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.
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.
Posted in Birth of ESPN, Excitement builds
Tagged Ed_Eagan, George_Conner, Getty Plainville, JB, NCAA, O'Hare_Hilton, Plainville, Teleprompter, Tom_Hansen, Warner
Denver, Colorado – I was scheduled to visit ten major system headquarters in ten days. Ed Eagan was on a parallel path visiting a dozen medium-sized MSOs and independents. We had to get a sense of what the industry decision makers thought of our 24/7 sports idea…and fast – money to continue was hanging on the reactions of these twenty plus systems.
Our plan in Denver was to talk to as many people at high levels as possible and evaluate their reactions so that we could formulate a plan that worked for all systems. Te first stop at ATC – American Telecommunications was strange. (We eventually found out the cause of that feeling in Kansas City at the NCAA TV Committee meeting on January 25).
ATC was definitely not a good start for the trip and the second stop, Daniels and Associates, was even worse. Tom Johnson and Jean O’Grady listened to our pitch with barely concealed humor. Years later, they both told me that after JB and I left, they enjoyed a good laugh, never expecting to see or hear from us again.
The responses were clearly not what we needed…definitely not a good beginning to a long road trip. JB and I decided we had to have a drastic change in our offering. Just ten days ago, United cable had suggested (with tongue in cheek) that we become, “the industry’s first totally ad-supported network.” Since no one seemed interested in our “penny-a-day” theory, we decided on the spot to become primarily ad-supported along with a greatly reduced monthly subscriber fee.
That was the plan as JB left for he airport. I was on my own to introduce our “newest-greatest” plan starting the next morning back at the same place I had introduced the original idea just ten days ago – United Cable.
From a “laying the foundation” perspective, the month of December 1978 was easily the most active and exciting. We had secured the transponder is September, but had made little progress on financing, programming and customers as I left for Denver on December 4th. By December 28th, everything was in motion as you’ll read in the days ahead.
The complete story (paperback edition) is available with a 25% discount at http://espnfounder.com/sjr_discount2011.htm. A great Christmas gift for the ESPN fan in your life.