This is the full transcript of the interview we did with Bill Rasmussen on February 1st, 2012. Thanks to Mr. Rasmussen for meeting with us, and being such a gracious guest.
Garnet Report: Connecticut doesn’t seem to be the ideal place to build a television empire. What made you choose to headquarter there?
Bill Rasmussen: We started talking about these big satellite dishes, 33 feet across these big ones. The town council in Plainville passed an ordinance forbidding the installation of satellite dishes within the town line. Now today, that would be illegal. The FCC would say that’s an abridgement to the right of free information and all that sort of stuff. There was a landfill available. Redevelopment they called it. That’s when the dump is full, they plant grass across the top, and sell it to somebody. They sold us a lot of about an acre for $18,000. We went over there and got a warm reception from Bristol. We showed them what we were going to build, and the rest is history.
GR: Talk about the impact the Regents Supreme Court decision in 1984. [Editor’s Note: This case was a landmark Supreme Court case striking down the NCAA’s control of college football television contracts.]
BR: Huge. The Supreme Court decision by Judge Burciaga I think was his name, happened in August of 1984, and that lifted the yoke of the networks’ grasp on college football. Up until that time there were only 25 or 30 football games a year, and they were always Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, USC, UCLA, Michigan, Notre Dame, etc. That’s just the way it was. Alabama, of course, and all the teams in the SEC too. Up until that point, we had to tape delay football games. But when that happened it opened the floodgates. Everybody tried to jump into the business, but ESPN had such a strong position before they even started that we were able to really take advantage of it.
GR: Talk about the impact that ESPN has had on the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
BR: I think it has been enormous. Now obviously, the players themselves and the games themselves, if they weren’t good it wouldn’t make any difference what we were doing. When we made the proposal to the NCAA in the fall of 1978 and the first quarter of 1979, we told them we would do every basketball game not carried by a network. At that time the network was NBC. They carried the regional finals, the semifinals, and they actually played a third-place game. After the semifinals, the losers would play first, then the two winners would play for a championship. And I went to the event in Indianapolis, at the Market Square Arena. They didn’t even sell the place out. It’s hard to believe that back in those days it just didn’t happen.
GR: Now you’ve got 70,000 people there.
BR: Oh, it’s amazing. There’s not a building big enough to hold them. The tickets are allocated. They could sell twice that many tickets. I can remember telling people when we were promoting that we were going to do all these games all the time. Basically, during that stretch we did live basketball. When it was on the network, we couldn’t do it. So we would do SportsCenter. The minute the network ended, we would show tapes of the games that we’d already done until we went around to the next noon time or whenever they’d start showing games, until whenever the network went on. So basically for about two or three weeks we were nothing but basketball and SportsCenter, and the message went around.
We had various estimates of how many subscribers because nobody knew how many were really connected. The cable system might tell you they had a million subscribers, or 400,000, or whatever, but they might really have the capacity to have that but only 30,000 online. But anyway, we signed a total over the first year of 4,000,000+ subscribers. After the March Madness, in September of the next year as we went into the next season advertising and being able to talk about the Tournament, in that one month we signed five million live, real subscribers. Nobody to this day, not even ESPN, has signed five million in one month. But that was the explosion of cable. Off we went.
GR: There’s a movie that came out when those of us in college now were in about middle school. It was called Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, and it was very popular among our age group. In it, there’s an international dodgeball tournament that’s said to be televised on ESPN8: The Ocho.
BR: [Laughter]. I knew you were going to ask me about that one! Go ahead.
GR: The network has the tagline: “If it’s almost a sport, we’ve got it here.” How does it make you feel to hear these pop culture references that gently poke fun at ESPN.
BR: It doesn’t make any difference at all to me. When you consider that one of our main programs just to fill time when we got started was Irish Hurling from Limerick, Ireland…you may not have seen that. Have you seen that? I didn’t think so! I’m not sure there’s even a tape existing anymore! We had kickboxing, we had Australian Rules Football, which has staged a comeback, somebody told me. I haven’t seen it in years.
We didn’t have bids, it was the other way around. People thought since we’re there, we’re going to buy their rights. “If we have an idea, we’ll go sell it to ESPN.” We actually had a serious presentation from a gentleman in New York to televise New York Rooftop Platform Tennis. How bout that? He wanted to know how much we’d pay him for the rights! We told him “this isn’t going to work.”
GR: So it wasn’t that enticing to you?
BR: It wasn’t that enticing. We didn’t pay the man. So when somebody pokes fun about “The Ocho” or Ron Burgundy, you’ve seen that one I’m sure, I just laugh. It’s a chuckle, that’s all.
GR: What can we expect next from ESPN? You’ve moved into more specialty websites like ESPNLA.com. Can we expect more of those, another channel, a push toward mobile content, or something totally new?
