SCHENECTADY The founder of ESPN spoke at Union College on Thursday night, telling an audience how the big three networks essentially helped ESPN get off the ground — by being complacent.
ABC, CBS and NBC never thought a 24-hour sports network could be successful, network founder Bill Rasmussen told those gathered at Union’s Nott Memorial.
“Complacency really worked in our favor,” he said. “Complacency at those three networks was the biggest plus that we had, because they didn’t think we could do anything. Every day they delayed reacting to us, we got further and further ahead.”
He spoke before an audience of more than 60 as part of the student-run Speakers Forum.
In his talk, Rasmussen covered the network’s beginnings, from when it was first incorporated in July 1978 until it went on the air Sept. 7, 1979, and its evolution since to become the “worldwide leader in sports.” All that happened after he was fired as communications director for the Hartford Whalers hockey team when the team didn’t make the 1978 playoffs.
Rasmussen is currently executive in residence at The Robert C. McDermond Center for Management & Entrepreneurship at DePauw University in Indiana.
From the beginning, Rasmussen said they had to essentially create the first national cable network, getting satellite time, sponsors and content. Other big networks, like CNN, MTV and The Weather Channel, didn’t go on the air until later.
ESPN also had to change the conventions of the time, including convincing small regional cable television companies, Rasmussen said. He recalled one story from when he offered them local advertising time during the national broadcasts. The response, he said, was a simple question: Why would they want to sell local ads?
“The resistance to change from the cable operators was monumental,” Rasmussen said.
“We just had to keep pounding and pounding away.”
But the new cable network was aiming at a large group that had been historically underserved: Sports fans. Once ESPN got off the ground, it soared.
Much of its early programing came from the NCAA. He pointed to the 1980 NCAA basketball tournament it televised as a turning point.
Soon, the network was a national player. In 1990, it got Major League Baseball rights. By 2006, it had Monday Night Football.
“That was just a spectacular moment,” Rasmussen said of the network getting the football contract. “For me, that was a really emotional and spectacular moment.”
As for why it has been so successful, he pointed to the talent and culture at the network.
Both, he said, serve the network’s singular mission.
“They’re mission is stated in six words: to serve sports fans anytime, anywhere,’ ” Rasmussen said. “That’s it. There’s no fancy focus groups, no fancy meetings to decide different mission statements. That’s it. That’s all there is to it: to serve sports fans.
“And all of you are sports fans. That’s why they’re so successful.”