Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPNby James Andrew Miller, Tom Shales, Matt McCarthy, Joan Baker
ESPN began as an outrageous gamble with a lineup that included Australian Rules Football, rodeo, and a rinky-dinky clip show called Sports Center. Today the empire stretches far beyond television into radio, magazines, mobile phones, restaurants, video games and more, while ESPN's personalities have become global superstars to rival the sports icons they/i>… See more details below
ESPN began as an outrageous gamble with a lineup that included Australian Rules Football, rodeo, and a rinky-dinky clip show called Sports Center. Today the empire stretches far beyond television into radio, magazines, mobile phones, restaurants, video games and more, while ESPN's personalities have become global superstars to rival the sports icons they cover.
Chris Berman, Robin Roberts, Keith Olbermann, Hannah Storm, Bill Simmons, Tony Kornheiser, Stuart Scott, Erin Andrews, Mike Ditka, Bob Knight, and scores of others speak openly about the games, shows, scandals, gambling addictions, bitter rivalries, and sudden suspensions that make up the network's soaring and stormy history. The result is a wild, smart, effervescent story of triumph, genius, ego, and the rise of an empire unlike any television had ever seen.
New York Times
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Those who work in the business of sport will devour the book...[readers are] granted the kind of behind-the-scenes access that sports media junkies are rarely given..."
Wall Street Journal
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Those who work in the business of sport will devour the book...[readers are] granted the kind of behind-the-scenes access that sports media junkies are rarely given..."
Those who work in the business of sport will devour the book...[readers are] granted the kind of behind-the-scenes access that sports media junkies are rarely given..."Richard Deitsch, SportsIllustrated.com"
Those Guys Have All the Fun is a de rigueur read for sports fans who wonder how a fired hockey announcer used a $9,000 credit card advance to start a broadcasting empire that changed what we think about sports and how we view them."Woody Paige, Denver Post"
Packed with entertaining stories of unpleasant people and awful behavior....[Those Guys Have All the Fun is] offers a nuanced look at ESPN, does some top-notch TV-biz reporting on the early days of the cable industry, and offers compelling behind-the-scenes stories...[It is] a serious, impressive, piece of work."Rob Brunner, Entertainment Weekly"
A revelation: what goes onto the TV screen turns out to be just the glossy tip of an iceberg of ugly backstage drama. Miller and Shales must be extraordinarily talented interviewers, because their subjects are surprisingly uninhibited and frank and willing to dish and slag....[They are] good at zeroing in on a debacle and getting everybody involved to weigh in...by the end of the book you're amazed at the disconnect between the chaos behind the scenes and the relatively slick end product."Lev Grossman, Time"
Fascinating and compulsively readable."Tim Marchman, Wall Street Journal"
A fascinating little-engine-that-could tale of money, power and the early days of cable television."Clint O'Connor, Cleveland Plain Dealer"
As highly anticipated by sports junkies as a Chicago Cubs championship, [Those Guys Have All the Fun] provides painstaking details on how a nutty idea concocted by a father-son team developed into a brand worth more than the NHL, MLB and NBA combined...Shales and Miller manage to create a page-turning document about the ultimate dysfunctional workplace"Neil Justin, Minneapolis Star Tribune"
...Perhaps the most anticipated book in sports media history."Newsday"
Those Guys Have All the Fun delivers a hell of a narrative...[and] an outstanding work of journalism. Easing interviewees into such comfort that they said what they did on record is an enormous achievement for Miller and Shales."Daniel Roberts, Fortune "
This treat for sports fans has a cast of characters that is huge and varied."Janet Maslin, New York Times"
What a story: larger-than-life personalities, salacious gossip, backstabbing and corporate intrigue set against the backdrop of the rise of cable television as an economic and cultural force....The quotes flow seamlessly, and the voices are fresh and vibrant...The depth and breadth of the interviews make it not only the definitive account of ESPN's first three decades but one of the best books yet on how cable shaped American culture."Andy Lewis, Hollywood Reporter"
A rollicking glimpse behind the guys and gals who sport around at ESPN, America's sports church. Amen."Publishers Weekly
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Those Guys Have All the FunInside the World of ESPN
By Miller, James Andrew
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Miller, James Andrew
All right reserved.
“A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
It all started with a $9,000 investment, the purchase of a “transponder” by a father and son who had never seen one, and the suicide of a famous playboy.
BILL RASMUSSEN, Chairman:
I was fired as the communications manager for the Hartford Whalers in 1978, and then fired as executive director for Howe Enterprises. Gordie Howe was playing for the Whalers at the time, and the Enterprises job was just a way to do some things for Gordie and the boys. The way I was dismissed was intriguing. It was Memorial Day weekend, that Saturday morning, and I was getting ready to play golf. The phone rang and it was Colleen Howe, Gordie’s wife. She said, “I don’t have much time and I really wanted to see you because I didn’t want to do it this way, but we’re terminating you at Howe Enterprises. I have to catch a plane, so good-bye.” It was a surefire way to ruin a good round of golf.
SCOTT RASMUSSEN, Executive Vice President:
My dad was in broadcasting my whole life. We have a close relationship, but it’s complicated.
We would broadcast high school hockey games together, and when he was with the Whalers, I filled in with a pregame talk show a few times. I had taken a year off after high school, then went to college for two years and dropped out. I don’t think my dad was surprised. School and I weren’t the best of friends.
Then my father and I did a TV show on Channel 18 in Hartford—which was a religious station then—called Sports Only, which basically was SportsCenter in its earliest form. It was around that time that my dad and I started batting around ideas, but none of them were quite right.
Years before, in 1950, Bill Rasmussen had the opportunity to play in the Detroit Tigers Class D farm club; he would have grabbed at the chance, but like many others of that era, he felt he had to attend college—in his case, DePauw University—to hang on to a draft exemption that would keep him out of the Korean War. Sports remained his true love, however, and now, in 1978, with his forty-sixth birthday approaching, Rasmussen decided that the time had come to actually do what he dreamed of doing.
While working for the Whalers, Rasmussen had met an insurance man named Ed Eagan, who was working at Aetna but really wanted to be in television. Eagan had wanted to talk to Bill about the Hartford Whalers being the centerpiece of a monthly cable show about Connecticut sports.
I called Ed Eagan right after Colleen’s call and told him, “I don’t think it’s a very good idea to talk to me about the Whalers since I’m not there anymore,” but he said, “Come on in, and we’ll talk about something else.” We ended up thinking we should do what I was going to do with the Whalers but do it independently. As the conversation continued we thought, why not do UConn basketball, and then we thought, if we can do UConn, why not Wesleyan, why not Yale, why not Fairfield, and Southern Connecticut? One thing led to another. Ed even had the idea for the first two shows: hot-air ballooning and a game from the Bristol Red Sox. Ed said we would tape a show every month with a sports topic of interest to Connecticut, and take these big two-inch reels of tape in his car to cable systems. We could do shorter distances on bicycle.
Rasmussen knew virtually nothing about the cable TV business, but he wasn’t alone: in 1978, there were just over 14 million homes receiving cable—less than 20 percent of all TV households. HBO had gone on the air in 1975 but offered limited programming and signed off at midnight. A year later, Ted Turner uplinked his then-piddling Atlanta UHF outlet to a satellite, thereby creating the country’s first “SuperStation,” but one that delivered more Braves games than original programming. The next year, televangelist Pat Robertson launched his 700 Club on satellite, and in 1978, despite the fact that HBO reached only 1.5 million homes, Viacom fired up its slow-blooming imitation, Showtime.
Regionally, cable was beginning to make some inroads. In Reading, Pennsylvania, a pioneering cable system acceded to demands from the local American Nazi Party to lease time on its public-access channel (regulations prohibited turning anybody down). On the other extreme, New York’s Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party provided a crazily kinetic TV home to punk rockers, subterranean semi-celebrities, and exploratory artists like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michael Basquiat, and David Byrne. Among the lyrics to the show’s theme song: “We’ve got nothing better to do than watch TV and have a couple of brews…”
Beginning in the summer of 1978, Bill, his son Scott, Eagan, and Eagan’s buddy Bob Beyus, who owned a video production company, sought the backing of cable operators and potential investors for a new sports channel. They had originally wanted to name it SPN, the Sports Programming Network, but something called the Satellite Programming Network had already laid claim to those letters. Bill knew they’d have a tough time filling hours with only Connecticut sports and argued that they’d have to include some entertainment programming. Thus was it born: ESP, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
On June 26, presentations began. ESP invited twelve representatives of Connecticut’s cable operators to a rented conference room at United Cable in Plainville, Connecticut. Only five showed up, and those mostly out of deference to Bill Rasmussen’s contacts in the industry rather than out of breathless anticipation of the new enterprise. Skeptically, they listened to far-fetched proposals about delivering Connecticut collegiate sporting events, amateur sports, the Whalers, and “entertainment” programming to cable operators via an interstate network. The reaction was a double shot of bad news: implausible, the cable crowd said, and too costly.
Undaunted that the presentation bombed, the quartet of entrepreneurs pushed ahead, holding a press conference days later to spread the word. Of the thirty-five reporters invited to attend the grand announcement of ESP, a mere four attended, and none of them were particularly impressed. Neither was Beyus, who had thought it complete folly to hold a press conference without any contracts, but was outvoted by his partners. Immediately following the press conference, he officially flew the coop. Still undeterred, the Rasmussens and Eagan formally incorporated ESP Network on July 14, 1978, for a fee of $91.
When Scott and I talked with Jim Dover over at United Cable, he told us about something new coming along called satellite communication and said it was going to be the wave of the future. A couple guys over at United helped us try to figure out what the satellites did, but nobody really had any idea. Then someone said that RCA was doing a lot of this stuff in Europe and we should talk to those guys. We called in the middle of the afternoon, and a young guy named Al Parinello answered the phone.
AL PARINELLO, RCA Manager:
In 1978, I was one of two people hired by RCA to penetrate the cable-television marketplace and basically convince new emerging networks that satellite distribution of their television product—as opposed to terrestrial distribution—was the wave of the future. RCA had launched a satellite called SATCOM 1, but no one understood that this thing was real, that it actually existed. Think about it: you couldn’t see it, you couldn’t touch it, and there was no way to demonstrate that it really was up there 22,300 miles above the equator. So it was a concept sale.
The first deal that I made was with a reverend who called me and said he wanted to buy one or two hours of satellite time. I said, “Sure. Where is the uplink going to be?” He said, “We’ll use your New Jersey uplinking facility,” and I said, “Okay, great. Now, where do you want us to bring the signal down? We have facilities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, wherever.” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, where’s it going, where do you want the signal to go?” He said, “I want it to go to God.” I said, “What do you mean you want it to go to God?” He said, “This is a program that my parishioners and I have put together. It’s our message to God, and we want to send it to him by satellite. It’s just going out there; it’s not coming back.” So I said, “Okay.” It was a $1,200 or $1,300 deal. That was the first order that was ever on RCA SATCOM for cable television usage.
Al wanted to get together and asked us where we were located, but we didn’t have offices. We asked Jim Dover at United Cable if we could rent the conference room there and he said, “Give me a $20 bill.” So that was the rent, and Al came and showed us all these diagrams of satellites and how this happens, and how that happens.
We’re talking pewter ashtrays, a big oak table, and china dishes that lunch was served on. Bill said, “This is our headquarters.” Little did I know that he had rented this beautiful room.
My first question was “What kind of programming are we talking about?” And the answer was we’re talking about regional sports programming—UConn sporting events, and so forth. I was confused. I’m like, “Bill, you need to understand that when you utilize satellite communications, your signal is going to go up to a geosynchronous satellite orbiting 24,300 miles above the equator. And because of that, anybody with an earth station anywhere can get your programming. So it seems to me that you shouldn’t just be talking about Connecticut sports, why not think in terms of doing something a little bigger?”
That was the moment I saw Bill and Scott look at each other like I had just hit a nerve.
Wow, what an eye-opener.
I can still remember the conversation. Bill said, “Let me get this straight. You mean to tell me, for no extra money—for no extra money!—we could take this signal and beam it anywhere in the country?” And I said, “That’s right.” And then he asked again, “Anywhere in the country?” And I said, “Anywhere.” I remember we went back and forth like this a couple times. Bill and Scott were looking at each other, and they might have been getting sexually excited, I’m not sure. But I can tell that they were very, very excited.
