they were not doing it right.

CRUISE: And this was a way to bring more viewers, more people together. And I love how you mention that your grandfather passed that down to you, that this is a cross-generational thing, fans of sport.

RASMUSSEN: Very, very much so. And now the younger fans, with all the technology today, they can be really engaged – the fantasy sports leagues,

things like that – but just following your team. And most of the athletes now, they all have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and fans can seemingly engage even though it's arm's-length, but they're involved. And just let a player doing something that's either good or bad off the edges, and it just creates a tremendous amount of interest.

CRUISE: So this is something that we have seen grow and grow since it started 35 years ago, and it has certainly developed an international presence. And having traveled abroad quite a bit myself, I love that I can tune in to the website, and I can stay connected. And certainly people around the world have become more and more connected to sports that previously they would have had to come to the United States to watch. We can think of basketball, football, and certainly baseball. Did you have this idea in mind that this was going to be a global phenomenon? I know your slogan is "The Worldwide Leader In Sports," so perhaps that was in the back of your mind.

RASMUSSEN: Well when we started it was "The Total Sports Cable Network." So it wasn't quite there because we weren't really thinking about it. It was 1984 when the America's Cup was held in Australia, and it was a technological accomplishment to bring a double satellite loop back to the U.S., Even though it was three in the morning or something, but people watched. And they were impressed that, using satellite technology, we could get that done. Actually, talking about those international events, there are more fans and networks outside of the United States today than there are inside the United States, which is pretty amazing.

CRUISE: That is amazing. It does the opposite too, as you said. It allows us here to get to learn more about international events, to learn more about international players. And one thing that was very apparent to me in the last five or so years ago, was the series that ESPN did – the "30 for 30" series – to mark the 30th anniversary of ESPN. And I was just looking through the 30 original shows, and at least five of them were about international events or international players. Things like "The Two Escobars" looking at how Andrés Escobar and Pablo Escobar – though not related – a Colombian soccer player and a Colombian drug lord, how their lives were intertwined in sports, in soccer. Other stories about Vlade Divac and other international players. So we get to learn about their backstories through this process.

RASMUSSEN: Exactly. I was in Costa Rica a couple of weeks ago on Monday night. And there was a gentleman I was with and he said, "Well let's take a look at Monday Night Football." And I hadn’t even thought about it – I was down there on business. And of course, everything was in Spanish. But it doesn't make any difference what the language is; the picture and the sport tells its own story. And it's fascinating. So if it's soccer from South Africa or if it's baseball from New York City, it's around the world, and everybody understands. They don't have to understand the language just to understand the sport. It's a marvelous way to bring cultures together, I think.

CRUISE: It really is. And we're seeing more and more international players in our sports here. Basketball obviously comes to mind. I think this last season, 2013, there was a record number of international players. And here in Oklahoma, obviously, we have Thabo Sefolosha – who has left, but was an international player – and Serge Ibaka, of course, and many others. I think it was 92 international players in the NBA last year. Baseball, obviously, also.

RASMUSSEN: Baseball has got a tremendous percentage of South Americans, Dominicans, Japanese especially, even Taiwan. There have been several players from Taiwan who are outstanding.

CRUISE: This seems to have correlated with the expansion of ESPN, and I would argue that your organization played a role in this. How can we understand this proliferation of international players? Is it ESPN? Is it perhaps the Dream Team in 1992 bringing more people into basketball from around the world? Or how might you discuss that?

RASMUSSEN: You know, I'm not really sure. Hockey had the Dream Team. Back in the 70s we had the famous Olympics when the Russians kept resetting the clock until they finally won the game, and that brought a lot of attention to international basketball. So this has been going on for a long time, and I think ESPN is basically just one more outlet, if you will, spreading the word. A pretty significant outlet, but it really is getting the message and delivering sports internationally. I don't know if you're aware, SportsCenter in the U.S. there are two places: Bristol [Connecticut], and Los Angeles. But there are 13 other SportsCenters delivered around the world in all kinds of different languages. It's amazing.

CRUISE: Absolutely. So we talked about baseball and the NBA. One sport that actually hasn't had too many international players – and is perhaps one of the more American sports – is football, but we have certainly seen attempts to make football more international. Just this year we've seen a number of games that are being played abroad, and we know [NFL] Commissioner Goodell has said that we will at some point have an expansion team in Great Britain. What do you think about this idea? Is that a good marketing strategy?

RASMUSSEN: Well, the NFL has figured out about every way they can to gather as many dollars as they can from the American market, so I guess they want to go overseas. But they had the European league a number of years ago, and that worked for while, but it just didn't work [long term]. It takes a lot of talented football players to rise to the level of bringing in a full crowd in one of the big stadiums in England or wherever it might be. I suspect they're going to do it at some point. It doesn't take much longer to fly to London than it does if you're in Florida to fly and play a game in Seattle. And when you get to Seattle it's going to be noisier than it is in London, I know that. Those people are crazy in Seattle. We'll hear about that, I'm sure [laughs].

CRUISE: [Laughs]. I’m sure. Well it seems perhaps another sports team or another league – baseball, perhaps – would be a larger market for an international baseball league, or something along those lines.

RASMUSSEN: I think you're probably right, because baseball is in so many other markets already. And baseball is no longer an Olympic sport, but they play the World Baseball Championship every other year, and the Americans don't win because of the Dominicans, the Venezuelans, the Panamanians, Japanese of course. It just goes on and on. And when everybody has to play for their own team, it's kind of odd to see the Major League players from the same team playing on four or five of those other teams. It's kind of interesting. Many years ago, St. Louis was the western-most part of the league. There were only, I think, there were only 10 cities that had baseball teams, and there were only 16 teams. So it was a very, very small fan base. And when you talked about San Francisco and Los Angeles, going to the west coast, everybody thought that was terrible, it was just going to ruin the sport. Well guess what, it didn't work that way. And now, 30 teams later, it's still going strong.

CRUISE: So as the world gets proverbially closer, perhaps we could see more international teams.

RASMUSSEN: Absolutely.

CRUISE: Well ESPN has really been successful because they are always kind of challenging or trying new things, new innovations. Going to the Internet, etcetera, etcetera. What's next? I know you're advising them, no longer necessarily leading, but what do you see in the future for ESPN?

RASMUSSEN: You know, that's a really tough question. You just touched on something, though, that is part of the culture. I was in Dallas – I guess about a year ago right now – and ESPN Dallas has opened as one of their five regional markets. And they basically took over some ABC studio space, and one of the people that they retained was the guy that was in charge of the ABC radio operation when it was there, and he was now working with the new ones. And I said to him, "What's the difference between the two?" And he said, "That's easy." And I thought, "That's going to be an interesting answer." He said, "ABC was ruled by New York, and they said to everybody outside of New York City, ‘Whatever you do don't rock the boat.’” ESPN has said, “Whatever you want to try, try it. If it works, great, we'll do it other places. If it doesn't, cut your losses and move on.” And I think that's what has made ESPN grow, and I think they'll continue to do the same thing. Every piece of technology that comes along, there's somebody there that has a lot of experience, and they will keep trying and challenging. A fact that not many people realize is we went on the air in 1979. We went on the air with 80 people. Thirty years later, 40 of those 80 were still there. Can you imagine the man-hours of experience built into those 40 people? You can't ask question that they can't answer.

CRUISE: Well that's remarkable. Creativity and willing to take a risk and move forward and we certainly will look forward to seeing what comes next. I know I will, and I know our listeners will. Thank you so much, Bill Rasmussen, for being with us today.

RASMUSSEN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2015 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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