U. alumnus speaks on founding ESPN
It took seven pitches to seven different investors.
But this did not discourage Bill Rasmussen from co-founding ESPN, the first 24-hour sports network.
“Our idea was to provide as much sports to as many fans as we could, and that’s exactly what ESPN does today,” he told an audience last night at a lecture in the Livingston Student Center hosted by the Rutgers University Programming Association.
Rasmussen, who graduated the University in 1960 with a masters in business administration, said he and his partners were sure the idea would work, but it was difficult to convince investors.
“One of the seven [investors] said to me that not only is this idea not going to work, but that cable television won’t be around in a couple of years,” he said. “But I think we were really determined because we had a huge, huge audience.”
Rasmussen said the goal of ESPN was to target an audience that ranged from young children to senior citizens, and once Getty Oil became its first major investor, the channel did just that.
The first words broadcasted on ESPN came from announcer Lee Leonard on September 7, 1979.
“If you’re a fan, if you’re a fan, what you’ll see in the next minutes, hours and days to follow may convince you you’ve gone to sports heaven.”
ESPN now brings sports coverage to an array of media devices besides its original television format.
“We didn’t know, of course, that the Internet was coming. HD, 3-D, cellphones — we didn’t know all that stuff was coming,” Rasmussen said. “Basically it’s still the same product, but it’s now delivered over a lot more platforms. [ESPN] serves the largest demographic sports fans.”
While Rasmussen acknowledged there were skeptics when he pitched his idea, he felt safe with what he said was an ace up his sleeve — a deal that would likely strike a contract between ESPN and the NCAA.
Once the contract was closed, talk began to surface that the Big Three networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — were afraid of this fledgling sports network.
“In fact, they often said disparaging things about us hoping we would go away,” he said.
Rasmussen said a huge accomplishment for ESPN was the 2006 acquisition of Monday Night Football.
He said that filling a 24-hour demand for programming is not hard, despite what skeptics said.
“If you remember the basic concept it was that you were going to be current on sports 24 hours a day,” Rasmussen said. “With a story like ‘Linsanity’, if you came home at 2 a.m., you’d have missed something, so big stories get repeated from the top down.”
Rasmussen said stories like that of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin are not overhyped because of the 24-hour format.
Rasmussen said there is always content available to fill vacant time slots.
“The Big Three do 1,300 hours combined, and we went on the air — brash young men that we were — saying we were going to do 8,760 hours,” he said.
Jim DeLorenzo, Rasmussen’s public relations representative, has been working with the ESPN co-founder since June 2008, he said.
“I knew of him since ESPN went on the air when I was 18,” DeLorenzo said. “I knew his story, and to get the chance to meet him in 2008 was an unbelievable thrill because I’ve been involved in sports all my life.”
DeLorenzo said it has been rewarding getting to know Rasmussen over the last four years. “Spending the last four years with him one-on-one traveling around the country, he’s almost like a father figure to me,” he said. “I’m proud to work with him, and I’ve learned so much from him.”
DeLorenzo called Rasmussen an entrepreneur and patriot, inviting a contemporary comparison to another famous entrepreneur.
“He was Steve Jobs before Steve Jobs,” he said.
Anthony Vassallo, a School of Engineering first-year student, said he learned a lot about ESPN through Rasmussen’s presentation.
“I thought [Rasmussen’s] story was inspiring,” Vassallo said. “To see a man go from being fired from a job one week to founding ESPN the next is a pretty amazing thing.”
Vassallo also said Rasmussen was courageous to take on the Big Three networks at the time of ESPN’s conception.
“Those networks were the kings of the hill,” he said. “For [Rasmussen] to take them on speaks volumes of his will power.”
Rasmussen said ESPN’s future is bright.
“There’s just so many [ESPN channels], you can’t help but watch them,” he said. “I think [ESPN] is here to stay."