Al had been talking about us buying a transponder on the satellite for nightly stuff on an hourly basis, but then he said the fateful words: “We used to have another one that was twenty-four hours a day, but no one bought it so we took it off the market.” We all just looked at each other for a moment. So then I asked him what that would cost. He said, “$34,167 a month.”
I was only twenty-two at that point but I could figure out that $1,143 for twenty-four hours was a better deal than 1,250 bucks for five hours, so there was no question we should sign up for the full service. We were able to send a satellite signal around America for less money than it cost to send the same signal around Connecticut via landlines.
Before Al got in his car, Scott said, “We should get three of those,” and I said, “We don’t have the money to buy even one.” But we called Al the next day and said, “We’ll take one.” And Al says, “You’ll take one what?” We said, “We’ll take one of those twenty-four-hour ones that you’ve never sold before.”
Bill’s first goal was to convince me, as the representative of RCA, that I should go back to corporate and recommend this new venture as a viable candidate, and I was convinced. I was absolutely blown away by these two. They were good people. They were smart. They were savvy. And they listened intently. I went back to the home office and said, “I think we have good people here who we can trust. I can’t vouch for where the money’s coming from, but if we don’t have a check by X date, we’ll throw this deal away.” It was that simple.
What we didn’t know was that there was going to be a column in the Wall Street Journal the day after Labor Day saying the wave of the future was satellites at RCA. They got a ton of applications after that, but we already had our transponder reserved.
All of a sudden we had this distribution technology, but we had no idea about anything else.
It was August 16, 1978. Scott and I were driving to the Jersey shore from Connecticut. We were on our way to see my daughter, who was working down there for the summer. It was her birthday; we couldn’t miss it, we had to go. So we had a blue stick-shift Toyota, no air-conditioning. It was going to be a hot day, so we started driving early in the morning because we had to drive at least four hours. And as we approached Waterbury, just east of route 84, traffic just stopped. I bet I could place us within a hundred feet of it if we were driving right now. We were just sitting there in traffic and it was real hot. So we started doing a lot of brainstorming.
Putting the two of us in a car was a sure recipe that all we were going to talk about was the business and what we were going to do with the transponder. We were having arguments, creative arguments, and they got pretty heated. At some point—we were on I-84 in Waterbury—I just got really fed up and turned to my father and said, “I don’t care what you do with it, show football all weekend, see if I care.” And for the first time all morning he didn’t yell back at me. He said, “That’s it! Not football, but sports!”
From that moment on for the rest of the day I was scribbling notes on a pad. We showed up at the Jersey shore but ignored my sister on her birthday. We were coming up with all kinds of ideas, estimating cable penetration, and trying to figure out how many people we would need. We talked about the cable subscribers and what kind of deal we could offer them. We talked about coming up with programming, and that we’d have one anchor sportscaster and then hire a bunch of other people for next to nothing. I probably filled every piece of paper on that pad. That night we couldn’t even get to sleep.
In one single day we decided that we would do sports twenty-four hours a day, have a half-hour sports show at 6:30 every night, which would be the sports center, that we would go out and hire sportscasters, and buy a fleet of trucks that would roam the nation covering sporting events.
The next day we got in the car and talked all the way home. The plan was born, I won’t say fully hatched, but the big parameters were already in place before we got back to Connecticut that night.
When we got in the house it was well after midnight and we couldn’t think of anything more to talk about, so we decided to design a building, you know, what’s our building going to be like? We took out a ruler that was marked off in eighth-of-an-inch increments and so we decided that one inch equals eight feet in our scale. I think the initial size was 96 by 64 and we made it two stories. We put in the executive-office corner, and we put in the studio. And we’re rearranging and drawing and it’s probably two in the morning and my dad just roars back and starts laughing. He says, “It’s funny, we’ve got to have a tape room!” He took an eraser and erased the outside wall, made the building eight feet longer, and we had a tape room! What we sketched out that night is what was done. The executive offices, the control room, everything.
I can’t fully describe the excitement of those two car rides. We were thinking we had the greatest idea in the history of the world and needed to guard it really carefully because people were going to want to steal it from us. It took us a little while to realize most people were going to laugh at us when they heard it, so eventually we got over that initial paranoia.
Then RCA called. They were concerned because they didn’t have our financials on record to back up our order. I basically said, “You know I can’t believe you’re even asking this question. You haven’t sent us an invoice. If you have concerns, send us an invoice and we’ll pay it.” Then they probably thought, “All right, well, it must be okay, and we’ll send them an invoice.” Fortunately they didn’t send it for ninety days.
At first, I was just using my own money—about $9,000 that I had put on a credit card, but that was no way to finance a business. So I went to my family in Chicago—my sister, my brother [Don], my mother and father—and put together $30,000.
DON RASMUSSEN, Regional Manager:
I was a junior high school principal in 1978, and on December 14 my dad called and said, “Your brother Bill’s here and he wants to come down and see you.” I said, “Okay, have him come on down.” When I got off the phone and told my wife, she said, “Bill wants money.” Now, you have to understand that my wife and I had been married for twenty-two years and Bill had never been to our home. So this was really something.
There’s a dynamic in our family that was either intentionally or unintentionally cultivated from the time we were kids—it impacts us to this day and had a big impact on the creation of ESPN. My brother Bill is five years older than I am. We had another brother who was less than a year older than me, who was killed as a naval navigator in a plane crash. And we have a sister who is three years younger than me. There was never any affection in the family at all. Now, as we grew up, Bill was the king of the roost, the child with talent and intelligence, and everybody else came in second. No matter what I did, it never measured up to Bill and all his successes.
Only twice in my life can I recall Bill challenging me. The first time was when I got out of the air force and he invited my wife and me to work at his factory during the summer. Somehow we got to digging deep holes in his basement because he was having problems with flooding. He started clowning around and said, “You’re a big judo man in the air force, I want to see if you can throw me. Come on.” I said, “Bill, you don’t want to go there. I don’t want to do that.” He said, “Well, you’re going to have to, because I’m going to come at you.” And he did. So I took him down and broke three of his ribs, unintentionally. I wasn’t trying to hurt him. After that, he never bothered me physically again.
The second time he challenged me resulted in a lawsuit over ESPN.
When we were growing up, Don was always the third brother and it was tough for him. He was five years younger, so there’s no way he could compete—but he wanted to. And more power to him. But we’ve always had a most distant relationship.
Now, during the time that he was at our house, Bill said, “The reason we’ve come to you is simply because we want the family involved.” I didn’t really know him all that well anymore, but my dad did and my sister did, and he told me, “Dad has committed to give us $10,000, Vivian, our sister, has given us $15,000, and we need another $10,000 from you to give us a little bit of a bridge until the big money starts rolling in. This way you’ll be a part of it, and for your $10,000, you’ll get 2 percent of the company.”
I said, “Bill, I’ve got four kids I’m raising, I’m a junior high school principal, and I don’t have $10,000 to just give you,” and he said, “Well, can you get it before Monday?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve got some friends I could probably talk to and they’d give me $10,000, but I’m not sure I want to do it.” Then he went back to the big story about it being a family business and so forth, and I said, “Okay, I’ll get you $10,000 by Monday.” He said, “Okay, but we have to have it as soon as the bank opens on Monday.”
I told him okay, but “if I get you some money, I want to join the company” and reminded him that I did have a background in play-by-play, radio, and I could learn other things. So he agreed that if I got the money, I could join the company. No specified duties were discussed, except he said, “You will never, ever be on television with us.” I said, “Okay, that’s no big deal.” I just thought, well, he’s the TV guy, and if that’s the way he wants it to be, that’s okay with me. I should have suspected some personality conflicts at that point, but I didn’t.
So I talked to a friend who had a lot of money and he turned it down. Then I talked to the number two on my list and he said, “Sure I’ll give you $10,000 and whatever comes out of it, half of it’s yours and half of it’s mine.” He wrote me the checks and said he would cover them first thing Monday morning so I could wire them to Bill. And that’s what I did.
I jokingly say that ESPN was built on a dump, but that’s what the Bristol redevelopment was, they took a dump, put fresh grass over it, and called it prime real estate. It was pure luck that we ended up on that spot. They couldn’t give these parcels away, and we agreed to buy one right then. We started in Plainville. They could have had ESPN there. We had an address, 319 Fifth Avenue. But they had an ordinance against satellite dishes, and they successfully kept us out. I think things turned out okay for Bristol.
Since we had no knowledge of how satellites worked and what kinds of specifications we would need, we called Scientific Atlanta, the supplier of satellite installations, to see if we could put a signal up to a satellite from there. We had to be careful because there are certain angles that prevent the signals from getting through. They told us we could not have picked a better place. The signal is supposed to be ten and a quarter degrees above the earth to hit the satellite, and we were right there. If it had been another quarter degree off, we would have been out of luck. You know what we paid for that first piece of land, that acre plus? $18,000.
We still needed more money, and a friend I knew told me to call a guy named J. B. Doherty, who had an investment firm named K. S. Sweet outside Philadelphia. He listened to my story and asked me if I could come down to his office the next day to talk with me some more.
J. B. DOHERTY, Venture Capitalist:
We took a security interest in the transponder rights and were comfortable with the fact that if the business was not going to get further financing, we were going to get our money back by releasing the transponder to someone else.
My father and I were amazed when we got the down payment from J. B. Doherty and K. S. Sweet Associates. We thought he’d give us $35,000 so we could pay a few other bills—but they gave us the exact amount, $34,167.
No matter. The transponder had been purchased, and it was now the new network’s most prized possession. Over the coming years, it would become the Hope Diamond, Holy Grail, and best asset for ESPN, the critical factor in making so many of the possibilities the Rasmussens discussed a reality.
Bill and Scott Rasmussen’s decision to buy a transponder on RCA SATCOM 1 in 1978: Step Number One in ESPN’s rise to world dominance.
J. B. DOHERTY:
Bill and Scott were floundering around trying to find a permanent financing source while we were funding the thing on an interim basis. We were looking for the big institutional investor and talked to various venture funds and insurance companies. We went to six or seven places but they all said no.
We were responsible for overseeing one of our insurance company’s institutional-investor clients who had an investment in a hotel property in Hawaii, and Getty Oil was involved. Getty had a division that held all the non-oil parts of Getty, like hotels, nut groves, and other very strange things. It was run by a guy named Stuart Evey, and we took the idea to him.
Jean Paul Getty had five wives and five divorces, so his money suffered, but there always seemed to be “more where that came from”—meaning the ground. Oil made Getty a millionaire, starting in 1916, when a million bucks still meant something, and it made him a billionaire within a few decades, especially once his oil holdings were extended to encompass wells in Saudi Arabia.
Six sons were born to Getty over the course of his five marriages, but only one—the first—was named after Jean Paul’s father, George. George Getty II was deeply troubled in the way rich men’s sons are widely expected, and some perhaps doomed, to be.
On the evening of June 5, 1973, the son reached his breaking point. That night George had been especially upset and irritable, downing many a beer, two bottles of wine, some pills, and talking bitterly about the desirability of death. Eventually, he managed to get hold of a barbecue fork and poke an inch-deep gash in his gut. As blood spewed, George threatened to shoot everyone in sight, then locked himself in his bedroom. When none of the family could coax him to open the door, the family decided the only alternative was to summon George’s executive assistant and family confidant, Stuart Evey, who rushed over in the middle of the night to take charge. The first thing Evey did was send two Bel Air security guards away; Evey was determined to keep this a private matter.
Cleaning up family messes and keeping them out of the papers was unofficially part of Evey’s job. But this was personal, too, since George had, in fact, been Evey’s mentor at Getty Oil.
STUART EVEY, Vice President, Getty Oil:
George Getty was not a big daily drinker. He was impulsive. Every once in a while, about every four months, he might go on a kick where he’d drink like a sieve, you know, ten, twelve beers at a time, but then he wouldn’t have anything for six months or so. I was loyal to him, but I was also close to his wife, Jacqueline. She had a separate schedule, and we spent a lot of time together. I dated her for a while when George was still alive. I was still married, but you know, kind of on the outside of it.
