A Look Back at the Start of ESPN, 1979-1982

ESPN of course covers much more than baseball, but it’s been a key element of the development of the baseball/sports media complex over the past 30 years. It’s worth looking back to see how it began in 1979, its immediate impact on sports fans and sports media in the early ’80s, and what its initial goals were.

First of all, ESPN founder George Bodenheimer, now the president of ESPN and and ABC Sports, recently told NPR “Sports Center, which was the very first program on ESPN back on September 7, 1979, is really the backbone of the company. It’s our responsibility to chronicle the day’s events in sports through highlight packages.”

And that “it was considered absolutely crazy to have a 24-hour network devoted solely to sports. I mean, we were literally laughed at, and nobody thought the idea was worth much or was going to make it and so you would have been hard pressed 29 years ago to think what it could’ve grown to. Having said that, when you worked here you could see signs that what we were doing was catching on — letters from people out of state, references to the company and popular culture, newspapers once in a while, people calling in for rules to Australian rules football. You could start to see that there was a market out there for sports that weren’t necessarily televised regularly.”

In September 1980, with ESPN already a year old, the Washington Post reported on its new status:

Last week, the ESPN cable TV network expanded to 24-hour-a-day sportscasting. That had to be good news for anyone who thinks there isn’t enough sports programming on television.

Of course anyone who thinks that has been standing out on too many golf courses during electrical storms.

After a month or so hooked up to cable TV in suburban Washington, this viewer can report that it’s a great little gadget, as long as you are a sports maniac. On a recent Sunday afternoon, more than half of the available programmed channels on cable were carrying some sort of sport. By contrast, there were only two stations showing old movies, which seems a case of priorities gone berserk, but then sports has never been bigger business and TV made it so.

You’d think the Constitution guaranteed a U.S. citizen the right not to have to watch a ball game. This right gets increasingly difficult to exercise as television turns more and more sports into revenue-grabbers. We’ve gotten to the point where no sport is safe from being televised; with NBC’s “Games People Play,” everything but canasta and stickball has been given video ritualization.

Of course the definition of “sport” has to be stretched to fit television’s own peculiar requirements. Recent editions of “Games People Play” included such dubious sports as falling off a log into a mud pit, and street brawling. Then there was the escape artist whose sprot was being hand-cuffed to a car filled with explosives and trying to get away before another car rammed into it and blew it up.

A long way from horseshoes in the park, that’s for sure.

ESPN is a thriving enterprise that claims a 250 percent increase in viewing households since signing on a year ago. ESPN spokesmen say they expect to reach 6 million households through 875 different cable systems around the country by the end of 1980.

Of course when you’re doling out sports round-the-clock, you have to relax your standards just a hair as to what constitutes vital and exciting competition. One wonders just how many millions of viewers were awake and kicking at 4:30 in the morning one day last week when ESPN carried the U.S. National Kayaking Championships.

Then there are such other big September attractions as Australian rugby (5:30 a.m. on Sept. 22, among other times), Canadian football, the Pacific Northwest Frisbee whirlaway, a Chinese children’s tumbling exhibition and the Great Eastern Skeetshooting Championships.

The next March, the Boston Globe reported on another ESPN expansion:

“It’s the greatest response we’ve ever had,” says ESPN official Rosa Gatti of that cable system’s all-encompassing coverage of the current NCAA basketball playoffs. Grasping the concept of ESPN , which delivers sports on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is the difficult part. Once accomplished, the annual college basketball madness can be seen as ideal programming, a pulsating way to fill out an overload of television time.

The beat continued during the last 48 hours. On Thursday night ESPN delivered four games between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., the first three live, then last night did the other four games, two live and two on tape. Among Greater Boston’s 75,000 subscribers to the system, the Boston College-St. Joseph’s and Indiana-Alabama at Birmingham games carried on Ch. 56 last night were blacked out on ESPN because the cable service does not duplicate conventional TV programming.

That is why only one NCAA playoff telecast remains on ESPN after this weekend, the consolation game on March 30 preceding the championship match that night at 9 p.m. The title game and both semifinal games on March 28 will be on Ch. 4, produced by NBC.

This flurry of basketball has drawn phone calls from across the country to ESPN in Bristol, Conn., from crazies willing to travel to the nearest ESPN setup for the chance to watch the basketball TV marathon. Usually it is not very far, now that 8.7 million homes are hooked onto ESPN, a number that is expected to top 11 million by January.

The next excitement for ESPN will occur April 28 when the National Football League begins its two-day draft. The cable system’s cameras will be live at the New York City hotel site, posting selections and conducting ongoing interviews with management, agents and athletes. For NFL draft fanatics, this is mandatory viewing as much as NCAA basketball is to its following.

