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.
Austin, Texas – Another city and another cable system to sell on the ’round the clock – 24/7 sports network. Upon landing, I checked with our office in Connecticut and found that George Conner wanted me to call ASAP.
I picked up the rental car and stopped at the nearest pay phone (yep, no cell phones then – just a pocket full of quarters for the nearest phone booth). I brought George up to date and on a hunch called Community Properties, Inc. (CPI) to confirm that I had arrived and would see Greg Liptak as scheduled.
Imagine my surprise when his secretary told me he was out of town and wouldn’t be back for the rest of the day. She added that she hoped this wouldn’t inconvenience me too much.
I guess it just depends on your interpretation of inconvenience. I had flown from Denver to Dallas to Austin and rented a car which I now returned with just four miles used to the car rental agency and flew back to Dallas. Obviously the stop in Austin hadn’t gone very well.
I spent the weekend at a Dallas/Fort Worth airport hotel wondering what Monday’s meeting with the President of Sammons Communications would bring.
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Los Angeles, California – My detour through Los Angeles on my way to Kansas City had me sitting in Stuart Evey’s 18th floor office at 9:00AM. The first thing Evey did was introduce me to Wendell Niles, “A movie producer here in Hollywood.” Niles admitted he didn’t know much of anything about cable television. I didn’t quite get the reason he was there, but nevertheless, plunged in with my, by now, well rehearsed pitch.
For thirty minutes or so I recounted what had transpired since June and concluded by asking for $10 million. Not only did I ask, but I also pointed out that we needed an answer by December 31st. I wasn’t immediately dismissed and Evey said it would take longer than that to analyze the potential of our idea, but he, “…was interested in learning more about the idea.”
A major breakthrough!!! No previous potential investor had shown even this faint flicker of interest. Little did I know as I left for LAX that Evey had more than “a faint flicker of interest.” Unknown to me, almost before I reached the ground floor and walked off the elevator, he was on the phone to his financial manager, George Conner, and…
I’ll let George tell you: “My involvement (in ESPN) began about one minute after Bill left Evey’s office. Evey called and said he had an investment opportunity for me to look at. After I read through the proposal for non-stop sports on cable television, I told Evey the proposal looked interesting enough for us to proceed with further evaluation”
I didn’t know until years later, but all of this happened very quickly while I was on my way to LAX to head for my original destination on this trip – the NCAA TV Committee meeting in Kansas City scheduled for tomorrow. Even without the knowledge of Evey’s obvious interest, I was very positive in my “Here’s what happened” phone call to JB Doherty back in King of Prussia, PA.
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Plainville, Connecticut – With the “demo events” events on the immediate horizon (just 2 days away), Lou Palmer, who carried the title of Director of Programming, and Peter Fox, our first Executive Producer, officially went on the payroll November 15. Employee # 6, Bob Ronstrom, wasn’t officially on the payroll until December 1, 1978, but he was already working with Scott and JB Doherty putting budgets and projections together.
Lou and Peter took charge of production details for our “demo weekend” and even with the very short time available, they pulled it off as you’ll see in future posts.
Ed was keeping the Bristol Redevelopment Authority up to date as well as recruiting cable systems to carry our upcoming events.
I was calling NCAA TV Committee members and by the weekend, all six of us were immersed in the UConn “demo events.”
Shawnee Mission, Kansas – Armed with six shrink-wrapped presentations of our plan to make NCAA events the center piece of our 24/7 programming concept, I confidently walked through the door of the NCAA Headquarters. I was ushered into a conference room to meet with Tom Hansen and Dennis Cryder.
Turned out the meeting didn’t last long, but I did learn that the NCAA didn’t plunge into new ideas as fast as we did. As many of us do when we encounter some that has never been done before, Tom and Dennis were skeptical. They asked a lot of questions, but gave no indication that any of what I had presented would be endorsed by the NCAA anytime soon. As a matter of fact, Tom said that the concept” might” be presented to the membership fr approval at the National Convention in 1980 – 15 months away. Discouraging news at the moment, but at least the concept had been introduced.
Myriad meetings, phone calls and plane trips later the NCAA turned from skeptics to enthusiasts. Fortunately, the conversion didn’t take 15 months. Executive Director Walter Byers appeared at a TV Committee meeting in Kansas City on January 25, 1979 to ask some questions and start the ball rolling toward a contract that resulted in the first formal programming agreement between the NCAA and the E. S. P. Network (ESPN) on March 1, 1979.
Captain Bo Coppedge gave me 2 minutes of his time the morning of the UConn-Navy football game. He became an ally with me and the NCAA as he was Chair of the TV Committee.
This meeting came on the heels of the best timing on September 1st when I scrambled to get our transponder confirmation in the mail – just before an article in the Wall Street Journal launched a flurry of activity with people wanting transponders, and doing anything to get one!
Ten days later, I spoke with JB Doherty for the first time. Turns out he was the one who brought the financing together several months later.
Scott and I met with JB two days later and laid out our plan.
Then we were off to Chicago to share the excitement with my family. They believed in me and our project and agreed to put up the seed money for the E.S.P. Network.
We were in business!
For the interested, back in 1978, the concept of ESPN was world changing – a dumb idea – and everything in between. Whenever the idea was presented to seemingly sophisticated investors, the major cable operators of the day, the NCAA, or advertisers, the answer was either, “Who’s going to watch sports 24 hours a day,” or “NO.”
To refute the first question was easy and when we got the second one we just figured it would take another meeting or two to at least get them to ask the first question and then we knew that they would ultimately embrace our idea. Ours wasn’t the “classic business proposition” – matter of fact, we started each discussion with a simple white piece of paper with exactly eleven lines of typewritten bullet points and then “winged it.” It was certainly not “MBA” formatted, but IT WORKED!!!!
A couple of generations have evolved since the day in 1978 that ESPN was hatched. On these pages in the weeks and months to follow I’ll highlight some the the highs and lows of the of the often hectic, sometimes disappointing, but never without passion, pursuit of the dream – sports 24/7 on the E. S. P. Network.
You can read the entire story in Sports Junkies Rejoice or follow me here and let me know your thoughts. Whether you were with us on opening night on September 7, 1979, or you are a newbie, or you are somewhere in between, you’ll enjoy the ride.
The real story by the Founder himself