George and his wife had had an argument earlier and he’d taken a barbecue fork and punched his stomach. He tried to kill himself, I think to spare her, I know him that well. George’s wife called me about midnight and said that George was not doing well and could I come over. So I went to the house and found out that he was in his bedroom and that he wouldn’t open the door. I could hear snoring as loud as I’ve ever heard in my life. So I tried to be gentle, but then finally he just wouldn’t come to the door so I called the doctor, our house doctor, if you will. He was a private practitioner but he was on our payroll and he had done a lot of stuff with George. He came to the house, we broke the door down, went in, and George was lying on the bed. He was in his boxer shorts only and there was blood, a wound in his stomach. But he was breathing and snoring loud so I said to the doctor, “What’s wrong with him?” And he said, “It sounds like he’s drunk.” So I said, “God, I don’t want this getting out.”
Now in retrospect, we should’ve taken him across the street to UCLA, but I took the doctor’s advice and we went to another hospital, which was farther away but more discreet. I was protecting the company and J. Paul from this potential scandal, you know? Again, protecting George, I registered him in the name of Glenn Davis, who at that time was a very close friend of mine, a former Heisman Trophy winner from West Point. The whole night went on with George in ICU, and then I went with him into his hospital room, where I elected to sleep that night. About three hours later, a herd of people came running in—apparently the monitors went haywire. They rushed him out of there and within an hour they pronounced him dead. Well, there I was with nobody knowing, only me. So I tried to gather myself up, then went into the office in the morning. I called J. Paul Getty and told him George was in a coma, that he hadn’t died yet, but it didn’t look like he was going to recover in a reasonable fashion. I knew he had died, but I didn’t want to shock the old man first off. Then a little later I called back and said, “Mr. Getty, it’s hard for me to call you like this, but I must tell you that George has passed away.” He didn’t say much, quite honestly.
Then J. Paul Getty called me back and asked, “Who do you think should be temporary executive vice president?” And I said, “You will recall, Mr. Getty, that George had written you recently about the company’s management and he was very high on the current vice president of finance, Sid Peterson.” And I said, “You know, if you’d like to follow George, it seems to me that he would recommend Sid Peterson.” He said, “Would you issue a statement to that effect in the company?” So I gathered our top executives together and told them that George had passed away and that Sid Peterson had been named to succeed George, not in an official capacity, because that action would take the board of directors, but that Mr. Getty—J. Paul—had recommended that Sid Peterson act in George’s absence.
The following fall, tragedy struck the Gettys again: J. Paul’s grandson was kidnapped by the Mafia in Italy. When J. Paul announced he would pay “not one penny” of ransom, the kidnappers chopped off the boy’s ear and sent it home. Eventually the rest of the boy followed—alive—and when it was time for the young man to go to work, it was Evey who would get the call to find him a suitable job within the company.
For favors rendered, for doing his duty well beyond the call of it, Stuart Evey would be rewarded with what could only be called a glamorous position at the firm, vice president of non-oil operations, put in charge of everything Getty was involved with other than oil. While other Getty executives spent their time crunching numbers or traipsing through dirt to see if wells were dry duds or potential gushers, Stuart hung out at a luxury resort in Mexico, at wineries, or wherever Getty had investments.
As yet another desirable perk, Evey spent time with athletes and movie stars in Hollywood, magnetically attracted as they were to the Getty name and connection. This earned Evey envy, if not outright jealousy, from those other executives. But they knew what Stuart knew—that his power came from on high. After all, he was the one who had told J. Paul who should be the president of the company.
GEORGE CONNER, Finance Manager, Getty Oil:
I was hired by Getty in Los Angeles to be the finance manager. We had responsibility for the J. Paul Getty castle in England, the Getty Museum, the automobile fleets in Los Angeles, pistachio groves in Bakersfield, and some vineyards for wineries. People knew Getty Oil had money, so they would bring a lot of crazy ideas to us hoping that Getty would say yes, we’ll invest in it. We had just brought in Jack Nicklaus to look at installing a second eighteen-hole golf course at the Kona Surf hotel in Hawaii.
Stu Evey was not your typical conservative oil company executive. He was Hollywood. You’d be in his office and our senior secretary would come in and say, “Mr. Evey, Mr. Hope’s on the phone.” Stu would hit the speaker button so everyone could hear and it would be Bob Hope. He ran with that crowd.
I was a big-time person down in Acapulco because I represented Getty. I’d come walking into the hotel after arriving and the band would switch to play my favorite song. The jet-set people always wanted to buy me drinks and stuff like that because they wanted to get close to the owner, you know. So I played that pretty good. I spent six years in and out of there, building the hotel and building the golf course, and I would make deals with foreign photographers who wanted to come and use our facilities for free. Well, they’d bring all of these gals, and I got brochures for our hotel free. The women part of it is kind of interesting. I mean, it’s hard for me.
I had a trusting relationship with the family. I helped George with a lot of problems, even with his kids in their younger ages. And I kept it all quiet. He did some damage around the house with his first wife—he got upset with her during their turmoil, so I quietly had some doors put back on.
J. B. DOHERTY:
My take is Stu was sort of this jock sniffer or wannabe. This sports venture satisfied his ego to the point where I think he got himself one of those jackets like the on-air guys wore back in the early days. He was the kind of manager that could only survive in a fairly unprofessional corporate environment, and Getty Oil at that time was still run like a family business.
J. B. asked me if I’d meet with this guy who had been everywhere trying to sell his idea, and would I have any interest at all in talking to him because they were no longer going to finance him. He had run completely out of money and struck out everywhere. I told him I’d meet with him because I believed “you never know.”
Bill came to my office very disgruntled because he knew, in his mind apparently, that there’s no way an oil company would ever be interested in what he had in mind.
In December of 1978, I was in my office in Los Angeles, and Stu calls me up to his office and says, “George, I have something I want you to look at.” This was pretty early in the morning, maybe nine-ish. He said, “Bill Rasmussen just left my office”—of course I didn’t know who Bill Rasmussen was at that time—and he said, “George, why don’t you take a look at this business plan and I’ll call you in the middle of the afternoon.” It was maybe ten or fifteen pages in a clear plastic folder. I told Janet, my secretary, Stu must be pretty excited about this to want an answer so fast. Sure enough, at 11:30 he calls and says, “George, I’ll meet you at the L.A. Club,” which was a private club on top of our Getty Oil building at Wilshire and Western in Los Angeles. So we go up to the bar. He has a Scotch and water and I have a rum and Coke, and he said, “George, what do you think?” I said, “Stu, I think it looks pretty interesting. Let’s look at it.” He says okay. And about five minutes later, he said, “George, only one problem. Bill has to have a yes or no answer by December 31,” which was three weeks away. And I said, “Stu, you know as well as I do that Getty can’t say yes to a project of this magnitude in three weeks.” He says, “Okay, just start on it.” So I went back to my office and the only thing I worked on from that point until the end of December was the ESP Network project.
I liked the prospect of it for about two weeks. Then I saw the stumbling blocks and recognized that we hadn’t spent nearly enough time researching it. Most of my investigations about ESPN came from people that I knew. I was responsible for George Getty’s thoroughbred business, breeding, and horse racing; in that capacity I got to know an awful lot of people, including the chairman, at that time, of Time-Life Books. I called him and he introduced me on the phone to the guy who was running HBO back then. I talked to him about what he thought of this idea we were considering, and he said, “There’s no way anybody will ever watch sports twenty-four hours a day.”
The initial proposal from Bill was for $10 million, and what Bill wanted to do was build some studios in Bristol, Connecticut. I knew where Connecticut was; I didn’t know where Bristol was. He wanted to build four state-of-the-art television production trucks with the most expensive equipment that there was to be built by Compact Video in Burbank; he wanted to hire some very expensive on-the-air talent; and he wanted to pay the NCAA, I don’t remember the exact number, but something like $450,000 for the first contract to rebroadcast NCAA events and show them over and over and over.
I was trying to learn about transponders and Nielsen ratings and all that. I needed to get up to speed so I could properly evaluate it and make a recommendation for Getty to invest or not.
A friend introduced me to Tex Schramm, who was the general manager of the Dallas Cowboys at that time. I told him we were looking at doing a venture that would have sports on television twenty-four hours a day. His comment was “There’s already an awful lot of sports on television.”
Getty had this thing where every investment has a best outcome, a probable outcome, or a worst outcome, and Stu would ask us to come out and present details about the cable industry and our business. I remember the topic of the day once was where will the cable industry be at the end of the 1980s, and how many subscribers would we have? There were 12.5 million cable homes in 1979, and we put together a presentation that said 30 million homes in ten years. Stu was really upset with us and told us that number was way too high and irresponsible. Turns out, at the end of the eighties there were 60 million homes.
We had somehow managed to pay ourselves $1,500 a month, but we were running out of money and we had to have an answer by the end of the year, which was twenty-two days away. I was worried because most companies can’t make that kind of decision that fast.
So the end of December comes—the 27th, 28th, or something. Stu called me in and asked, “George, what do you think?” I said, “Stu, if Bill has to have an answer today, we have to tell him no, but I kind of like the idea and I think you do, too. Why don’t we fund payroll and some other expenses until we can finish looking at it.” When we told our response to Bill, there was a long pause, but then he said that sounded pretty good. I mean, he had been turned down by seven other companies, he was up to his limit on every credit card he had, and the venture capital fund in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, had said they weren’t going to put any more money in it. This was the best offer he had.
Then we had the situation with the Bristol development commission. We had “bought” the land but hadn’t paid for it. They told us, “If you don’t have financials at our next meeting in February, we’re going to give the land to somebody else.” My dad was out West pleading with Stu to find a way that we could give hints to others that Getty was going to invest, but the word from Stu was absolutely not. They hadn’t committed anything; they weren’t going to let their name be associated with it. So my father called and said, “You’re going to have to do what you can. Go to the meeting and buy us a month.” I sat there, kind of depressed, trying to think what I was going to say that night. Then I watched as it began to snow. The storm became so bad, the meeting was canceled. By the next month Getty was in. Had it not snowed, I don’t know what I would’ve said, or if we would have found a way to buy a month. We might have lost Bristol.
Eight thousand, seven hundred, and sixty hours to fill. To realize his dream of a 24/7 network, Bill Rasmussen would need a much better recipe than the motley stew he’d prepared to air so far: Australian rules football, slow-pitch softball, Irish bicycling, and, also from Ireland, Munster hurling—which has nothing to do with vomiting cheese or trying to heave Herman, Lily, or Grandpa across a barroom floor. (Hurling is an Irish variation on rugby, with the same shirts and slightly different rules. For many years it had failed to take America by storm.) Rasmussen knew there was no way he could afford TV rights to any big-ticket pro sports. But college sports? That might work, he reasoned, and with the right ones, maybe he could persuade Getty Oil to fork over more dough. In Connecticut, NCAA basketball was king, and Rasmussen believed that this game—fast-moving, flashy, energetic—had the potential to woo new viewers. And a juicy contract with the league could do more than spike viewership; it could be the major, critical coup to give ESP legitimacy and stature.
Rasmussen made a sales call on the National Collegiate Athletic Association headquarters in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. A presentation filled with enticing generalities had been hastily cobbled together and rushed to a printer; even Rasmussen was surprised at how well it turned out. Plans for the new twenty-four-hour sports network included a major role for the NCAA, league leaders were told. Rasmussen also argued that their annual basketball tournament was getting insufficient attention from the current rights holder, NBC, and that there was great untapped potential in the tourney’s early rounds. Those games, he said, suffered from severe media malnourishment. By airing the beginning of the tournament, ESP, as it was still known, could attract more fans for the NCAA while at the same time, and not incidentally, enticing viewers to sample ESP’s other offerings.
Fortunately, the name Getty carried clout, and it helped ESP get taken seriously by the NCAA, at the bargaining table and elsewhere. Rasmussen was, in fact, cleverly playing both sides against the middle: he convinced the NCAA of the network’s importance by dropping the name Getty every chance he could, and he enticed Evey and the Getty hierarchy to be more generous to ESP every time by dangling the prestigious acronym NCAA in front of them.