BR: Well, they are defensive every day and trying to beat everybody else. That’s just the way they play. If there’s new technology, a new sport, a new whatever, they’ll be there. They are currently, I believe, just north of 50%, maybe 51% or 52%, of owning all the rights to major sports events to all major sports events on all seven continents of the world. They own Australian rights. They own European rights to a lot of things. They want to actually…there’s a lot of fans for many things.
They keep expanding networks. They now have 52 networks in the world—6 in the US and 46 around the rest of the world. They’re in over 200 countries and I don’t know how many different languages at this point. Little known fact is that they produce SportsCenter in 13 foreign countries, and two in the US. Same graphics and songs. The language changes, obviously, but everything else is the same. So I think if anything, they’ll just keep adding networks.
GR: Does the proliferation into different countries surprise you at all?
BR: No. There are sports fans everywhere, especially soccer. Soccer is so worldwide. Not as big in the US, but it is overseas. And I guess everywhere. Well, I guess maybe not Antarctica. But the other five continents all have it.
GR: In our research, we found that South Carolina played at North Carolina in football the day after ESPN went on the air. We found that the game was shown on ESPN a day later, on that Sunday. So does that make South Carolina one of the first two football teams to ever play on ESPN?
BR: I don’t know. I don’t happen to have a copy of my book with me, but the entire schedule is there, and it’s in the proper order. The book is called Sports Junkies Rejoice: The Birth of ESPN, and it has the first week or two week’s schedule, and the games are right in there. The first live event we showed was the World Slow-Pitch Softball World Series Championship, from Louisville, Kentucky, featuring the Kentucky Bourbons vs. the Milwaukee Schlits, brought to you by Budweiser. How bout that one! If you’re curious about South Carolina-North Carolina you can look in the book and it lists them in order. It could very well be the first one.
[Editor’s Note: After obtaining a copy of Mr. Rasmussen’s book, we determined that Oregon vs. Colorado aired at 1:30 AM on September 9, 1979. South Carolina vs. North Carolina aired at 10:00 AM that same day. The Gamecocks appeared in the second game ever televised on ESPN.]
GR: What is the craziest sporting event that’s ever been shown on ESPN?
BR: I think it might be Irish Hurling.
GR: What is Irish Hurling? Throwing leprechauns around?
BR: No, no! It’s a bunch of big guys that don’t wear a lot of pads, and they have what looks like a baseball bat but it’s more of a sha-lay-lee. I guess that’s what they call it. I don’t really even know what they call it. The referee stands between the two guys and the best way I can describe it from an American’s point of view is this: If you imagine a left-handed batter and a right-handed batter in opposite batters’ boxes at the same time, someone throws a ball up between them and they both swing at it.
Now, there were numerous injuries. They don’t stop the game for injuries, they just drag them off, and when the guy that’s hurt goes over the sideline the new guy can go in. I don’t know how you score, I don’t know any of that stuff. I know they whack that ball around, I know they whack each other around, and it may be the first one we showed. But I’ve never seen anything like it. Australian Rules Football is kind of quirky with the officiating and those kinds of things. And there’s also all of the X Games and all that different stuff, but Irish Hurling was just wacky. It’ll never leave my mind.
GR: Talk about what television was like at the time ESPN was founded. Were there any 24-hour networks at all? Was there much sports programming readily available?
BR: When we started there were only three networks, and TV sets only had 12 channels. Because of the configuration of local cable franchises, if a network station overlapped any part of that franchise area, that franchise had to carry it. So of those 12 channels, more often than not there would be three NBC’s, two CBS’s, and two ABC’s or whatever. And of the remaining five channels, we were competing with local access, the school board, the city council, and those things.
And the way the franchise people treated it, because everyone’s protective of their own and they hate change…that’s the way Americans are. They hate change. This has been working so well, don’t rock the boat. So even if they were only on one day a week or one hour a night, they would consider that channel unavailable; you can’t use it. So we had to fight that whole idea, and it was sports, really, that broke through, and we were really the first ones.
We went on the air Friday, September 7, 1979 at 7:00 and ended on Monday morning—we went straight through the night. Nobody ever did that. I was at one of those stations. I knew what happened. At 1:00 in the morning on the East Coast, 12:00 in the Central Time Zone, Johnny Carson would go off, and an announcer (we all had to take a turn doing it) would say: “Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our broadcast day. We’re authorized by FCC hmm hmm (you read the number), to the effective radiated power of so-and-so. Thank you for watching. And now, ladies, and gentlemen, our national anthem.” The national anthem would finish, and wssh! A test pattern for six hours. Nothing! Nobody had ever gone around the clock.
GR: So there was no daybreak news or anything at 5:00 AM.
