ESPN founder: SportsCenter gets new look in 2014

Bill Rasmussen revolutionized 24 hour cable programming

By Rick Yencer

MUNCIE, INDIANA (SPORTS) - Bill Rasmussen mostly talked about the history of 24-hour sports coverage financed by Getty Oil and driven by the content of NCAA competition.

But the future of the multi-million dollars sports machine owned by Disney will have a new look this spring when SportsCenter gets a new, digital look as cable television sports evolves to iPhones and iPads.

Rasmussen, a Chicago native whose sport is baseball, told Ball State students on Monday never give up and remember that passion for a career comes from the heart and mind.

Taking a $9,000 credit card advance, and buying an old landfill site in Bristol, Connecticut, Rasmussen and his partners invented ESPN, the first 24-hour sports cable network in 1979 that soon was followed by CNN, MTV and The Weather Channel over the next two years.

Now worth about $66 billion, ESPN represents 45 percent of Disney's revenue, and is the worldwide leader in sports programming for cable affiliates. ESPN is $5.64 a month on those cable channels while sports networks operated by NBC and CBS range from 24-31 cents a month.

Rasmussen, who began in radio in the 1950s and then television in the 1960s, ended up getting fired from a sports team before coming up with the idea of 24 hour sports that took financing, advertising, content, technology and subscribers.

The money came from Getty Oil after Rasmussen and his friends went through seven initial investors. Then the group promised Budweiser exclusivity while negotiating with the founding executive director of the NCAA, Walter Byers on rights to broadcast all college sports.

And the founder got RCA to use one of its satellite trans ponders to broadcast but the biggest hurdle was convincing cable operators in 1979 of the value of 24 hours sports.

"They were resistant to change," said Rasmussen, who said the money and content fell together just as affiliates started to buy the service.

A cattle call for announcers and sportscaster came with applicants having to do live broadcasts from impromptu scripts. Among that first group was an announcer named Chris Berman who remains as the face of ESPN along with broadcaster Dick Vitale.

Rasmussen said there were thousands of others who drive the direction, content, production of ESPN.

The key to the invention of ESPN was not business plans or planning sessions, he said. It was a matter of asking questions and never quitting despite all the rejections.

Now ESPN has over 100 million viewers and much of the sports programming after inventing March Madness in 1980.

During a session with future sportscasters and writers, Rasmussen talked about the new digital look for SportsCenter amid the SportsLink office that has as many computer screens as televisions. 

It's not the platform as much as the content, said Rasmussen, who talked about the days of radio broadcasts and black and white television.

The content of ESPN and all the sports it provides has made it the billions that now Disney earns. SportsCenter alone just recognized its 50,000 program, the longest running in television history.

While a few Muncie residents were in the audience mainly of students, Rasmussen did mention one connection to the community His son, Scott was married at High Street United Methodist Church.




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