In our negotiations with the NCAA, we talked about doing all the championships. For example, CBS was contracted for college football and for a one-minute highlight of the lacrosse championship game to be shown on the CBS Sports Spectacular, which was their Sunday afternoon answer to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Our presentation proposed complete live coverage of not only the lacrosse Final Four, but also Soccer Final Four, Hockey Frozen Four, and the entire College World Series from Omaha. They actually gave us their logo to put on the side of our trucks for the first year on the road. That was a real coup because they guard that so jealously. We were talking about doing every game that the networks didn’t do during the basketball tournament, which was, like, all of them, except they did weekend games and that was it. I remember Walter Byers said to me, “Do you mean if Weber State and Lamar Tech are playing, you’re going to televise it?” “If they’re in the tournament, yeah. Every game. We mean every game.” You know, if you go back and look, who played in March of 1980, Weber State and Lamar Tech played. I don’t know whether that was rigged or whether it was just the luck of the draw, but that’s just such a coincidence. It’s very difficult for me to believe that wasn’t a test.
As talks continued, one thing became clear: if ESP was going to get NCAA basketball, it would have to show interest—sincere or not—in the NCAA’s seventeen other sports as well. So the network pledged that “the entire spectrum of NCAA sports will be included in the ESP package,” including hockey, soccer, lacrosse, and the collegiate baseball “world series” from Omaha. A deal was forged: “A two-year agreement for the exclusive national cablecasting of a series of NCAA championships, as well as college and conference regular-season events in 18 sports, has been reached by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, Inc., of Plainville, Connecticut…. With the exception of specific events and sports programming already committed to other networks, ESP’s cable coverage will be designed to include each NCAA national championship in the Association’s three divisions.”
Getty wanted to see the results of a meeting we had scheduled with the NCAA. Walter Byers himself had said let’s talk, and I went back and forth to the NCAA’s headquarters in Kansas City a few times. Everything came together on Valentine’s Day. I was in Kansas City and they were agreeing to put this contract together. I also got a call from George saying that Stu had decided to go ahead and wanted me to fly out to L.A. after my meeting. So on the 14th of February, 1979, both the NCAA and Getty verbally said yes.
The final, binding document was signed on March 14, 1979. ESP was still six months from going on the air, but what happened that March would turn out to be a rousing endorsement of ESP’s strategy as well as a terrific bit of timing.
Rasmussen may have been bluffing about the latent potential he claimed to see in the tournament’s early rounds, but he was seen as a Nostradamus of the NCAA almost immediately. The 1979 tournament turned out to be the most exciting ever held up to that time—and for years thereafter. The final game, on March 26—two weeks after the NCAA and ESP signed their contract—kept 24.1 million viewers superglued to their couch cushions, enthralled not so much by the matchup of the teams as by their two electrifying star players: Indiana State’s Larry Bird and Michigan State’s Magic Johnson.
Future ESPNer Michael Wilbon wrote that the 1979 tournament “launched the popularity of college basketball and began the Golden Age of professional basketball” as well. It’s been said that the final game was the most-watched in basketball television history, and that it played a greater role in the start-up and eventual success of ESPN than any other sports event. Cable systems found themselves flooded with requests from fans demanding “that channel that has all the basketball.”
While it’s true that before Getty was officially involved the NCAA indicated that they would look at Rasmussen’s proposal, they didn’t commit to it until I made a personal visit to the then-director, Walter Byers, evidencing our commitment to proceed. And let me tell you, that deal was probably one of the key reasons ESPN survived.
A small part of Stu’s money started coming in February of ’79, but I consider a meeting with Getty that happened in May to be the most significant. They had given us $5 million to tide us over while they kept looking at things, and in May they had to make a go, no-go decision. They had my father and me come out to Getty in California, and we sat at this huge table at the Getty complex. It was kind of like a horseshoe, or a boomerang-shaped type of table. We were on the inside and there were a whole bunch of Getty folks on the other side and they were trying to be intimidating. They were very good at it.
Sid Peterson, the president, was there and so was Harold Berg, the chairman. There were legal counsels there too and, of course, Stu. I didn’t understand the corporate politics that Stu was playing, but it was clear that he had gotten to the point where he had to sell it again for that go, no-go decision.
I’d never come across anyone who was more of a master politician. If Stu decided he wanted to do something, he would line his ducks up with the board members behind the scenes before a board vote. He always knew what the outcome was going to be.
Somebody asked a question about our revenue projection through 1988. I gave an answer that was terribly imprecise and totally worthless.
Sid Peterson basically took command of the meeting then and said, “Look, he doesn’t know what the revenue is going to be in 1988 anymore than we do. We have a decision to make. If we believe in these underlying assumptions that people will watch a channel like this and that advertisers will support narrow casting and all the different assumptions that are built into it, this is going to be a big win for all of us. If it’s not, it’s going to be another dry hole. We make decisions like this in the oil industry every day. Let’s decide.” My father and I were then asked to leave and they had their discussion, and we were told after lunch that they voted to fund it.
It was in theory a commitment for $100 million, but the actual allocation was probably about $15 million. But more than the specifics, more than the numbers, Getty was embracing and committing that they were going to fund this and make it go.
Bill and Scott Rasmussen had been to more than half a dozen potential suitors before Evey, and all had said no. Chances are they wouldn’t have found another investor, certainly not someone willing to risk millions. Whether it was Evey’s love of sports and his love for star athletes; whether it was the idea of doing something in George Getty’s name to make his mentor proud; or whether it was just egomania, it was Evey’s Getty money that brought the Rasmussen dream to life.
Getty’s investment of $15 million in May of 1979: Step Number Two in ESPN’s rise to world dominance.
I was laughed at in the company, in a kind of a kidding way. They even called it “Evey Sports Programming Network,” not ESPN. My whole business reputation was put on the line. Nobody had any idea the risk I took. But I had done so many things from the hip that had turned out so successfully, from a golf course in Acapulco to giving a big investment to the government in Africa for a boondoggle which we took a huge tax loss on, but more than made up for when we discovered oil in the North Sea.
There’s absolutely no way Getty would have gone into ESPN without me. None. I was given that opportunity to take the risk for past performance perhaps, but also for personal relationships. I did this primarily because I thought George Getty would’ve liked it. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s not. George Getty always wanted to get involved with a business that didn’t have his father’s name tacked to it, a successful business, and that motivated the hell out of me. He had died in ’74, and this idea didn’t come along until ’78, but it was still almost like in his memory. If he didn’t get to do it, maybe I could. I was surrounded by oilmen who were using money to drill oil wells; shit, I was using money to build a new TV network.
There were times when I thought that one of the reasons we got approved is some of the people at Getty wanted Stu to fail. I think some people thought funding ESPN would be a way to take him down a peg or two when it went under.
You really didn’t want to negotiate with Stu. The whole time we were going to do this thing it was for an 80/20 split, and just as we’re about to close the deal, Stu said, “I’ve been thinking about this and I want 85 percent.” He wasn’t asking, he was telling. It wasn’t like there was a rational reason for the change. But we couldn’t say, “Forget it, we’re going somewhere else,” because there was nowhere else. We wouldn’t have had anything.
J. B. DOHERTY:
Stu had the morals of a rattlesnake. There were all these signals about doing the deal without us and I had to remind them that we were prepared to sell the transponder rights to the highest bidder and that we weren’t going to roll over. Stu and Getty were so busy taking steps to basically screw the minority shareholders that we actually put up a $50,000 retainer with Skadden, Arps just to send a signal to Getty that we weren’t going to sit around passively and let him completely ignore our interests. Stu was a guy without a moral compass.
In May 1979, Anheuser-Busch signed the largest advertising contract in cable history with ESP for $1,380,000. Bill and Scott Rasmussen celebrated the contract by drinking a Budweiser; a few six-packs would have supplied their staff. Rasmussen knew the network needed more sponsors and recognition. Ever mulling, he came to the conclusion that a four-letter acronym would help distinguish ESP from the Big Three three-letter networks and give ESP more promotional potential. So on July 13, 1979, he added the word “network” to the name and an “N” to the monogram, and the ESP Network became ESPN-TV. Rasmussen brought it to printer Guy Wilson, who dropped the “-TV,” which sounded like a local station’s call letters anyway, changed the logo’s type font, and added an elliptical circle around the bold letters “ESPN.”
Stuart Evey, meanwhile, was following his money. While Bill and Scott pushed forward to a planned September launch, Evey decided it was time to supplement the executive ranks. He called his pal Hollywood super-lawyer Ed Hookstratten, known ominously around town as “The Hook,” and put him on the case. Evey informed Rasmussen too, and Good Ol’ Chairman Bill set out in search of a president who would report to him, with Scott holding on to the title of executive vice president. Evey’s plan, after all, sounded reasonable enough…
DICK EBERSOL, Chairman, NBC Sports:
I had been fired by NBC as head of comedy, variety, and specials in January of 1979. [Legendary programmer] Brandon Tartikoff said at the time, “Dick then backpacked in his Porsche.” I can’t remember whether Bill Rasmussen made the first phone call to me himself or whether there was an intermediary, but ultimately I was talking to him. Bill and I had at least two meetings, and he seemed very, very intrigued by the idea of me coming to ESPN. Bill told me that I would be hearing from a guy named Stu Evey; I didn’t know who Stu Evey was at the time.
Dick Ebersol was Bill Rasmussen’s idea. He gave me his name as a possibility for president because of his Wide World of Sports experience under Roone Arledge. But I never spoke to Dick Ebersol personally.
Stu invited me to a meeting in late June of 1979, and we met late in the afternoon. I was well-read enough as a kid to understand that these people were to the right of the Reichstag. This was no great middle-of-the-road American institution, this was Getty Oil! I found it so odd that they were really going to fund this wacky idea where you get a satellite and people everywhere could watch Connecticut sports. But you could see it was growing from that; I mean, they had already done this NCAA deal with Walter Byers, which I give Rasmussen a lot of credit for. That doesn’t get remembered. Evey seemed almost overly large; he more than filled the room. He was very clear about letting me know it would be him and not Bill making the decision. He did say, “You’re Bill’s first choice for this role.”
Anyway, Evey seemed intrigued by me but I didn’t hear anything for four or five days, so I called him up late one afternoon and said we should have another conversation. We met at a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in the Valley that was a favorite of his. Except for maybe some college escapade, there was more alcohol poured that night than any other night in my life. I’m not a drinker, but he just kept pouring and pouring. It’s one of only two times in my life I went in the bathroom and put my fingers down my throat to throw up so I could go back and take more of this while this guy went on.
I was very much intrigued by the job.
The major player who had the most to do with our broadcasting end of the business was Ed Hookstratten. Ed had a reputation of being the most powerful man, agent-wise, in broadcasting. He represented the major on-air personalities in the network business. Ed and I crossed paths at many social events. As executive assistant to George Getty, I traveled in a crowd like that, and Ed was a personal friend of mine. Getty hired him on a consulting basis for procuring our on-air talent and all of our other management talent.
ED HOOKSTRATTEN, Attorney:
I saw pictures of him with Arnold Palmer and Bob Hope, and at first I thought, how did this guy meet all these people? But Getty Oil was a big thing. And he was their outside man. We became good friends, but we didn’t socialize together. I had a lot of respect for him and his business ability. He was taking on a lot of responsibility, throwing a lot of the company’s dough at this thing.
The guy Stu was talking to said I was absolutely wrong, too young, and too opinionated for the job. I put A and B together and figured out who was saying these things—Hookstratten—but I couldn’t get him on the phone. He didn’t know me. So I called Dick Martin from Rowan & Martin, who was a personal friend, and told him, “I think there’s a great opportunity for me which would allow me to go home to Connecticut. Can you help me with Hookstratten?”
He called Hookstratten and said I love this kid, been around him for the last three or four years, he’s terrific, blah, blah, blah. So I went and saw Hook, and he, of course, said, “No, I’m not saying anything about you at all.” He wouldn’t own up to it. A day or two passed and I called Bill Rasmussen and I said, “I just don’t see how this can go anywhere, it’s clear to me that Evey has bought whatever Hook has told him.” So I’m exiting stage right from this whole thing. I’m going to guess this might have been the third or fourth week of June.
At that time, Dick Ebersol and his wife—I forget what her name is, but she was an actress—had recently been married on the beach in bare feet and swimming trunks and they were part of the wild culture at that time. I don’t know quite how to explain it, but I could not see him with that kind of publicity working with and for Getty Oil Company.
