Category Archives: Birth of ESPN

The beginning of the Worlwide Leader in Sports

January 31, 1979 – Getting Serious with the NCAA in Shawnee Mission

Shawnee Mission, Kansas – No TV Committee this time. Walter Byers was very much in charge of the meeting attended by the NCAA’s Tom Hansen and Dennis Cryder, JB and me. That’s all. We spent virtually the entire day discussing possible scenarios for an arrangement.

Walter was extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities. He and I explored all sorts of subjects including scheduling. production, promotion, advertising, cable systems, subscriber charges and finances.

Late in the discussion I said, “The annual Texas Cable show is next week in San Antonio, Walter. It’s the third largest industry show each year. If we’re going o do something, that would be a great place to announce it. Is that possible?” I asked.

To my utter amazement and absolute delight, Walter hinted, “It might be. We have a lot of work to do, but it’s possible. Can you come back here next week on your way to the show?”

“Absolutely! I’ll even bring some stationary; then, if we agree on something, we can do a press release on the spot. Is Wednesday morning good for you?”

“Yes – we’ll see you then,” Walter concluded.

How about that!!!! It’s only Wednesday, but it’s already been a great week…Budeiser and the NCAA two days apart saying very strong and positive things..Advertising and content becoming a reality. The E. S. P. Network was gaining some very strong legs with each passing week.

January 29, 1979 – Budweiser – YES! $1,380,000 Largest Cable Ad Buy To Date

New York, New York – Our scheduled meeting with Gene Petrillo at D’Arcy was short and sweet…very sweet! Bob Chamberlain and I had driven to the city early Monday morning and delivered an update on our activities since we had met a week ago.

Gene was impressed – especially with the NCAA progress and then he startled us when he asked, “How does $1,380,000 sound for our 1/8 package?” (Bob had called him after our meeting last week and declined the $500,000 opening offer.)

How does it sound? “Great” we chorused.

Gene emphasized, “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and you have to get your house in order, but I want you to know we’re interested. Furthermore, if you have any interest from any other beer sponsors, please call me. I want that exclusive.”

Talk about a great way to start a week! Better yet – we were now in an even stronger position for our upcoming meeting with Walter Byers at NCAA Headquarters dy after tomorrow.

January 25, 1979 – Huge NCAA TV Committee Meeting!

Kansas City, Missouri – We arrived for our meeting on time at the Kansas City Airport Marriott and about a minute later, we found out who our competition for the NCAA cable contract was. Dennis Cryder informed us that ATC was making a presentation just 30 feet away inside the TV Committee meeting room. That nugget of knowledge really puzzled George Conner, JB Doherty and me, but it did explain why the ATC folks had been so cautious in their meeting with us in Denver last month.

Further, I couldn’t understand the NCAA’s dilemma. Since ATC was an MSO, obviously some other MSOs would find it difficult to do business with them should they be awarded an NCAA contract. However, the big difference was that ATC would only reach its own systems and try to entice competitors to do business with them. We treated all MSOs the same and they were all going to be our customers…even ATC.

We later discovered that they proposed to do 100 live nightly events…about 300 hours of programming a year. Our proposal was for hundreds of events and 8,760 hours a year using ATC and all of the other MSOs to distribute our service.

Clearly, the TV Committee was “comparing apples and oranges” which they quickly grasped as we made our presentation. We also subliminally suggested we had major financing close at hand when I introduced George by his formal title: Financial Manager – Real Estate and Forest Products Division of Getty Oil. Nothing more – nothing less! Best to let individual imaginations reach their own conclusions as to George’s presence.

JB and I reviewed our progress since the last meeting and then, at last, Walter Byers spoke his first words to us. Never moving in his chair, he lowered his head, peered over his glasses and chided, “Seems to me like you’re looking for a hunting license. We give you a contract, and you go out looking for money, advertisers and cable customers.”

JB answered, “Tha’s not quite right, Mr. Byers. However, we must have some sort of indication or committment to satisfy our investors and the cable industry that we mean business.”

Walter challenged, “Suppose we give you a committment, and you go out hunting and don’t come up with the money…how do we know we’ll get paid?”

My turn to answer! “You name the bank and we’ll put 50 percent of the agreed contract price in escrow on July 1.”

The room was silent. JB stared at the floor; George stared at JB and swears he turned chalk-white; the committee members stared t each other, but Walter and I never broke eye contact. “Well, if you can do that , it sounds pretty good to me. We’ll have to think about it.”

No more questions.

Once we reached the hotel lobby, JB recovered his voice and asked, “Why did you say that? We might not even be around by July.”

“What was I supposed to say? Besides, July is a long way off and we’ll have the money by then” (Ever the optimist)!

I actually was a little concerned that I might have given George something bad to report back to Getty, but before we had time to worry about too many things, Tom Hansen came looking for us and asked if we could come to the NCAA office next Wednesday…seems Walter wanted to talk some more without the formality of the TV Committee. We quickly agreed and George and I headed for Los Angeles, JB back to Philadelphia; and we were still alive.