By August 1981, the Globe said ESPN was covering Canadian football, the North American Soccer League, baseball’s annual Hall of Fame induction at Cooperstown, and, with the major leagues on strike, “the cable channel began carrying various minor leagues live and will continue to do so through the end of their seasons, perhaps adding playoff games.” It was also putting on SportsCenter three times a day.

By March 1982, the Washington Post was touting ESPN as the wave of the future, and noting the first divorce on account of paying too much attention to “the global sports leader”:

The strongest sign that the end of the age may be approaching is not the position of the planets against the sun, or that the sultan of Oman may someday have the bomb. Merely that civilization now has its first certifiable case of ESPN Divorce.

It came to light last week in Austin, Tex. John Kelso, a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, told the story of a friend of his, a doorman at a local music club, who was divorced by his wife because he spent too much time sitting before the television, eating Mexican food and barbecue, and watching whatever was being shown on ESPN, the 24-hour cable sports network.

“I just watched ESPN all the time,” the guy said, explaining why she snuffed him after 1 1/2 years. “I mean, all the time.”

If the end does not come by earthquake, tidal wave or mushroom cloud, it probably will arrive via Professional Rodeo (taped) at 3:30 a.m. April 10, from Mesquite, Tex., or Full Contact Karate (taped) at 4 a.m. April 13 from Topeka. Of course, it also may draw nigh during the wall-to-wall NCAA tournament basketball games ESPN now is airing, some live in prime time.

The thing is that ESPN –like the drip-drip-drip of the water faucet–is always there. As one viewer told the network, “I watch your channel so much, if World War III broke out, I wouldn’t know it unless you told me.”

With ESPN reaching only 118,000 viewers in the “Washington” market, which extends as far as Hagerstown and Baltimore, there’s a kind of cable junkie subculture now being born: Orgies of ESPN -watching at Arlington apartment houses. And in the best tradition of beer-drinking, barbecue-eating, spouse-neglecting viewing, ESPN games are picked off the satellite by a tavern named Poor Robert’s on Connecticut Avenue.

The feeling here is that anyone who has seen ESPN has seen the future.

Owned lock, stock and minicamera by Getty Oil, ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) still must answer a $64 question: Can a round-the-clock, pure-sports network survive while relying almost entirely on advertisers? Even Charles Van Doren would have trouble with this one, for the prestige sports still are controlled by the commercial networks and ESPN must eventually attract showcase events to prosper.

Nevertheless, the auguries are good.

ESPN now plays to 15 million homes nationwide–18 percent of the country’s television households. Expanding at the rate of 500,000 homes a month, the network expects to be in 32 percent of all homes by the end of this year. By 1990, two out of three American homes should be cabled, meaning that Getty Oil will be dipping its mitts in whatever sits at the end of the rainbow.

Finally, as a coda to this story, here’s part of a column by the Miami Herald’s Bob Rubin from late April, 1983, in which he looks back on ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the NFL draft. It sounds like it hasn’t changed much since 1983, and since 2007, you can also apply his comments to coverage of the baseball draft in June:

It is a tribute to the NFL’s superb publicity machine and the public’s football mania that the annual offseason beef auction called the college draft commands headlines for weeks and a full day’s live coverage (8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a review at 10:30 no less) on ESPN.

The action is riveting. Guys you never heard of sit at desks, yakking on the phone in a ballroom at the New York Sheraton before writing down their teams’ selections and having them announced. Yet this somehow has become a media event of immense magnitude in and of itself. Call it Rozelle’s Monster. The Commish even gets into the act by reading the first-round selections before handing over the mike to underlings. Pity there are no instant replays.

There’s even a live gallery to watch the guys on the phone, spectators who line up for seats in the wee hours like they were waiting for World Series tickets. Among them are “draftniks,” who predict first-round selections in competition for prizes.

There are reporters on the floor, photographers — the whole works. All this over the selection of kids who won’t don pads as pros for three months yet. Weird.

I watched ESPN for the first two rounds, all six hours plus, until my eyes glazed over and my ears rang. Anyone who stayed the course should be given a rubber football and locked up.

In my lifetime in front of the tube Tuesday, I learned the 40-yard-dash time of everyone in the Western Hemisphere. I got team needs, predictions, projections, selections, opinions, excuses, speculation, analysis, previews, reviews, heights, weights, strengths, outside speed, inside speed, inside-out speed, upside-down speed. There’s a guy who writes for a pro football periodical who was introduced as “a man who lives the draft 365 days a year.”

Don’t you want to spend a whole lot of time with him?

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 2:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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