Then Don Ohlmeyer, who has been my lifelong friend, told me he wasn’t getting along with Chet Simmons and that Simmons was talking with Evey’s friend Hookstratten.
As the 1970s ended, NBC Sports looked like a successful and prestigious operation to those on the outside. Inside the glass house, though, things were not going smoothly, much to the consternation of the division’s senior executive and sports-TV veteran Chet Simmons. His nemesis, NBC chairman Jane Cahill Pfeiffer, wanted to impose her own “new ways of doing things” even though she had little knowledge about the old ways and what made them work.
Chester “Chet” Simmons was one of a handful of pioneers who could claim credit for inventing sports television in the United States. He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1950 and earned a master’s in communications from Boston University a few years later. In 1957, Simmons joined an outfit called Sports Programs Inc., which would become the standard setter for sports coverage on TV and eventually evolve into ABC Sports. Simmons was instrumental in developing Wide World of Sports, ABC Sports’ flagship broadcast, and he also helped make ABC’s coverage of the Olympic Games a big-time national event. Simmons had been lured to NBC in 1964 and began shooting up its corporate ladder, but now, in 1979, he knew his days at NBC were numbered.
Ed knew very well which people were reaching the end of their careers at the networks or were soon to be let go. That’s how Chet Simmons came to light. Chet at that time was running NBC Sports, and Ed seemed to be aware that there were going to be major changes and that Simmons may be interested. Now he’d been a long time at NBC Sports, with a good reputation.
CHET SIMMONS, President:
I got a call from this big-time guy in California, Ed Hookstratten. We chatted a little bit and he asked, “How would you like to meet with Rasmussen?” I said, “I’ll meet with anybody, I enjoy talking with people who have ideas.” We had a meeting in New York, then Bill asked if I wanted to see the place. I lived in southern Connecticut, and so one Saturday my wife and I took a ride to Bristol. As we drove into the town, she turned to me and said, “Not on your life. Not on your life.”
It was almost like a bombed-out shelter. All the buildings were desolated, the windows were broken. Then all of a sudden in drives a white four-door Cadillac with the initials ESPN1, and out of the car bounces Bill Rasmussen. He is the hardiest soul you’ve ever met. He has got a smile on his face all the time he’s hustling.
We made a date to go to California and meet with Stuart Evey. He was the bagman for the oilman’s son and dealt with his suicide. Stu had a lot of ghosts in his closet; to get rid of all of them would be impossible.
I don’t think NBC knew about any of these meetings, but I don’t think NBC was happy to have old Chester at the network either. I think they figured I’d been around the world a little bit, knew what was going on in the business, wasn’t the most dynamic creative guy to walk on the sands of NBC, but a very dedicated employee. I think honestly if I looked into their heart, if they had one, I’d see that they’d wanted to get rid of me. If I went out on my own, that would have been fine, and if I stayed, they would just work around me.
They had already started ESPN—there were some things and people in place. I thought that would make it more difficult. But when Stu called and made me an offer to run the company, I said, “Okay, I think it’s a pretty fair opportunity.” We talked some dough and I got a lawyer because I wanted to get covered six ways from the moon. The only thing Stu didn’t give me was the one thing I really wanted: one or two points in ESPN that I would sock away and keep.
I went through a series of long negotiations with Chet. He’s kind of a personable fellow, yet he was almost afraid, if you will, to see the future of ESPN. I convinced him nevertheless.
What mattered most to Simmons at this point in his career was the opportunity not merely to be present at the creation of something new but to be completely in charge of it. Evey assured him that Rasmussen wouldn’t stand in Simmons’s way, which made the position even more attractive. Of course, that promise wasn’t shared with Rasmussen.
Simmons was announced as president of ESPN on July 18, 1979, immediately enhancing the network’s reputation.
Very quickly, Simmons brought a trusted friend and colleague with him from NBC: Allan B. “Scotty” Connal, who’d gotten his start where future NBC chairman Grant Tinker got his—in the legendary NBC mail room. Connal was a TV legend himself: in 1968, his pleas not to cut off the final moments of a big Jets–Raiders game (running a few minutes past its allotted air time) went unheeded by engineers who insisted that a scheduled network kiddie flick begin precisely at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.
The long-notorious “Heidi” incident represented an argument that Connal lost at the time but which history would soon declare him indisputably the winner of. Nobody ever pulled a “Heidi” again, Connal having struck a blow on behalf of the importance of sports (and especially football) to network television and to the American ethos.
Together, Simmons and Connal prepared to lay the groundwork for ESPN to get on the air, get taken seriously, and, most important, to survive.
They could have hired a lot of people, but they needed to hire me because of both my management and production background. My first desk was in a small room with two other desks. I didn’t even have an assistant. I was back-to-back with Rasmussen so our chairs hit each other—and his son was at the third one against the wall. You could hear every word everybody was saying. I could’ve left at that moment. I could’ve just said, “Stu, it’s not what you told me, I’m getting out of here.” But I didn’t.
When Chet came on, he didn’t want to speak to me very much, so I didn’t have a lot of direct conversations with him. He dealt with my father mostly, even though I was the executive vice president.
I walked into the back of this building my first day and there was a whole bunch of people sitting at desks doing what is called ESPN, but nobody knew what the hell that meant. Now I could have roared, “Who are all these people?! Where did they come from? What do they do?” But what I did was, I walked in, said a little hello, walked around and shook everybody’s hand, and asked them: “What do you do, young man, what do you do, young lady?” And while I’m doing all this, mentally I’m deciding whether to keep them, let them go, or put them somewhere else.
The big question was, would my personality be able to deal with Evey? I handled Stu as good as I could. I dealt with him the way I did because it was to the advantage of the company—my arm around him as we walked through the streets of New York or sitting at a bar: “You want to talk about ladies?” “Yeah, I’ll talk about ladies.” “You want another drink?” “Sure, I’ll sit here and have another drink with you.” I was doing that just to get the guy to understand what I wanted to do.
Am I a whore? Sure, I’m a whore. Evey had the money and we needed more of it. His number one thing was to deal with members of the board. God knows what he had on them.
CHUCK PAGANO, Executive Vice President of Technology:
Evey reminded me of Ted Knight in Caddyshack, with the freaking plaid sport coat, the ascot, and the hair slicked down.
ANDY BRILLIANT, General Counsel:
Stu had this place out near Palm Desert or Palm Springs, and we used to go out there for meetings a couple of times a year. There was a lot of drinking that went on there, a ton of drinking.
I don’t have any excuses, but circumstances at Getty Oil Company were such that drinking was part of our work. We would meet for lunch upstairs in the private club, and we’d have a couple martinis. And when we’d have our budget meetings, we’d set up a hospitality room with all the booze and everything else. So it was a natural thing to be exposed to. When I was with ESPN, I went to all kinds of those things. Drinking was part of the deal there too.
One of the things that really turned my stomach to bile was when we got over to the business side and I sit down with Rasmussen and their sales manager and they started to talk about how many homes are we selling? And one of them said, “Well, you know, we’ve given a guarantee of one million homes,” and I turned to that guy and I said, “Where?” And he couldn’t show me. I knew that they were lying. Then I’m sitting there with Anheuser-Busch ready to make this big buy, and I have to tell them that we ain’t got a million homes; maybe we can get five hundred thousand, maybe.
Rasmussen trod on waters that were not acceptable, not only to me and my company, but to Chet Simmons. There was nothing operating-wise that he was needed for, and he tended to hype up “our huge bankroll” everywhere he went. My lawyers were very upset about that, and Chet Simmons was very upset that Rasmussen was getting all the publicity but not doing any work.
There were a number of things that Rasmussen had already done, before me, that were really awful, including his plans for the actual launch of the network. He had begun planning a huge extravaganza, going so far as to hire Marty Pasetta to produce it. I mean, Marty did the Oscars and a bunch of really famous and costly openings, and here we were not able to identify any cable customers. I had to go talk to Pasetta and tell him there was no way that was going to happen.
Stu was asking me, “What do you think of this, what do you think of that?” I said, “Let’s grab somebody good to lead our sports coverage.” I thought, we got Chet, a real sports guy running the place, now we need a real broadcaster.
JIM SIMPSON, Announcer:
I was with NBC, doing sports. My wife and I came home from being out somewhere about eleven o’clock at night, and one of my daughters said, “Mr. Hookstratten called and he wants to talk to you. You can call him back anytime because there’s a three-hour difference between the East Coast and the West Coast.” And I called Ed back and he told me about being on a plane going somewhere into California with the people from the Getty Oil Company. They were going to start a twenty-four-hour cable sports network, and was I interested?
And I said yes, but I was really not paying too much attention to him. When he hung up, I told my wife what it was, and she said, “What do you think?” I said, “If ever cable makes something, I’ll consider it, but hell, I’m working for NBC.”
Evey then began a campaign. When I was home, not on the road, every night the phone would ring at 5:30 and the kids would yell, “It’s the Getty man!” He talked to me every night for about three months, I’m not kidding, and sent me all kinds of things from Broadcast Magazine and other magazines about cable, about the possibility of ESPN.
So finally, to be quite frank, all of our kids, we had five, were going to be gone, the last was going off to college. I said to my wife, “We can be like older people and wait for our kids to come home and see us sometime. Or we can do something different.” So I said to Hookstratten, “Let’s look into this.”
I was picked up in Hartford by Bill Rasmussen and driven down to Bristol. When you’ve been at NBC Rockefeller Plaza and you go up to Bristol and see this building still under construction with a parking lot of mud, well, you don’t know what to think. It was not very impressive.
ESPN needed an A-level announcer, and Hook got Simpson a three-year, $1 million deal. Can you imagine, a three-year, $1 million deal in 1979 for cable? I don’t think anybody had come close to making that kind of money.
Evey had no idea what compensation was like in the television industry.
Jim’s a great guy. He and I worked fairly close. I gave him a lifetime contract. He tell you that? I think it eventually got taken away from him—I don’t know how.
It was becoming clearer and clearer to me that I needed help. Scotty Connal had a pretty good-size family that he had to support. He wanted to know if I could get the kind of deal for him that he would need, but also if the challenge would be enough. He had been at NBC forever. What would be the impetus for him to leave? Well, for one, there was the fact that [Don] Ohlmeyer came and got an NBC job title that Scotty very much wanted. The people at NBC were in awe of Ohlmeyer because of his Olympic background. So I felt it was the right time to pounce on Scotty and I did. A lot of hiring Scotty was due to his wife. She had an awful lot to say in the construction of their family, and I finally worked the two of them to the point where this became a very, very appealing job for him. I knew once I got Scotty, I would get a couple of very, very good people to come along with him. And we did. I can’t tell you what I would have done if he hadn’t come.
BRUCE CONNAL, Producer:
My dad started as a page at NBC and was there for thirty-two years. He had done everything there, but the face of NBC Sports was changing. They had brought in a whole new regime for the Olympics under Don Ohlmeyer and Geoff Mason. It was a pretty bold move to leave the stability of an NBC Sports and go with this upstart that nobody heard of, and when people did hear, they said, “It’s impossible. It will never succeed.”
Scotty Connal had a great reputation but he was kind of getting over the hill, and he came on board and brought with him many NBC employees. Bristol, Connecticut, gained the reputation of being the NBC of the North.
I remember my first visit to the board of directors at the Getty Oil Company. I was going to give my first financial report. Well, you know, you gulp a few times in this kind of a scene. So I get up and said, “This is what we’re going to do,” and I pass out some papers, “and this is what it’s going to cost,” and it was $12 or $15 million a year. They sat in silence until one of the guys started to chuckle. I said to myself, “Oh, shit, here we go.”
And then one of the other guys chuckles too, and I said, “Excuse me, why are you laughing?” And they said, “What you have just asked for is the cost of one dry hole. Let’s move on.” So that went well, I got my money. But I’m sure it was a setup to some degree with Evey, because he was great at that.
BILL CREASY, Vice President of Programming:
Chet and I knew each other from the 1950s. He came to New York and went to work for a small company called Sports Programs, Inc., on 42nd Street. I came to New York at the same time and ended up working at a company called Sports Network, a production-oriented outfit. We did a lot of stuff together—Big 10 basketball, Southwest Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference. Chet and I liked and respected each other.
