LAKE FOREST PARK — Back in the summer of 1978, 45-year-old Bill Rasmussen was out of work and almost out of money.
What he had was an idea. Partnering with his son Scott, Rasmussen proposed going on the air with a 24-hour cable television network devoted solely to sports. After tossing around ideas for a name, the two men eventually settled on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. That cumbersome title soon gave way to a more familiar acronym, ESPN.
Maybe you’ve heard of it.
What followed was a revolution in sports television. ESPN debuted on the evening of Sept. 7, 1979, and from modest roots — much of the early programming was tape delayed and featured events largely disdained by ABC, NBC and CBS — it has grown to become an international powerhouse of sports broadcasting. ESPN currently reaches an estimated 100 million homes in the United States and some 200 countries around the world, and those numbers are growing.
The remarkable thing, Rasmussen said, is that ESPN today is precisely what he and his son envisioned back in 1978.
“Except for the technology, it’s spot-on,” said the 79-year-old Rasmussen, who lives in Lake Forest Park. “It’s exactly what we said we’d do.”
In hindsight, the relevance and popularity of ESPN seem like no-brainers. But in their early search for funding and subscribers to get the network off the ground, the Rasmussens met far more naysayers than believers.
Many sports and television executives “thought I didn’t have any idea what I was talking about,” Rasmussen said. “We were bombarded with people who told us that to be on 24 hours a day, a single-niche network of sports couldn’t sustain itself. It simply wouldn’t happen.”
As one example, Rasmussen remembers sitting down with National Collegiate Athletic Association executive director Walter Byers in 1979. The topic was the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which at the time was a 32-team event. NBC had the national TV contract back then, but only aired the Final Four and some regional tournament games, a handful of contests in all.
“I told (Byers), ‘We want to do every single game you haven’t committed to the (major) networks,’” Rasmussen recalled. “He said, ‘Every single one?’ I said yes and he said, ‘Do you mean to tell me that if Lamar Tech plays Weber State in some regional first-round game, you’d put that on the air?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’
“And you know what? That next year Lamar Tech played Weber State in the first round. It was the first tournament we did in March of 1980, and I think (Byers) rigged it. I think he wanted to find out if we’d really be there.”
Yes, ESPN televised that Lamar-Weber State game, and the rest of the remaining 1980 tournament, too. It was the beginning of March Madness as we know it today.
Yet most TV and sports executives still had the continuing perception — more accurately, the misperception — that round-the-clock sports programming was a misguided notion.
“People said, ‘It’s not going to work. Who’s going to watch sports 24 hours a day?’ ” Rasmussen said. “But I knew there were people hungry for this. I just always thought it would work.”
Also in 1980, ESPN announced it would televise the NFL draft, “and everybody laughed at that, too,” Rasmussen said. “A big laugh. But today it’s prime-time television.”
One of the few sports executives to understand ESPN’s extraordinary potential was former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Rasmussen met with Rozelle in the summer of 1979 at the league offices in New York.
“(Rozelle) listened. He was interested,” Rasmussen said. “And he told me, ‘Not today. But someday we’re going to be on ESPN.’ He caught on right away.”
Ten years later ESPN was broadcasting NFL games. Today it is home to one of the showcase events of sports television, “Monday Night Football.”
As it turned out, Rasmussen and his son were only affiliated with ESPN for a few years. The end came in 1984 when Texaco, which had purchased ESPN from Getty Oil (the network’s original investor), sold the network to ABC. ESPN stockholders, including Rasmussen, were called to an April meeting, “and the question was, ‘Do you want quarterly checks for the rest of your life or do you want a big check today?’ Everybody wanted a check, so he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and he got up and walked out. It took 90 seconds.”
Rasmussen ended up dividing his payoff with family members, and “everybody got a pretty good check,” he said.
Though he left ESPN in 1984, Rasmussen’s place in sports history was secure. In 1994, Sports Illustrated magazine celebrated its 40th year of publication by naming “40 For The Ages” to honor the 40 most influential figures in sports history. Rasmussen was on that list, as were luminaries such as Michael Jordan, Arnold Palmer, John Wooden, Wayne Gretzky and Bill Russell.
In 2006, Rasmussen and his wife, Mickey, moved to Lake Forest Park to be near daughter Lynn, her husband, Louie Van Hollebeke, and granddaughters Donna, now 16, Jessica, 12, and Sarah, 8. Donna Van Hollebeke is a junior at Everett’s Archbishop Murphy High School and a member of the girls swim team.
For Rasmussen, the recent months have been difficult. Mickey Rasmussen died June 22, three days short of their 56th wedding anniversary.
“These days,” he said, “I’m doing all the aftermath stuff (of prolonged grieving). … It’s a daily struggle.”
Otherwise he lives a rather normal life. He goes most places unrecognized, which means his celebrity is rarely an issue.
“When I sit on a plane next to people I don’t say, ‘Hey, do you want to talk about ESPN?’ I don’t have to do that,” he said. “But obviously it’s satisfying. Knowing it’s there is pretty spectacular.”
He stays busy by spending time with his daughter and her family, working on a second book — his first book, “Sports Junkies Rejoice, The Birth of ESPN” was published in 1983; a paperback version was updated and reissued in 2010 — and by occasionally watching ESPN programs such as “SportsCenter” and “Baseball Tonight,” even though “I’m not a big TV guy,” he admitted. “I have other things to do.”
One activity he enjoys very much is giving speeches to civic groups and schools. He talks about the birth of ESPN, about the process of seeing a dream become a reality, about the importance of self-belief. He usually closes with a question.
“Which one of you,” he likes to ask, “is going to have the next great idea?”
Come hear Bill Rasmussen
ESPN co-founder Bill Rasmussen will speak Thursday at two fundraising breakfasts for the Imagine Children’s Museum of Everett.
The public is invited to the breakfasts, which are from 7-8:30 a.m. and 9:30-11 a.m. There is no admission fee, but donations are expected. RSVPs are recommended and can be done by calling Mark Johnson at 425-258-1006, ext. 1026, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, you can learn more about Rasmussen by visiting his website, www.espnfounder.com.
What’s in a name?
Bill and Scott Rasmussen considered several names for their new cable sports network before settling on Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, or ESPN, before the first telecast in 1979.
One early idea was Sports Programming Network, or SPN. But another cable company already had that acronym, short for Satellite Program Network, so the Rasmussens simply added the word Entertainment “because sports is entertaining,” Bill Rasmussen said.
Also, the network’s nightly recap of national sports news was initially dubbed “Sports Central.” But shortly before the Sept. 7, 1979, debut, someone decided that “SportsCenter” sounded better.
“To me it was sort of a wash,” Rasmussen said. “But ‘SportsCenter’ was fine.”