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.
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.
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.
Cincinnati, Ohio – Met with Taft’s Board of Directors and quickly discovered that they didn’t even believe cable television was going to survive. Obviously, they didn’t want to hear much about this upstart sports network we were building.
While very courteous and professional in demeanor, their minds were closed to just about anything I said.
With a promise to let them know how our “idea” progressed in the weeks and months ahead and a reminder from the Chairman that I was always welcome should circunstances suggest another meeting, I was off to the NCAA again.
San Antonio, Texas – Armed with a model of our proposed mobile remote truck, I was anxious to tell the gathering about our big plans and intended to read the newly minted NCAA Press Release in the last sixty seconds of my five-minute presentation as part of a “New Programming” panel.
During my five minutes I outlined what the cable industry could expect from us: a 24-hours ad-supported sports network produced with first-class production equipment such as the model shown on stage, and finished with the NCAA announcement.
Now that was a lot for some 800 Texans and the assembled national cable media to swallow from a Yankee. The message sent shockwaves through the room – at least to those listening.
I’ll never forget one gentleman from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, who greeted me as I left the stage. “I don’t know how you’re going to do all you said, but if you do only half of it, you’ll be the most successful service we have.” How prophetic!
I wasn’t exactly besieged by reporters after this announcement of (in our opinion) a gigantic breakthrough for the cable industry, but a few of the cable trade papers dd come and ask for more of the story. That was really a good thing as it turned out. We needed some sort of boost for RCA, the NCAA, D”Arcy, Getty, et al and just the beginning evidence of interest by the industry media was extremely helpful.
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.
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!