His path took him to ABC and then on to NBC, where he had a top job. My path took me to CBS, where I produced Super Bowls I and II. Super Bowl I came at a time when there was a lot of competitiveness between NBC and CBS—NBC doing the AFL, CBS doing the NFL. Pete Rozelle made a deal that Super Bowl I would be produced by CBS Sports people, and NBC would take the feed and have its own booth with its own people. Each network would have its own pregame show, and we would share the feed out of the winners’ and losers’ locker room.
As the producer of the show, I ran the first production meeting we had in Los Angeles, but there was a lot of tension in the room. Nobody was really talking to each other. Finally, Chet spoke up. “I want everybody in the room to understand that Crease is the boss. What he says goes.” That was a great thing for Chet to do. We then proceeded to make chicken salad out of chicken shit.
Chet and I stayed in touch over the years. I left CBS to become president of a hockey team in California. The owners of that went bust. Then I came back, formed a little company of my own, did some shows for Time-Life films, did a show with Dick Monroe, who was then publisher of Sports Illustrated—we put it on CBS. Chet was at NBC and offered me a job to take over weekend sports, and a show that was quite successful in England called Grandstand where you go off to different sports events. At that time, I was, and continue to be, a serious horse race fan, and I had produced half a dozen Derbys and Preaknesses and Belmonts and did all kinds of stuff.
So I got home one day and on my phone is a message from Jack Dreyfus of the Dreyfus Fund, who was chairman of the New York Racing Association and who for me was a god of horse racing. He said, “Bill, do you think you would find a moment to come out to the racetrack and talk to me about something?” Yes, sir, I’m on my way. He offered me the job to be senior vice president of radio, television marketing, and advertising, reporting directly to the chairman. So I got Chet and his great NBC offer here, and I got Dreyfus with that offer there. My God, what am I going to do? Three days later, I decided to go to work at the racetrack. It was a once-in-a-lifetime offer to work for someone so incredible like Dreyfus in a sport that I just fucking love. It was hard when I said no to Chet, and he was unhappy for a couple years. Then Chet called and wondered if I would be interested in coming up to Connecticut and help him start this cable network, so I went up to Bristol. What a shit hole. I mean, what were they thinking? But I liked challenges, and this was certainly a challenge.
GEORGE GRANDE, Anchor:
I worked in New Haven doing radio and television, then got a job working for the local CBS affiliate WCBS in New York. During the week I ran the sports news feed that went out to all the affiliates every day at five o’clock, and I’d compile the sports news and then little by little I worked my way into doing pre- and postgame interviews with CBS Sports. During my travels, especially at Giants Stadium, I’d run into Scotty Connal from time to time, and I think Scotty saw the way I worked, the way I operated. One of my strengths has always been in situations that are free-flowing, ad-lib, seat-of-the-pants kind of situations, and I think he saw that. When he and Chet left NBC to go to ESPN, Scotty called to ask if I’d be interested in doing the opening weekend. They were worried they weren’t going to be able to get Jim Simpson out of NBC in time. I went to my people at CBS and said, “Do you mind if I do this?”—because I had a contract with them—and they said, “Hell no, no problem.” They had no idea what this thing was.
BOB LEY, Anchor:
I went to Seton Hall and was on WOR radio. Then TV3 started suburban cablevision over in East Orange, New Jersey, just a couple of miles from where I went to school, and they needed somebody to do high school sports. So I started doing per diem work there and eventually they took me on for a full year, and I was a sports director. This is a time when there was no local cable in North Jersey, no local programming, so we were giving them stuff they’d never had before. We were even giving them election returns. I was producing all that and anchoring a lot of games. After about three years of doing that, I got a tip about an article in April of ’79, Sports Illustrated, about a network that was about to start. So I sent a tape up to Connecticut and got a letter back on this blue bizarre logo stationery—I must have one of the few copies that’s still in existence of the old logo, the ESP Network. It was from Lou Palmer, an anchor, who was a fellow Seton Hall alum, writing back.
So I’m asleep in my apartment, it’s a Monday morning, probably had been out late the night before, and there’s a phone call in the kitchen. Could you come up to Connecticut for an interview? I’m not thoroughly awake, but I say, “Yes, I’ll be up there this Friday. I’m sorry, your name again?” And the guy says, “Scotty Connal.” Well, my jaw dropped. I knew of Scotty. I said, “My God, you’re a legend. I’ll see you Friday.”
A couple hours later the phone rings, and New Jersey Public Television wants me to come in for a job there. I interviewed with ESPN on Friday of that week, and Scotty basically offered me a job as he was walking me to the door. The next day, I had an interview with New York Public Television in Newark, and they offered me the job as their number two sports guy, where I would anchor on weekends out of New York and Philly, then report three days a week.
I was twenty-four. I had two job offers on consecutive days. And I had a day to make up my mind in eighteen hours. The fact that Scotty was there was a big deal for me. The biggest.
I went back a couple weeks later to find a place to live, and Scotty introduced me to Chet. Chet sat me down in the office, told me, “We’re hiring you for what you know. We’re hiring you for your opinions.” I was sitting there thinking, “I’m talking to this guy who was the head of NBC Sports, who was the boss of Curt Gowdy. What the hell do I know? What opinions do I have that they care about?”
LEE LEONARD, Anchor:
Right before ESPN I was at NBC Sports for four years doing a show called Grandstand with Bryant Gumbel. It was a typical Sunday wraparound show between sporting events. Basically, during football season it was like the NFL Today, which I had done for a year at CBS, then I worked with Chet and Scotty at NBC. But I didn’t give up NBC Sports, NBC Sports gave me up. One day there was this big guy roaming around our studio, and I said, “Throw this fucking guy out. He bothers me.” His name was Don Ohlmeyer. He was my new boss. So when my agent said, “Do you want to go up and talk to these people?” I said, “Sure.”
They hired a bunch of guys like Jim Simpson, a real professional play-by-play guy, and they had some young guys who wanted to do play-by-play, I guess, but nobody wanted to be in the studio. Chet said to me, “You know how to do a studio show. We want you to anchor our studio show.” So I did.
There was no running water in the building, and you had to go out to a port-o-san in the parking lot. Technically they didn’t really know what they were doing; they had rented a truck which acted as a control room, and there was no way they were ready to go on the air.
CHRIS BERMAN, Anchor:
John Wilkes Booth was born on my birthday and so were a couple of other assassins. I was bummed when I heard that. Willie Mays and Joe Namath were heroes, but so was Lincoln.
I knew what I wanted to do when I was fourteen. Although I played varsity basketball and varsity soccer, I didn’t play football. Big boy but didn’t play football. I was tall and skinny. Varsity bowling. I played some soccer, which was barbaric in the early seventies. Played basketball. We had a little radio station and I announced the football games to two hundred people on Friday afternoons. I was loud, probably too loud. We didn’t really need a transmitter.
Then I went to Brown. I majored in history because I knew that’s what I wanted to learn. That didn’t change the fact that I knew what I wanted to do. I was the voice of the Bruins at Brown and am very proud of that.
Summer of my junior year, I somehow had an interview with NBC Sports number-two man Scotty Connal. Don’t ask me how, but somebody knew somebody. Oh, my God, it was the most nerve-racking interview I ever did. He liked me, said, “We’re starting this new job called Grandstand Coordinator,” which was their traveling football show. Each of the cities they were going to go to needed a college kid, and “We got a kid for Buffalo seven games. You can be our Patriot-game guy. We’ll pay you fifty bucks cash.” I would have done it for nothing. At any rate, whenever NBC Sports came to New England, I was their runner.
Senior year, I sent out about fifty or sixty résumés. I had a few interviews, then got hired in Westerly, Rhode Island. It was a little radio station. I didn’t do sports, did everything else. But in the summer of ’79, I got a weekend sports job at the NBC affiliate, Channel 30, in Hartford. It was just on the side, like Saturday and Sunday nights. I got $23 a show. I was only there about a month and then I heard about this new thing going on. It wasn’t on the air yet.
From day one, Bill Rasmussen wanted to be on the air September 7, 1979, at exactly 7:00 p.m. So that’s what we were working on, but probably a month or just three weeks before we were scheduled to go on the air, Stu calls me from L.A. and says he just got a call from Chet, who said, “There’s no way you guys are going to get this thing on the air for September 7.” I said, “Stu, Bill and I are very comfortable that we’re going to go on the air when Bill projected. We’ll make it.” So I think Stu called Chet and told him it was a go and Chet wasn’t too happy about it.
I couldn’t tell you how we came up with it other than in those days new television series debuted in the fall. It was a Friday night. It seemed like for a sports network, the weekend was a good time to start. I think, to be honest, we just had to pick a date and get started.
MARC PAYTON, Director:
I actually started at ESPN two weeks before they signed on the air. As far as I know—I’m not positive about this, but I’m pretty sure the event I directed was the first event that ESPN ever taped. I taped the American Legion World Series in Greenville, Mississippi, in August of 1979, two weeks before they signed on the air.
So we taped it—we had a mobile unit rolling there. I think I had four cameras, only one of my four camera men had ever shot baseball before, the remote truck was an old converted school bus, and we rolled in there and no one’s ever heard of ESPN because obviously we weren’t on the air yet. And we recorded the event on two-inch tape, and then the tapes were shipped back to Bristol, and then after the network signed on the air two weeks later, it was among the first programming that they aired.
It was really primitive. In fact, our home-plate camera position—which you know from shooting baseball is usually up high at home there, usually behind home plate up in the press box—well, this field didn’t really have a press-box position. The home-plate camera was shooting behind the screen at field level. That was our play-by-play camera—shooting through the screen.
BILL SHANAHAN, Vice President of Program Management:
At that time ESPN was based on the unfinished second floor of a local cable company’s business office, which is where I went for my interview. It was just a madhouse over there, every day. Folding tables, folding chairs, unfinished floor, and unfinished ceiling—you could actually see the insulation between the rafters. I joined ESPN about a week before we went on the air. There were twelve of us who were hired to be part of SportsCenter and work for Chet and Scotty: six producer-directors, six associate producers, of which I was one.
One day over lunch, the question came up, have any of you seen the studio? No! Four days to air and we hadn’t even seen the facility that we were going to be working in. So we drove over to Bristol, and it was a construction site in every sense of the word—guys in hard hats, plastic tarps hanging where there were supposed to be doors, mud parking lot, Porta-Potties, delivery trucks. It was busy as hell because they had to make a deadline too. We wandered around for a while and someone came up to us and asked, “What are you guys doing here?” We said, “We’re supposed to be doing shows out of here in about four days; we thought it might be nice to take a look at the facility.” It didn’t matter to them. They told us, “You really shouldn’t be here,” so we didn’t get back in there until launch day.
I still have the footprint of my father kicking me in the ass when I told him I was leaving a Tiffany network affiliate to come to Bristol. “You want to go where? Are you out of your fucking mind?” But I liked the idea of uncharted waters.
We had September 7 on our dashboard as the launch date, so we didn’t have time to smooth out any wrinkles. We were working eighteen-hour days, usually seven days a week. Conditions were rough. One day, Fred Muzzy and Ralph Eno, a guy who had joined us from Channel 3, had come back from a late lunch. I remember Muzzy had this brown Mustang that they pulled into the lot, but when they did, the ground underneath became weak because it had rained so much. So Muzzy’s parking where he thought he had left his car before, but as soon as Ralph stepped out of the car, all of a sudden the damn sinkhole in front of the car erupted and the freaking Mustang went into the mud pit. Ralph went into the sinkhole trying to get Fred out, which they did eventually. It was comical as hell. Fred had mud up to his chest. It looked like he was wearing brown fishing bootleggers.
BILL LAMB, Vice President of Engineering:
I got a call on Friday the 7th, which was the first day that ESPN was on the air, asking me, “Do you know anything about production switchers?” I said, “Yeah, I spent the last ten years behind production switchers.” He said, “You’re kidding me. I need you to come up tomorrow morning as soon as you can get here and relieve a guy named Chuck Pagano, who’ll be switching all night long since about six o’clock.” I said, “What time do I need to be there?” He said, “Well, how about 6:00 a.m.?”
Scotty was a somewhat emotional guy; we were very close, but we fought like God-knows-what over the simple fact of who should announce what the first night. We came to an agreement, because we always came to an agreement. It was sheer bloody exhaustion.
