You have to go all the way back, back, back to 7 p.m. on Sept. 7, 1979, to pinpoint the exact moment when being a sports junkie became a full-time job. It was then that sportscaster Lee Leonard introduced a show called SportsCenter on a new cable station called the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network — ESPN — with the following words: ”If you’re a fan, what you will see in the next minutes, hours, and days to follow may convince you you’ve gone to sports heaven.” And he was right, if your idea of heaven was a slo-pitch softball contest between the Milwaukee Schlitzes and the Kentucky Bourbons — ESPN’s first televised event.
But having sports — any sports — on air 24 hours a day, every day of the week, was close enough to heaven for most, and certainly for ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen, a former Hartford Whalers PR man who originally just wanted to find a way to get the team’s hockey games on local TV. With the help of a $10 million infusion from Getty Oil, Rasmussen set up shop for his national cable network in way-out-of-the-way Bristol, Conn. Start-up conditions were less than ideal. ”There wasn’t a lot there,” remembers anchor Chris Berman, who joined the company a month after its launch. ”We didn’t even have running water the first couple of weeks.” And while the on-air pickings were slim at first (did we mention the slo-pitch softball?), the network quickly inked deals to televise such events as the early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament and the NFL draft.
And now the station that started out airing go-cart races and dart competitions to a measly 1.4 million subscribers has, 21 years later, become an ABC- (and thereby, Disney-) owned six-cable-channel/radio-network/magazine/website/ restaurant-chain behemoth that reaches more than 79 million viewers while inspiring a slew of copycat programming that has transformed cable into a remote-control fix for sports addicts on all seven continents. Most impressively, ESPN has changed not only the way games are viewed but the way they are played as well. (There’s a reason every young basketball player wants to dunk: Ever see a layup on SportsCenter?)
But Berman still looks back with fondness. ”In 1979, nobody had cable, and if you didn’t get it, you didn’t know how to get it,” he says. ”But I always thought … that there were a lot of people like me out there that would be thankful for our service. Would they watch sports 24 hours a day? No. But would they watch sports at times when they didn’t normally watch because it wasn’t available? Yes.”
No wonder they call him the Swami.
Time Capsule: Sept. 7, 1979
At the movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s Palme d’Or winner Apocalypse Now shows audiences ”the horror! The horror!” In music, one-hit-wonder band The Knack are all the rage as ”My Sharona” continues its run atop the Billboard singles chart. In bookstores, William Styron’s Holocaust classic Sophie’s Choice is No. 1 on Publishers Weekly’s best-seller list. And in the news, President Carter warns American TV viewers of a possible rise in Cold War tensions should U.S. concerns about the quartering of Soviet troops in Cuba go unacknowledged.