January 24, 1979 – RCA Americom – The Transponder

Piscataway, New Jersey – Our meeting at RCA was a classic example of high-level corporate sparring. George Conner, representing Getty, was trying to find out just how far RCA would go with our transponder lease without a major financial commitment, while Dennis Elliott was poking around trying to discover just how real Getty’s interest in us was.

JB and I merely tried to keep the conversation alive with positive comments about our upcoming meetings with the NCAA and Budweiser, along with the continued positive MSO response.

George, JB and I left Dennis feeling that we still had some time, but that our days were definitely numbered. We needed a big money partner – and soon! With this newly perceived pressure from RCA, we left for the Philadelphia Airport and our flight to Kansas City and tomorrow’s meeting with the NCAA TV Committee.

Fog shrouded the airport and there was some doubt about our ability to find an outbound flight to make that scheduled NCAA meeting at the Kansas City Airport Marriott. Wouldn’t that ne something? On the threshold of a decision and fogged in…in Philadelphia, of all places.

After numerous ticket changes and hours later than scheduled, we finally did head for KC and the highly anticipated meeting.

January 22, 1979 – News from Anheuser Busch

New York, New York – Back to Gene Petrillo’s office! “I’ve talked to my people at the brewery,” he opened, “and we’d like to buy a franchise position for a half-million dollars.”

Bob and I looked at each other. We assumed Gene would come back with a counter offer, but not one-fifth of what we were asking. Bob said, “We’ll have to think about that one. Can we get back to you in a few days?”

“Sure. Let’s talk when you’re ready.”

Bob and I left Gene’s office and by the time we hit the street, we had decided that we would say no to the $500,000 counter proposal. How about that? Our company was all but broke, but we were brash enough to say a half-million dollar offer isn’t good enough.

Even though the offer was low, we now had “action” in several necessary arenas to allow us to launch the concept:

Financing – Getty hadn’t closed us out;

Advertising – Budweiser hadn’t said no;

Content- the NCAA was definitely interested (at least extremely curious);

Technology – we were set to meet with RCA Americom to keep our spot on the “bird” (Satcom1) alive;

and Subscribers – cable system operators were beginning to warm to this innovative, crazy, smart, outlandish, clever, ridiculous (you decide which) concept of sports 24 hours a day / seven days a week,

Busy days ahead!

January 15, 1979 – First meeting with Anheuser Busch (Budweiser) Agency

New York, New York – Rutgers – UConn was behind us, we were scheduled to meet RCA and the NCAA back-to-back on the 24th and 25th and then Bob Chamberlain added a new dimension tp our schedule when he announced he had set up an appointment with Gene Petrillo at D’Arcy, McManus. “Gene is the top agency man for Budweiser and he wants to hear our story.”

So 33 years ago today we told our story again – this time to our very first advertising contact. Think about that for a second! Without any studio, long-term financing, programming or subscribers, and only eight employees, we were about to sit down with the agency for the biggest sports advertiser in the world – Anheuser Busch. Wow!

Gene asked, “Do you have any proposal for me?” We had nothing in writing, but said we would have something for him the next day. Bob did tell him the general terms of our proposal: “We propose to sell 1/8 sponsorships for $2,760,000 which will give you billboards and 30 second spots throughout the day.” We chatted for a few more minutes and Gene said he would call us later in the week. We never did get the proposal in writing to him before he called us back and asked us to meet with him on Monday (January 22).

The scheduled meeting added to the general euphoria building in Plainville. We presumed (correctly, as it turned out) that he wouldn’t have asked us to meet again unless he had some sort of a proposal (he did, but that’s for next week).

January was proving to be a very productive month!!!!

January 9, 1979 – Satcom I – Transponder 7 Goes Live with Rutgers – UConn Basketball

Storrs, Connecticut – We lit up our own transponder for the first time thirty-three years ago today. The event was a  Rutgers at UConn basketball game that we delivered to all active Connecticut cable systems and several large systems around the country including Tulsa, Oklahoma and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Little did we know how this rivalry would blossom when both teams became charter members of the Big East Conference just a year later.

Televising the game was a thrill for everyone at the E. S. P. Network as we were still known, but the production had been in doubt since our Christmas week meeting in Chicago. Getty still hadn’t decided whether or not to invest; KS Sweet and Associates were straining to advance us only enough money to keep the doos open  – all the while hoping that Getty would come on board and repay their advances which by now had passed $200,000; and we had no money to pay for the production truck and crew heading for Storrs to televise the game.

With anxiety levels rapidly rising, time running out, and the crew chief standing next to his padlocked production van until he had a certified check in hand, Scott called from Plainville to say he was on his way to Storrs with the necessary check. He had miraculously worked some magic with a local banker and managed an “instantly-funded” short-term loan pending additional funds from KS Sweet or a Getty investment. Clearly, that Branch Manager was an early ESPN fan.