That twelve-and-a-half-month experience of going from the idea on August 16 to on air September 7 was incredible. There were days, lots of ’em, when my father was convinced it was going to die. There were days when I believed it was going to die. But there was never a single day when we both believed it at the same time.
Right before the first show, Scott and I went out for a walk. Of course, there was no grass, it was just a construction site. I’m guessing it was after six o’clock, within an hour of going on the air, and it came to a point where we stopped and said to each other, “Can you believe what we’ve done and what’s going to happen here in the next hour?” This was going to go all over the United States. It was just an amazing feeling. We stood there for a few minutes and hugged each other.
As we got closer to air, Stu wanted to get a picture of everybody and got my father and Chet and looked over and called for Scotty to get in the picture. I knew he meant Scotty Connal, who was right behind me, but I jumped in anyhow. I don’t think he liked that, but we got a nice picture out of it.
The night we went on the air, they were running the last cable from the control room down a hallway to the studio where we were going to do our first SportsCenter show. That was our connection up to SATCOM 1, and I plugged it in I think maybe five minutes before airtime. We cut it pretty close.
Just before we went on the air, we didn’t have any of the live shots available at that point, and I asked the Creaser how we were doing. He says, “Well, strap yourself in! Get ready. We’re gonna rock-and-roll!” I looked at him and he looked at me, and his eyes kind of rolled; he knew what we were in for. But as long as I live, I will never forget the sight of sitting on that set and looking into the control room where Chet and Scotty were, and it was like being in a maternity ward watching the parents watching the birth of a baby.
In 1979, television was still living through the “three-network era,” with ABC comedies Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy topping the ratings. When ESPN officially went on the air on September 7, ABC was airing Fantasy Island; NBC had Diff’rent Strokes followed by The Facts of Life; and the CBS prime-time lineup consisted of The Incredible Hulk, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Dallas.
At 7:00 p.m., a small band of bickering pioneers, along with a determined supporting cast, managed to beam a signal from its ten-meter earth station in Bristol up to RCA’s SATCOM 1. There were 1.4 million homes available to witness the first image of the evening: a barren set and the face of Lee Leonard, who welcomed viewers to the new network by promising, “If you love sports… if you REALLY love sports, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to sports heaven.” Of the opening night’s offerings, only SportsCenter was truly auspicious, and even it looked a little tacky at first blush. Leonard introduced it by promising to bring viewers “the pulse of sporting activity,” whether through interviews, play-by-play, or commentary—or, when in doubt, highlights, highlights, and more highlights. Then he turned to an area only a few feet away in the makeshift studio—ESPN’s one and only studio at the time—and handed the reins to SportsCenter’s first anchor, George Grande.
Grande, done up in a yellow jacket and yellow shirt (a style that did not catch on except among bees), peered through the glass separating the studio from the control room and saw Chet Simmons, Scotty Connal, Stuart Evey, and Bill Rasmussen peering right back. The first result he announced was Chris Evert’s victory over Billie Jean King in that day’s semifinals of U.S. Open action. The show lasted a half hour and consisted mainly of videotaped highlights culled from the established broadcast networks.
Also joining the ESPN lineup that night were wrestling, college soccer, and a World Series game; no, not that World Series, but a critical matchup being played to determine—hang on to your hats now—the slow-pitch softball championship of the world. Lee Leonard refreshed the audience’s memory about softball: “We all play it on Sunday when we drink a little beer.” Speaking of which: the two teams competing were the Kentucky Bourbons and the Milwaukee Schlitz. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Schlitz but Budweiser with whom ESPN had signed its first monster sponsorship deal.
On the very first night of programming, ESPN had managed to tick off their only sponsor.
In addition to the softball game, viewers saw an interview, live from Denver, with University of Colorado football coach Chuck Fairbanks. There was one little glitch: no audio from Denver. The whole interview aired in silence.
An estimated 30,000 viewers saw that first night of programming. Not coincidentally, perhaps, one of the year’s big disco hits was Gloria Gaynor’s anthem of assertiveness, “I Will Survive.”
I produced the first show and it was a technical nightmare. Everything was fucked up. It was dark in the truck and you couldn’t see what you were doing. We carried a god-awful night game of slow-pitch softball from Milwaukee, at eight o’clock which was then seven o’clock out there. The lighting was just abysmal. You could hardly see the goddamn game. Then we went to interview Fairbanks, who was then the football coach at the University of Colorado.
“Now we take you live to Colorado,” and all I could see to my everlasting disgust was Simpson’s mouth going and nothing coming out of it. I turned to the guys in the control room and said, “What have we got?” And they said, “We got nothing.” I said, “Good, let him stand there. Maybe some people who can read lips will have a good time with this sucker.” And we sat there for whatever the interview was, eight minutes, seven minutes.
My heart sank.
We had trouble getting feeds in, and we were supposed to have three live shots but didn’t end up with any of them.
I ended up being a floor manager with my headset, and all you heard were these people screaming at each other, swearing at each other, and it went on and on. So Lee Leonard is sitting there patiently waiting and says, “May I ask what the delay is?” So all I had to do was lift up one of the headphones from my headset and he could hear this string of invectives come out. And he says, “Ah! I understand.”
BOB PRONOVOST, Director:
I was walking down the hallway to go into the truck for SportsCenter and Creasy’s coming down the same hallway on the other side. As he passes me, he goes, “Don’t worry, young man. It can’t be any worse than that. You got no place to go but up from there.”
When we got on the air, there was even a bulldozer still going in the parking lot. People in back of me were saying, “Oh, he’s getting awful close!” And I’m hearing this while we’re on the air. The bulldozer was making so much noise that it became difficult for me to hear what George and Lee were saying, and I needed to hear them to change the graphics. It got to the point where I couldn’t hear anything, so I had to guess what they were saying by reading their lips.
Then the bulldozer actually tapped the remote truck and shifted it a bit on its side. It knocked some of those phones off, which created a little more anxiety, because when you knock them off that means you’re calling someone and that means somebody’s calling you back. So now the phones are ringing in addition to the bulldozer roaring. It was pretty wild.
Lee Leonard had an IFB which was loose, and it pulled out of his ear at the last second, but I figured I didn’t have time to worry about any of those types of things. When I walked out into the hallway, Scotty was there and I wanted some approval about all I had just done, and he looked at me and said, “If I ever see an IFB hanging out of a talent’s ear again, that’s the last day you’ll ever work here.” It kind of ruined the whole thing for me, but what I learned that day was that Scotty was right. He didn’t want the audience seeing something sloppy, and all the audience ever sees is what they see on television. They don’t care about our problems behind the scenes.
We had the Milwaukee Schlitz playing in the very first event on with all the Anheuser-Busch people standing in the room, and we joked about that with them. We told them not to worry, nobody was watching anyhow.
My father called afterward and he said, “What have I done? What in the world am I doing here?” He was really questioning the move he made.
When we were finished with the first night, which went from seven to midnight, everybody gave a big cheer, and there was some champagne. I rapped on a glass and got everybody’s attention, and I said, “I just want to thank you for your efforts tonight; I know you’re exhausted, and you’ve gone through the first night, but I want to tell you something: you’ve got to do this sucker every night, seven nights a week.” And then Rasmussen makes the announcement—without checking with me—that we’re going to go twenty-four hours a day within the next couple of weeks. I could have strangled him right there on the stage. That was the way he operated. It was still his business as far as he was concerned. We were as ready to go seven full days a week as I was ready to become the king of France.
Two days after we went on the air, Stu told me point blank, “You don’t have anything to do with ESPN, Chet’s in charge, he reports to me, and stay out of the way.” He wasn’t firing me, he just told me to get out of the way. I had become a real burr under his saddle. The media kept calling me and not him. I was a little guy and this was a big idea. In one instance, one of the big magazines had called when Scott, Chet, and I were crammed into this tiny office and the secretary said there was a reporter on the line. Chet said, “I’ll take the call,” and the reporter said they wanted to talk to me instead. Well, that didn’t go over very well with Chet. Another time, there was an article in Sports Illustrated and it didn’t mention Stu’s name, and he let me know he was really upset.
One of the first nights of SportsCenter, there was a car that hit a pole across the street right in front of the building. It knocked all the power out; we couldn’t go on the air. A guy had actually died in the accident, and they left him in the car longer than they should’ve because he was right on the line between Bristol and Plainville. There was a jurisdictional thing between the police departments and it took much longer than it should’ve, so we stayed off the air for quite a bit of time.
Outside what was then the main entrance, there were construction trailers—the standard kind of blue metal mobile trailers that you see at construction sites—and ESPN was using two of them: one as our tape library (it had no shelves on it; you just put the tapes on the floor) and the other was the quote-unquote executive office. If you’ve been around those trailers, you know that you need to reach up and open the door and step up the high steps to get into the trailer. When they were paving the parking lot, the crew that was responsible for that came in and graded the whole area that was going to be paved, but left these two trailers up on this, like, four-foot dirt bluff, so the only way to get into the trailers afterward was to stand on a five-foot ladder.
The other trailer, the tape library, had no real archive system. We were just building it every night as we did events. We didn’t do that much live because our contracts said so much of our programming came in on tape. Like all the NCAA football games couldn’t air until after midnight on Saturday, and they’d be delivered via courier, big one-inch or two-inch tapes, and they’d be stored in this trailer up in the bluffs. When it rained the trailer was deemed unsafe, so we weren’t allowed to go in and get the program reels. We would think, “Okay, what are we gonna do—the tape is in there and it needs to be on the air in a couple of hours.”
But maybe best of all was the fact that we didn’t have indoor plumbing for at least a month, so if you had to go, you had to go outside and find one of the construction company’s porta-potties. Now, during the day that’s one thing, but at night, when it’s raining, and you’re out in the mud with a flashlight, that’s something else. The few women we had working there at the time really were like, “Oh my God!” I think Pagano will probably tell you that he and a few others found another suitable—hmmm—“outdoor site.” Oh, man!
There weren’t many doors, because things were still under construction. Flies would come in. It was awful. They were all over the place. I remember being in the newsroom one afternoon. It was noisy. In the hallway, we had these old wire machines—AP and UPI—and they’re clacking away. There’s no furniture outside of the folding tables, so the wire copy is piling up on the floor, and they’re clacking away at these typewriters and finally Lee Leonard says, “Okay—listen up, everybody—fly break!” And everybody knew what it meant: you’d grab the nearest newspaper and roll it up like a bat and everybody would walk around—bam, bam, bam, bam—killing the flies on the wall. And then after a little bit, everybody would go back to work.
At the end of the first weekend Scotty said, “When are you going into work?” I said, “Tomorrow,” and he said, “Can you come in and see me before that?” So I went in on Monday morning and he said, “Would you come and join us, be our senior announcer and put together an announcing crew?” I went home and talked to my wife, Joanne. I loved CBS, I loved the people I was working with, and I was right on the precipice of moving to a position where I would start to get some pretty good assignments. But this was something that, whether it lasted three months or three years, it was too good an opportunity to pass up—because of what it possibly could be, and because of Chet and Scotty, who were the best in the business. So after talking with Joanne, I agreed to do it.
When I went to cover the baseball postseason that year, I called for credentials, and Larry Shank said, “Sure, no problem, CBS, right?” And I said, “No, no, I left CBS. I’m at ESPN now,” and he said, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s a cable operation, we’re just starting up and we’re going to be covering all sports.” He said, “Look, I’ll give you credentials this time, but you’ve got to come up with something more definitive next time.”
I watched the first show on a black and white TV the size of a tape recorder. If you’ve ever seen a tape or disk of it, think of a toilet in a Holiday Inn that’s been sanitized for your protection, because all of the gaffes and all of the inevitable technical challenges have been edited out. I was sitting there and watching this thing and thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I’m committed. I’m going up there.” The next day, I went out to my car, which was packed full of all my crap that I wasn’t shipping, and drove on up.
Once I was working up there, I found out they didn’t have teleprompters, nobody had computers, and they only had old wire machines. I was soon wondering if I could get my old job back. I thought, “Holy crap, are all the days going to be like this?” I began to fall into this manic pattern of just trying to survive. And oh, by the way, we had no idea who, if anyone, was watching. But I was working probably 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., and they mandated that on every show, somebody had to be wearing a garish red sport coat because Getty wanted their color out there. And those things were made of pure polyester. Put them near a flame and you’d die.
