Category Archives: Birth of ESPN

The beginning of the Worlwide Leader in Sports

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.

December 19 – A Strong Yes and a Really – Really Not Interested

Atlanta, Georgia – Just one week ago, I was in Kansas City introducing our concept to the NCAA TV Committee. Seven days,  five cities and eight cable system presentations later, I was in and out of Atlanta in four hours or so with some more good news from a major player in the cable industry – Cox Communications.

My two visits here couldn’t have been moe different. Ernie Olsen, Vice President at giant Cox Cable, was positive, enthusiastic and the first guy who really seemed to believe we had a shot at making the whole thing work. That was the good news.

John Janos at Rollins Cable, an MSO more interested in electronic gadgetry than in new programming and marketing, was late for our meeting and offered no encouragement whatsoever. After waiting 30 minutes in his tiny office, I felt I received his seemingly-standard, “We’re not interested in anything new” response and left.

Ever the optimist, I decided Ernie was 100% on target, and John wasn’t smart enough to recognize a good thing when he saw it. Clearly, that opinion reflected our ever-growing confidence in our idea.

I left for Norfolk and my next scheduled meeting in a very good mood.

Check prior posts for more “Early ESPN” history.