Despite our Christmas week disappointment, we had “stayed-the-course” and maintained daily contact with cable systems, RCA, the NCAA and Getty. While we were waiting for Scott to arrive with the check, I returned a call from Tom Hansen at NCAA Headquarters in Shawnee Mission. I was stunned and delighted to hear him invite me to a Special Meeting of the NCAA TV Committee in Kansas City on January 25th. Things were looking up…assuming all of this news would somehow keep us funded by somebody.

What a day!!! The game went off without a hitch, we were headed back to the NCAA in two weeks, but stay tuned…you just know that we were not idly standing around for two weeks. January was just getting underway and the 24 hour sports concept really heated up as we moved forward from the UConn Fieldhouse.

December 28,1978 – Getty Says “No” Sort of…

O’Hare Hilton, Chicago, Illinois – The “someone” George wanted us to meet was Dr. John Gartley of the Northwestern School of Communications. John was very correct and proper in his questioning of JB and me, but frankly, since technology had been moving so rapidly and he was in an academic, rather than a business environment, his information was quite out of date.

We later discovered the real reason for the meeting was not so much to gather information, but to let George meet us and do a first-hand, face-to-face evaluation of JB and me. Getty was also interested in Dr. Gartley’s personal evaluation of us.

For our part, we were pleased to finally meet the face that went with the phone voice we had gotten to know so well during the past three weeks. George’s cherubic visage combined with his straightforward, no-nonsense approach to business left us in a quandary. On the one hand, he was friendly and enthusiastic, while on the other, he cautioned us not to expect too much from Getty too soon.

We found out exactly what he meant the next day when JB called Evey. Evey’s response to the inquiring call was, “If you have to have an answer today, it’s ‘No.’ Can’t K. S. Sweet fund this project for a little longer?”

So that’s it. Our deadline arrived and we had no financial committment. The New Year’s weekend had arrived and we couldn’t do a thing, except go to a meeting in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, with JB and Tom Cushman on Tuesday, January 2, 1979 to either wind up affairs or (hopefully) stretch just a little longer to see what Getty would do.

That, my friends, was one LONG weekend. The Bowl games didn’t do much for us on New Year’s Day 1979!

December 22, 1978 – Last Stop – 2 Big MSOs

New York, NY – Two of the biggest MSOs – Teleprompter and Warner – are located here. As you might expect it’s pretty tough to sell anything to Manhattanites without facts. The meetings went well, but I received nowhere near the “quasi-commitments” I had from other systems in the past several days.

Meeting at their midtown corporate headquarters, I answered a lot of questions at both companies. In the end, neither one was very encouraging and merely asked to be kept informed. Oh well, can’t win ’em all!

I called Tom Hansen at the NCAA and summarized the results of my two weeks of meetings and he was pleased, but then asked about financing.

“Getty is working very closely with us,” I truthfully responded. “One of their problems is the length of time it will take to get a committment from the NCAA.”

“I can understand that,” he said. “I don’t know if we can speed things up, but I’ll tell Walter of your progress with the systems and we’ll talk about it in San Francisco.” (at the NCAA National Convention scheduled in early January 1979). Please keep me up to date with developments.”

Time for my George Conner call. I brought him up to date. “We’ve got customers if we can ever get on the air!” “Great! What are you doing next Wednesday or Thursday? I’d like to meet you and JB in Chicago and have you talk t someone.” (Whatever happened to the ‘quiet’ week between Christmas and New Year’s)?

“Tell me when and where and I’ll be there,” I quickly replied.  We settled on 10:00 AM, Thursday, December 28 at the O’Hare Hilton.

Time for the short flight to Connecticut and home for the Christmas holidays. Even though the December 31st deadline was closing in, I had the feeling that something positive would happen to keep us alive. As I walked into the office, I discovered that everyone shared the positive feeling. I chuckled as I noticed the work of the troops in Plainville. They had scrawled an impromptu “Potential Subscriber Scoreboard” on a convenient window. As Ed Eagan and I called the office each day with updates on our meetings, they looked up the potential subscribers available in each system and updated their “Scoreboard.”  It wouldn’t pay the bills but it made us feel good.

December 20, 1978 – TeleCable – More Positive Feedback

Norfolk, Virginia – Had an absolutely great meeting with some fine gentlemen here. Dick Roberts, President of TeleCable, and Gordon (Red) Herring, Vice President, Operations, were gracious hosts with soft, unhurried southern drawls.

They received our plan well. It’s amazing how fast the buzz about “That all sports network” was now moving through the industry and definitely improving our reception with the cable systems. Of course, everyone had a slightly different version of what we had planned, but they had certainly heard of us.

Dick and Red agreed to evaluate our project and determine where sports would fit in their 1979 plans as they added programming to their upgrade systems.

Certainly this was the kind of news that George Conner wanted to hear. I called Getty Headquarters as soon as I left TeleCable. Even though at this point we had not met, a bond was building between George and me…a bond that has blossomed into a strong friendship that is alive and well to this very day.

Approaching nearly three weeks on the road with many stressful and very significant meetings, I was mentally and physically weary. However, there was one more stop with two more meetings remaining before I could return to Connecticut and sleep in my own bed.

Next stop New York City.