Early ESPN and...
In 1979, thoughts of having Major League Baseball, the National Football League, The National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League on ESPN were in the back of our minds - way back actually - but we did think it was just a matter of time before the world recognized that ESPN would become Sports Heaven for millions of fans.
In the meantime, reality was much less grandiose. To be sure, SportsCenter was on the schedule September 7, 1979, and has been every day since - it is now in year # 27. It was a bit outrageous for our tiny little network to boldly schedule it opposite the “Big Three” network’s Evening News. However, the networks have gone through six anchormen and lost huge chunks of audience to the upstarts in Bristol as well as other cable programming.
If you weren’t around in 1979 and the early 80’s, you might not recognize some of the programming that appeared in those early days of the network. You might win a trivia bet by asking what ESPN’s first live sporting event was. (It was A Slo-Pitch softball World Series game featuring the Kentucky Bourbons vs. the Milwaukee Schlitz - sponsored by Budweiser). Ever heard of Munster Hurling and Irish Cycling...they were opening weekend events as well. There was lots of kick boxing, racquetball, volleyball, and the ever-popular Australian Rules Football. Throw in some NCAA soccer and NCAA tape-delayed football and you’ll have an idea of what life was like in Bristol back then.
March of 1980 brought the first hints of where ESPN was headed. Every game of the NCAA’s March Madness not televised by NBC was on ESPN. Round the clock basketball - live and even a few taped repeats - caught the attention of the media and sports fans and the word spread. Fans asked cable operators about this new service that “had all that basketball,” and cable operators signed on and more fans found sports heaven.
A hint of what was to come: 1979-1982: ESPN televised a few NHL and NBA games. The NFL Draft on ESPN was born in 1980. Inside Baseball, an early precursor to Baseball Tonight, appeared in the early 80’s...even the Canadian Football League had a brief run on ESPN back then.
Personalities were born as well. Four men became the faces of early ESPN - Chris Berman, Bob Ley, Dick Vitale and the late Tom Mees. Berman, Ley and Vitale are now in their 30th year with the network. Thousands of others have followed...announcers and athletes that have help shape what has for quite some now been The Worldwide Leader in Sports. Collectively, they have built the network that forever changed the way Americans watch television!
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
The NCAA Cornerstone: The idea of our 24 hour sports idea was to be unveiled to the Staff and TV committee at NCAA Headquarters in Shawnee Mission, Kansas on October 11, 1978. I use the word idea because that was really all we had. A few scribbled notes were worked into a presentation by our printer overnight. Until we saw what he had put together we really didn’t have a specific blueprint of what we could do for the NCAA...just some conceptial ideas about how good all of this would be for them and us.
The presentation was so well done and captured what we planned to do for the NCAA so vividly that it actually bcame the blueprint for the contract ultimately consummated between the NCAA and ESPN.
Major League Baseball (MLB)
October 2, 1978 - E. S. P. Network (that’s not a typo - that’s what it was back in 1978) had been incorporated just six weeks earlier. We had big dreams of future greatness, but nothing to match what was unfolding at Fenway Park in Boston that afternoon. The improbable hero, Bucky Dent, capped a Yankee charge from 14 games back as his home run cleared the Green Monster and devastated Red Sox fans yet again. The pain on Yaz’s face is firmly etched in the minds of thousands of the faithful in Red Sox Nation to this day!
Watching the drama unfold at Fenway, we had no idea of the future partnership ESPN and Major League Baseball would eventually develop much to the delight of fans everywhere. Clearly they were made for each other...ESPN with 8,760 hours of time to fill every year (and that’s what it takes for just one of the many networks now branded by ESPN)..and MLB playing more games in a season than the NFL, NBA and NHL combined. We met briefly with baseball officials during the summer of 1979, but it would be 1990 before MLB exploded on ESPN.
National Football League (NFL)
There were no contracts with the National Football League in 1979, but as our enthusiasm built at the E. S. P. Network, there were conversations. At a meeting with then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, he commented, “not today, but someday.” Someday arrived in 1987 with eight NFL Sunday night games. That evolved into a full NFL Sunday night schedule and in 2006, the NFL’s crown jewel, Monday Night Football, moved to ESPN.
Coupled with Chris Berman and friends’ Sunday morning NFL Countdown and Sunday night NFL Prime Time shows, it’s clear that the NFL and ESPN were made for each other.
National Basketball Association (NBA)
There was no ESPN Fastbreak when ESPN launched in 1979. There were no multi-million dollar television contracts. To put it all in perspective, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were just beginning the rookie seasons in the NBA just weeks after ESPN debuted. The only NBA action on ESPN in those early days, however, involved series like the NBA All-Stars vs. the Chinese National Army in Shanghai, China.
The NBA would be the last of the four major leagues to cement a significant contract with ESPN, coming onboard in 2002.
National Hockey League (NHL)
Of the four major League sports, the National Hockey League has had the most difficult time landing meaningful television contracts. The NHL does have one distinction though that has been lost in the whirlwind surrounding the growth of ESPN - it was the first of the four to be televised on the Worldwide Leader in Sports. During the 1979-80 season several New England Whaler and Washington Capitol games were covered, thanks to the efforts of Whalers General Partner Howard Baldwin. While not a league-wide contract by any means, it was the first pass at major league sports action on ESPN. Read more details on the Baldwin-Rasmussen business relationship.