Bristol, CT – Thirty three years ago tonight at 7:00 PM Eastern a little sports network in a tiny central Connecticut town took its first steps…and tiny though they were…the launch forever changed the way the world would watch not only sports on TV, but all TV.
The “Big Three” networks, ABC, CBS and NBC chuckled and snickered at the halting first steps and basically brushed off the idea that a merry band of sports fanatics and cable enthusiasts could produce anything significant to cut into their stranglehold on the television watchers of America.
No need to get into a lot of details, but the haughtiness, complacency and superior attitude – actually downright disdain – that anyone would dare to challenge them proved invaluable in the rapid growth of our tiny network. We worked with a passion every waking hour and their superior position gave us a tremendous running start and no one in Bristol ever looked back.
Many of those “Big Network” people would eventually end up working for ESPN and help build the giant ESPN juggernaut of today.
Hard to believe that ESPN – “the little train that could” – left the station in Bristol on its amazing journey to worldwide sports television domination thirty three years ago today.
Shawnee Mission, Kansas – Just two days short of five months since being introduced to the E.S.P. Network concept, Walter Byers, Executive Director of the NCAA, signed a two-year contract for all NCAA Championship events not committed to other networks. The real benefit to our tiny, but burgeoning network was the credibility factor. It was also a pioneering day for the NCAA as it once again led its member institutions into unexplored television territory.
The actual signing was something of an anticlimax since all of the terms had been approved by March 1. In fact, the contract Walter and I signed on March 9, 1979, was actually dated March 1st. With the signing of he contract many things started moving much more rapidly. In anticipation of the signing, Getty had
assigned Finance Manager George Conner to Bristol (he actually arrived on March 5th). Cable MSO’s not only called with congratulations, but intensified their interest in being among the first to deliver the network to their subscribers, The formal contract with Anheuser Busch followed shortly after the announcement and , of course, RCA Americaom was delighted that we had completed what we had told them months earlier.
It was the finish line of a nine month marathon. From our first thoughts of the network in June 1978 to the March 1st date of the NCAA contract, only nine months had passed. While it seemed at times agonizingly slow to us, it was, in fact, remarkably fast when considering the major companies that had to be courted and who weren’t used to moving so quickly on major commitments.
Looking back, the truly amazing feat was that we arrived at this signing day with a miniscule staff. Starting with just three people in June (Scott Rasmussen, Ed Eagan and me), we added three more in November (Lou Palmer, Peter Fox and Bob Ronstrom) who were joined by Bob Chamberlain and Bob Bray at the end of December. The pace exhausted all of us at one point or another throughout the saga, but our belief in success never wavered. Ultimately, with just eight people, and growing contributions and encouragement from the cable industry, the media, and budding fans, the amazing miracle that is ESPN today was born.
For the record: ESPN and the NCAA recently signed a contract that will extend coverage that began with the 1979-80 school year through at least 2023-24…forty-four years of continuous of coverage launched when the very first contract was executed 33 years ago today.
Los Angeles, California – Wheels up at 8:00 AM from Midland-Odessa and back to Burbank. Stu and I went directly to his Getty office as soon as we arrived to meet again with George Conner and Max Gardner We were out of money and had a payroll due. Bob Ronstrom had done that he could back in Bristol, but Stu was not quite ready to write a check.
Solving the immediate crisis was critical to our employees and to JB. We had come to far to fail. Evey finally asked JB to advance the payroll and agreed to return all KS Sweet advances the following week. Crisis averted, but not without a lot of heartburn.
I called Dennis Cryder at the NCAA office to share the good news and to confirm our Monday meeting to continue contract discussions.
It had been quite a week: Tuesday in Cincinnati, Wednesday in Shawnee Mission, Thursday to Los Angeles and on to Midland-Odessa, back to Los Angeles on Friday and finally back to Hartford on Saturday. The roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows had never before been so dramatic, but we now had all the pieces in place.
Next up: More contract meetings with the NCAA in Shawnee Mission on Monday.
Los Angeles, California & Midland-Odessa, Texas – An early meeting with Stu Evey, George Conner and attorney Max Gardner didn’t last long. Stu announced that he and I were leaving for the Burbank airport for a noon flight on the Getty jet to Phoenix and then on to Midland-Odessa, Texas. He didn’t tell me that I was going to meet a Getty Board Member from Tulsa, Oklahoma (we picked him up in Phoenix).
The passenger list was short: Getty Chairman Harold Berg and his wife, Getty Senior Group Vice President John McCabe and his wife, Harold Stuart, the Board member we picked up along the way, Stu Evey and me. I didn’t know it until we left Phoenix, but we were headed to Texas where Harold Berg was attending the “Oil Hall of Fame.”
I never made the event because as we were registering, Stu came over to me and said, “Congratulations!” I was a bit startled and said, What?” He continued, “I said congratulations, you just got approved for your project.” I couldn’t wait to get on the phone and spread the good news to the troops in Connecticut and to JB.
I never saw Harold Stuart other than on the plane from Phoenix to Midland-Odessa, but whatever he wanted to know, he apparently discovered and gave his blessing to our project.
What a week and it wasn’t over!!!
Shawnee Mission, Kansas – What a great feeling walking into NCAA Headquarters today. The decision to move forward and have attorneys start drafting an agreement was almost anticlimactic. I was sitting in a contract meeting to acquire the most significant programming available and it was happening just nine months after being fired by the Whalers…and only four and a half months after om Hansen had told us that our idea could not be presented until the January 1980 NCAA Convention. Writing this today I still find it remarkable that all of the pieces came together so quickly – although at the time desperation made it all feel agonizingly slow.
Happy as I was to be sitting with attorneys for both sides actually talking contract language, more good news arrived about ninety minutes later. Walter’s assistant came in and told me I had a phone call waiting. The caller turned out to be George Conner and his message set the stage for the rest of the day. He said that Getty’s strategy committee had given the go-ahead for investing in our network. He asked if I could fly to Los Angeles after our meeting with the NCAA and then added, “Tentatively, I’d say congratulations are in order.” Wow!
As I returned to the meeting, Walter asked, “Good news?” JB was curious too. I filled them in on the conversation with George. Needless to say from that point forward the meeting proceeded with a vibrant new feeling of confidence on both sides.
I couldn’t wait for the meeting to end and get outside – jump n the air and click my heels. What a Valentine’s Day! Ninety minutes and a half continent apart, two “yeses” propelled us to new heights of happiness when less than 24 hours earlier JB didn’t even want to make the trip. Ours was definitely not a business for the faint-hearted.
Cincinnati, Ohio – Met with Taft’s Board of Directors and quickly discovered that they didn’t even believe cable television was going to survive. Obviously, they didn’t want to hear much about this upstart sports network we were building.
While very courteous and professional in demeanor, their minds were closed to just about anything I said.
With a promise to let them know how our “idea” progressed in the weeks and months ahead and a reminder from the Chairman that I was always welcome should circunstances suggest another meeting, I was off to the NCAA again.