BR: Oh no! Dave Garroway started the Today show which went on at 7:00 AM on NBC, and it was considered a daring experiment in the 1950’s. Who is going to watch television at 7:00 in the morning? Daring, daring experiment. Now, local stations have 3:00 news, 5:00 news, 6:00 news, it’s changed everything. So there was none of that.
GR: Other than the Regents decision, what were some key moments of expanding the network’s reach.
BR: Going to ESPN2 obviously, but the key moments were carrying the National Football League and Major League Baseball, but all of that was preceded by the America’s Cup in the mid-1980’s. No one believe that we, or really anybody, not just us, could do it. But we were brash. Everything we did was “This is what we’re gonna do!” And then we’d figure out how to do it. And the America’s Cup was from Australia. “Can we do that? We don’t know. We’ll figure it out.” That’s where the experience comes in.
We have forty people that were there the first year that are still there. They have man-years of experience, not man-hours of experience. So in the mid-1980’s we did a triple satellite hop to actually show the America’s Cup live at 3:00 in the morning or whatever time it was here. And we had an audience. And everybody said “Wow that’s kind of impressive.” That caught the attention of the networks. The networks just didn’t even…they viewed us as kind of a mosquito on their nose or something. They were just banging us away most of the time.
GR: In those early years, were you able to carry many live events, or did you have to rely on original programming like SportsCenter to fill those time slots?
BR: We carried basketball live from the get-go, in the regular season. We had basketball, soccer, and anything we could get. We did a lot of hockey live. We even did some NHL hockey live our first year, starting in October when we first went on the air. An interesting story that I sometimes forget to tell is about CBS. Well, let me set the stage first. We were allowed to carry 22 seconds of anything that appeared on television, because that was considered the public domain window. So, if something happens someplace, you can carry up to 22 seconds of it without permission of the producer. We were carrying our 22 seconds from a CBS football game, and they called and said “You have to stop. Cease and desist. We’re going to sue you.” We were within the 22 second window. They said “We don’t recognize you as a network, so you can’t do it.” That’s just the way it was. We had a very creative production guy who said “We’re gonna beat ‘em.” I don’t have it with me, but he produced a bright red jacket with an ESPN logo on the back in big white letters. He gave six kids a clipboard and got credentials for them, because we could get credentials to go to football games.
Everybody except CBS thought we were a network. And he said, “Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna stand wherever the CBS cameras are (you know they’re always on one side of the field or the other), and we’re gonna stand on that side of the field facing the field. One on the line of scrimmage, one in the backfield, one in the defensive backfield, one for a long pass, one for punts, and one rover. The one rule is: You must not ever, ever, ever, ever turn around and look at the crowd or the camera.” And so CBS did a game, and they couldn’t take a shot without showing ESPN. They get down to the line of scrimmage, ESPN’s in the way. They get up here, ESPN. Long pass, punt? ESPN’s in the way. So the following Monday they were furious. “Now we’re really gonna sue your mmm you-know-what.” So our guy said, “Where’s the CBS game next week? Send them to another one!” And after that on Monday morning, they called and said, “You can carry 22 seconds. Please, please, please call off the red jackets.” So we defeated a lawsuit for a cost of about $500 by buying a half-dozen jackets and sending the kids to games.
GR: What ESPN program are you most proud of?
BR: SportsCenter, clearly. The one that really kind of brought tears and chills and all the rest of it is when I heard the Monday Night Football theme. Whew!
GR: What gave you the idea to create ESPN?
BR: Well, I was fired by the Hartford Whalers and had been scheduled to do a show about them with a fellow the following week and I called him up and I said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea. You don’t want to hear me talk about the Whalers. They just fired me.” And he said, “Well, I don’t have anything else to do. I’ve already done hot air ballooning. I’ve done this, I’ve done that, I’ve got to do something.” So we just started talking. I thought about basketball, and even though there was no Big East, UConn was still a big team. Yale is in state. Fairfield, Wesleyan, there were a lot of schools.
Coincidentally, the Athletic Director at UConn was a member of the NCAA Council, which is like a Board of Directors, and was to be the President the following year, and he was a good friend. So we started talking and he said he’d give me his basketball and see if we could sell it to cable systems. During that discussion, talking to the cable systems and finding out how we’d get the signal there, we came across this satellite flying around empty. So we called RCA and they came up and said we could do it. They had not sold a single 24-hour transponder. So they had rates for five hours, two hours, midday, nighttime, weekend, they had every imaginable configuration of rates that you could think of. He told me that they used to have one that they didn’t carry any more. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a five-year commitment. It cost $34,167 per month. I’ll never forget that number.
