Tag Archives: George_Conner

March 9, 1979 – NCAA Contract Signing – Linchpin of E.S.P. Network Success!

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.

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February 16, 1979 – Getty Starts “Moving Money” Process

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.

February 15, 1979 – Getty Agrees to Finance!

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!!!

February 14, 1979 – NCAA Contract Drafting and Getty Says “Almost Yes”

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.

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.

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!