In my interview with Scotty and Lou Palmer, I said, “Look, I’m just starting in TV, but this thing is just starting too. I’ll tell you what, rather than me send you a little clip reel so you can see the best five minutes I ever did, why don’t you turn on Saturday and Sunday night? You live here. Watch it for two weeks and see if you like it. If I fuck up, I fuck up. Just tell me what you think.” And Scotty Connal called me about a week or two later, late September, and offered me a job.
One thing you did get as a perk if you were a vice president of Getty, because they didn’t have many, you did get a new Cadillac of choice or whatever for two years—every two years. Bill and Scott Rasmussen should not have gone out and gotten matching Cadillacs with the stupid license plates. They shouldn’t have done it. They’re in a start-up! And so here the chairman of the board of Getty had a worse car than the goddamn guy that didn’t have any money that we bailed out, you know.
You’ve got to remember we had the cars before we knew Getty, before we even met Stu. My dad and I each had white Cadillacs. We were promotion minded and that’s why we had the license plates we had—my dad’s was ESPN and mine was ESPN1. I’ve still got mine somewhere. Stu really was unhappy about that.
Chet was doing anything he could to piss them off so maybe they’d run away. He had nothing to do with them. He didn’t want them out in front taking credit for everything Chet was doing. I actually think this is beyond the personal, they were in the middle doing deals that were incredibly detrimental to the future of the company. Scott Rasmussen was his father’s number one guy, I guess, but Scott at that time did not really have any experience with a network, if you will, or a business of that complexity. The only thing I know is that there was no place for him in the formation of our staff and management when we took over. Chet wanted nothing to do with them.
All the Rasmussens I could lay my hands on, I fired. I made Stu a part of all that because these are the original guys that he had dealt with. Why take up space with somebody who was there just because they had been there at the beginning, and was the son of the founder? Why should he have the job when he was not really capable of doing it? I wanted experienced people in those roles. So I just brought my case to Evey and said, “Look, I’m going to do this thing and another.” I felt that it was necessary for him to have a say in what I did with them. He never disagreed.
They just wanted Scott out of there. Chet said to me one day, “If he was my kid, he wouldn’t be driving a Cadillac, he’d be driving a Toyota stick shift.” I wanted Scott around, but I couldn’t do anything about that.
As I think back, I have a different interpretation of Stu’s role now than I did then. As I think back on the meeting I probably wasn’t as jaded as I’d like to think. But Stu began the conversation by saying, you know, I can’t think of what wording he used, but there were some problems between us and he wanted me to know that he always thought highly of me and really wanted me to be a part of the Getty family, and he spent a little bit of time talking about the enormous benefits that someone like me could have staying with Getty Oil forever.
I kind of knew what was coming. In fact, my father was mostly concerned that I not be too hotheaded, that I listen carefully to Stu, and not say anything I’d regret. He offered me the same amount of money to leave as I would get if I stayed, plus I got to keep the car. If I stayed, I gave up the car and got whatever that role was. After he went through and described it all, I played it back to him as best I could understand just to make sure I had understood what he said. Then, thinking about what my father warned me about, I calmly said, “I’ll give you a call and let you know what I decide.” I walked down the hall, went to George Conner’s office, and called my father and said, “I’m out of here.” My father was stunned because he said, “Stu just called and said you had a nice talk and he thought you were going to stay.” I described what happened and that was a little strange, and so then we went back and had a lawyer write a letter to Stu saying neither option was acceptable and that they needed to negotiate something for me and a new contract for my father to stay.
Stu then called my father and said that he better disassociate himself from the lawyers and that I was already fired. Actually, he suspended me from pay while we worked things out, but I knew things were ending. I went from Stu’s office to the beach in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and hung out there while my lawyers argued with Stu over how much money I was going to get paid. I really enjoyed that stretch because I was suspended but with pay, so I just kept getting a paycheck every couple of weeks and stayed at the beach. It turned out to be a couple months.
I’m much more of a dreamer and an entrepreneur. I like to get it started and move on. The notion of staying with Getty or with ESPN for an entire career would have never in a million years entered my mind. Would there have been better ways to have made the transition or the exit? Probably.
I believe that I am the single biggest beneficiary of the ESPN experience of anybody out there, period. Not financially, but I was a twenty-two-year-old college dropout who learned a lot of hard lessons, who got to walk up to the treasurer of Getty Oil and say, “The Olympic Committee says we need three quarters of a million dollars in deposit if we’re going to put in a bid,” and he said, “Okay.” That’s an absurd experience to go through! So I don’t look at it as a negative. My payout came in an entirely different manner.
Berman came in October and replaced a guy who was filling in temporarily. The 2:30 a.m. show was supposed to be a sports recap after the last event. We’d come on and it was just meant to be five or ten minutes wrapping up late scores. Well, as time went on and Chris began to realize something, I remember him asking me one night, “So, we don’t really have to be off at any certain time?” And I said, “No, I don’t think so.” He says, “Oh, okay.” So these short updates started getting longer and longer. He was solo, talking for twenty or thirty minutes straight, and he became very entertaining. It finally got to the point where the master control operator was saying, “Can you just pull a commercial break together for us?”
On another night, after the eleven o’clock crew went home, the only production people who were left were just Chris and me. I got a call from the master control operator who says, “Uhh, yeah, I don’t know how to tell you this but—the [taped] football game? We started with the second half.” So I told Chris, “We gotta go down and just sit on the set, just quickly explain to the folks what happened, and we’ll get them back to the first half of the game.” So Chris comes out on the set, I go into the control room, and I yelled out at the engineers, “Okay, take us.” We came up on Berman—and I still remember his line. He looks into the camera and says, “No, you didn’t pull a Rip van Winkle; you didn’t miss anything. It was our fault.” Then he said we were going to go back to the first reel of the game.
At the end of the late SportsCenter, one of my responsibilities was to make sure I had an ice chest with beer in it. After the conclusion of the show, I’d open up the trunk of my car and we’d have beer and just look at the stars and bullshit. Well, one night we all had a little buzz, probably not quite a six-pack each, and I had to go somewhere to take a whiz and decided to go for a tree but I couldn’t see my way back because it was freakin’ foggy, and I couldn’t find the path back. So I asked Chris to yell so I could figure out where everyone was, and Chris yells, “Chuckles, over here!” They called me Chuckles, it was like in Animal House when they gave those guys the freakin’ names like Otter. So when I got back, I said to him, “Your voice is so freakin’ boomy, your name from now on is Boomer.”
Boomer was loud but he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about at first. He was just a young kid in the candy store.
We had a lot of time to fill, and we were sometimes desperate. After we were on the air for maybe two months, Bobby Knight had a run-in with a Puerto Rican policeman at the Pan Am building, so that was a gift that kept on giving. We talked about that for hours.
OREL HERSHISER, Baseball Broadcaster:
I was in the minors when ESPN was born; that’s when I came across it. I would come home from a game and couldn’t gear down. It was unbelievable that there was sports on at two in the morning, so I’d get a pizza and watch bowling or billiards or any of the minor products they would just grab to fill time. It was awesome. I thought, this is the greatest thing ever.
I knew with Getty money we could solve most problems, but one of my fears was the satellite, because we couldn’t control that. We’d been on the air for maybe three weeks and I got a phone call. “We gotta take you off the bird”—which was the satellite. And I said what? The guy said, “We have attitudinal problems with F2, which is SATCOM 2, the military satellite, and it’s unstable. You guys have a transponder and we’re going to need it for military traffic during the daytime. You guys aren’t on twenty-four hours a day, so it won’t be a problem. We just hope we get it stabilized. I’ll keep you informed.” My heart almost stopped that night because my worry was the Russians might shoot the satellite down or it would just stop working. I didn’t feel we could get in a vehicle in Bristol, Connecticut, and drive up 22,000 miles above the equator and take out tool kits to fix it. He called me a couple days later and said F2 was still unstable. I was really alarmed. But then he finally called the next day and said, “George, we have F2 stable. You guys are good to go.”
We were working eighteen freaking hours a day and they were serving us this crap from a place called Dexter, which was right up the street. You can only eat so many grinders and soup after a while, so I think it was early December and we went to Kentucky Fried Chicken to get some freakin’ chicken. Just as we sat down on our ass in the hallway, everything went to snow on the video. You couldn’t see anything. Bill and I were sitting there eating our chicken and we both looked at each other and said, “Fuck it, we’re gonna stay here ’cause we put enough time in here and all we want to do is enjoy one goddamn meal.”
DICK VITALE, Analyst:
I got fired by the Detroit Pistons back in—actually, I remember the date: November 8, 1979, and I didn’t know where I was going to go with my career. Then all of a sudden the phone rang about two weeks later, and a fella by the name of Scotty Connal said, “Hey, Dick. I was the producer of the last game you coached when you played number one in the country, Michigan, in a tough game in the Sweet Sixteen. I heard you speak to your team before the game at a practice and I wrote your name down. I wanted to get you involved in television if you were ever available. I just saw you were let go by the Pistons and I’m in charge of a new network and our very first national game is going to be DePaul and Wisconsin on national television, and I’d like you to do the game.” I said to him, “I’m not interested. No desire. I know nothing about TV. I want to get back to coaching on the college level.” But he called me again a week later and said, “Come on out and try it.” My wife says, “Go do it.” So I said to Scotty, “Well, who do you represent?” He says, “I’m with a new network called ESPN,” and I swear I said something to the effect like, “That sounds like a disease. What is ESPN?” I’d never heard of it.
I actually did the very first game that was a national-caliber basketball game, DePaul and Wisconsin, the first week of December of ’79. I went into it with no idea of what I was getting into. I mean, I came out of a locker room, I knew nothing about television, and somebody just gave me a microphone.
Scotty told me after the first game, “Look Dick. You’ve got three things we can’t teach: your enthusiasm, your knowledge, and you’re not afraid to be candid. But you have no clue about the world of television, how to get in, how to get out, how to be concise.” He said, “I’m going to assign you a giant, an absolute giant.” I was a sports fanatic, so I obviously knew about Jim Simpson over the years, Orange Bowls and tennis and all that, so I was honored. Jim said, “You listen to me. I will try to help you because Scotty tells me you got great potential.” In our first game together I was talking so much that he told the producer, “Cut his mic off. I’ve got to teach this guy a lesson.”
It was shortly after the very first show and it was the first football game we were going to do. I think it was Oregon and Oregon State. I remember we had this beautiful picture and no sound, and they said to me, “Well, Lee, you have to do the play-by-play.” And I said, “Well, who’s wearing the black shirts and who’s wearing the white shirts?” I had no idea which team was which. There was another time when they had no sound or picture and I was trying to explain why and I remembered this article I had read about satellite transmission, that it was really just a big mirror in the sky and you shot something up there at an angle and shoot it back and catch it. So I tried to explain to the audience how that worked. I don’t know if anybody quite got it.
One of the first games I did on ESPN was a Nebraska–Iowa football game, and Tom Osborne, the Nebraska coach, came to me and said, “When will this be on the air?”—because he knew it was taped. And I said, “Why do you want to know? Do you want to see your own team?” He said, “Hell, no, I want to tell all of our possible recruits to watch us play.”
I think being in Bristol, Connecticut, was a blessing because we weren’t in a major-media capital, we weren’t surrounded by industry “wisdom”—“Oh, you have to do it this way” or “You can’t do it that way.” We were just a bunch of younger guys making it up as we went.
Chet asked me to give kind of a motivational speech at the first Christmas party, in ’79. At that time I think ESPN had maybe sixty employees and most of them—except for those putting tape on the air—gathered at the local Holiday Inn. My little speech was, “This is the beginning. You’re in on the ground floor and those of you who stick it out are going to be glad you did.” I believed it. I told them, “I know there’s a lot of newspaper people, radio people, and media people who are saying this thing isn’t going to work. They’re wondering, “Who is going to watch sports twenty-four hours a day? Who is ever going to watch this thing?” I told them, “Nobody in their right mind. But if they want sports, they’ll know where they can get it.”
Excerpted from Those Guys Have All the Fun by Miller, James Andrew Copyright © 2011 by Miller, James Andrew. Excerpted by permission.
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