My son, Scott, who’s the pollster on Rasmussen reports, is the numbers guy in our family not me. And he said, “That can’t be right. You just told us it cost $1,250 per night for five hours, and now you’re saying that 24 hours a day is only $1,143. That can’t be right.” The salesman scribbled a bit and said “Hmmm. No, that’s what it says. It must be right.” So we didn’t even know what we were talking about. We thanked him, he left, and we called him the next morning and said “Al, we’ll take one of those things.” We didn’t even know it was a transponder. We didn’t even know what we were talking about! He said, “One of what things?’ We told him, “One of those 24 hour things you were telling us about!” And he said, “You will?” And we had our transponder. So now, all we had to do was set out to fill 8,760 hours. Fill it up! So off we went. We pursued the NCAA and a lot of other things, and as I said, now they have 52% of all the rights in the world.
GR: Did you ever think ESPN could be as powerful or iconic as it is today?
BR: No. Every single time somebody asks that question, you have to put yourself back in that time. We didn’t even have computers, fax machines, email, whatever. It’s interesting going around to schools or to business meetings. Every now and then, a person in their twenties…now I’m not being disparaging, but they’re so caught up in “Oh wow! That’s amazing! I’d love to be in on marketing that!” I had one guy practically coming out of his shoes, saying, “What kind of a campaign did you use? Did you use Constant Contact? What did you do?” And I said, “There was no internet.” He said, “There what?” He was maybe a little older than you folks. But he’s grown up in an era, as all of you have, of all kinds of means of communication and technology, and we just didn’t have it then.
I don’t tell you that story to embarrass him, I mean afterwards he said, “What was I thinking, of course that was the case.” I thought it would be a huge success because we were reaching fans. If you reach the fans, they cut across every demographic you can think of. Male, female, Northeast, Southwest, rich, poor, young, old, you name it. And if you treat the fans right, they’ll come to you. So we knew we had something, and we knew from the 1980 March Madness that they would. Now what I think ESPN has done a marvelous job of is taking all of the technology and incorporating every new technology that comes out to expand the brand. They are fiercely proud of the brand and fiercely protective of the band. HD, 3D, all the different channels, minus The Ocho I know, but maybe someday.
Yes, I thought it would be a success, but nobody could have forecasted what was coming in technology to make it what it is. When we were talking in 1980, there were rumblings about this thing called HDTV, and by the middle 80’s everyone said, “Oh, HDTV is going to be a staple in every American household by the end of the 80’s.” Then it was, “Maybe in the early 90’s,” then the mid-90’s. Even today, total penetration of HDTV is not very big at all.
GR: I don’t have it at my house.
BR: It’s still in, I don’t know if it’s single digits, but it’s certainly low double digits. And here we are, thirty years after they said it would be in every house before you know it. So some of those technologies came in, but whatever technology comes along, ESPN is poised to take advantage of it.
GR: Final question for you. As you know, we’re Garnet Report, and we’re kind of a start-up company. We’ve been around for less than a month now. What advice would you have to young students, like ourselves, that are pursuing a start-up?
BR: The one thing you can’t become is discouraged. You’re going to hear, “No, no, no, it’s not going to work, I don’t think so, where did you ever come up with that idea,” everything negative that somebody is going to come up with. But if you believe in what you’re doing you can’t quit. I believe that in this environment in the country in which we live, we can really accomplish anything we want. The only thing that will beat you is yourself. I frequently tell people that if you go and are trying to sell your idea but we’re not enthused about it…if you have this idea but you’re kind of [mimics lack of enthusiasm], what will they think of your enthusiasm?
Will they want to invest in this? But if you come in and meet them with a passion…they might not understand you, but if you explain it with passion and enthusiasm, that’s the way you’ll sell it. One of the folks that I met was an old TV guy like I was, and he asked me what I was doing in this cable thing. But he had just gone to work for a cable company. I said, “Graham, you’re working for a cable company.” “That’s true,” he said. But he said this cable idea wasn’t going to work, waffling back and forth. I told him I wanted him to be our first customer. I didn’t want to give the opportunity to anybody else. He was bald too. I told him, “We comb our hair the same way, we come from the same background, we’re talking about this same cable thing,” we went on and on.
I told him, “I want you to be the first customer. I think this thing is going to be a success.” And he kept saying no. He finally said, “It’s not going to work, but if it does, I want to be your first customer.” That was our first breakthrough where somebody said, “Wow! It may work!”
A few months later I was at a show in Texas where we announced formally for the first time to a regional cable group, not just an individual company, what we were doing. I remember a man came up to me afterwards. He was from Bartlesville, Oklahoma (I remember that clear as a bell). He was a short fellow, maybe 5’7” or 5’8”. He said, “I’m the manager at so-and-so in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I don’t have any idea how you’re going to do half of that stuff you said you were going to. But if you only do half of it, you’re going to be the biggest success cable television has ever seen.” This is in February of 1979. We were still months from going on the air. So I think the most important things are belief in what you’re doing and the very positive presentation of it. It’s as simple as that!