August 16, 1978 – near Waterbury, CT: Without question, this was the most important day in the formation and launch of ESPN. The Detroit Press proclaimed it, “The most important day in the history of sports television.” A student at Northwestern University dubbed it, “The Eureka Day.” Call it what you will, but here is what happened on that fateful day.
A month or so earlier we (my son Scott and I) had discovered and acquired tentative rights (they were confirmed in September) to an RCA Americom satellite transponder (channel) through which we could deliver programming to virtually all of North America far more economically than any other means of transmission. Our plan was to “do sports all day – every day” 24/7. For over a month we had been asking ourselves what programming we would originate and what the new “all sports all the time” network would look like.
We needed a plan and then we needed money, people, equipment, facilities, cable subscribers and most critical of all … programming that would eventually fill 8,760 hours of air time. For context, the so called “Big Three” – ABC, CBS and NBC combined only delivered 1,200 to 1,300 hours of sports programming annually. To state the obvious, we were aiming for the stars … approximately seven times what the TV giants of the day did.
We were driving to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, for my daughter Lynn’s 16th birthday. It was a blistering hot day and we found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate 84 only minutes after our birthday journey had begun. As we sat sweltering in a Toyota without air conditioning, we did what we had been doing every day since we knew we were going to have a “channel in the sky” to delver whatever we wanted all over America 24/7 … we verbally volleyed back and forth about finding programing. Finally, in exasperation, mixed with a little “heat-induced” anger, Scott said, “Play football all day for all I care.” I replied, “Why not?” His response, “Because the NCAA has contract with all the networks,” barely slowed us down. We could certainly do basketball, baseball and any other NCAA sports that were not under contract.
That did it! For the next ten hours or so – including timeout for the birthday party – the vision for ESPN that exists to this day was laid out. We decided to do multiple sports for campuses across the country, to hire a couple of experienced regional announcers (turned out to be Lou Palmer and George Grande – remember them?), one “big name” announcer (Jim Simpson), and on and on. The biggest single “off the charts” idea was to do a half hour sports news show opposite the Big Three Evening News shows at 6:30 PM Eastern. When the idea was announced months later, it was met with almost universal scorn, sarcasm, ridicule and outright belly laughs.
By now, you’ve already guessed that the half hour show debuted as SportsCenter on September 7, 1979, and has won countless awards for creativity, longevity and, most importantly, undying loyalty from legions of sports fans of all ages around the world.
There’s much more to the story of course, but ESPN’s “Eureka Day” was 33 years ago today – August 16, 1978.
(August 16, 1978: page 76)