For the occasion of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary issue in September 2021, longtime editor Charles Monagan picked "Television Goes (Even More) Sports Crazy" (September 1979), about the then-imminent launch of ESPN, as one of his favorites stories from his tenure. Said Monagan: "It’s always great to be first with a big story, and so it was with our cover feature on ESPN in September 1979. Up to that point, the Bristol-based start-up hadn’t been taken seriously by national media, but writer Bryan Miller saw the enormous potential and delivered the goods. Others soon followed."
Monagan again, this time from 2013: "For 'my' first cover story as editor, I had become aware through friends of an entity in Bristol that was planning to telecast, via satellite, 24 hours of sports programming a day. Although no one was paying much attention except to dismiss it as preposterous (it was operating out of a construction trailer at the time), it seemed like a plausible idea to me and to Associate Editor (and later New York Times restaurant reviewer) Bryan Miller. Bryan wrote a typically thorough report and we became the first magazine to publish a major take on what would soon become known to all as ESPN. Its founder Bill Rasmussen appeared on the September 1979 cover, the month the new network first went on the air, beside the headline, 'Why Are ABC, CBS and NBC Afraid of This Man?' "
This article was first posted to the web in March 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
At precisely 7 p.m. (EDT) on September 7, a Friday, an RCA SATCOM I communications satellite 22,300 miles above the equator, south of Hawaii, will receive a signal from an earth station transmitter in Bristol, Connecticut, and beam the message back to earth and into the homes of about five million cable television viewers across the United States. The whole transaction will take one-fifth of a second. It will mark a milestone in the history of cable television broadcasting, and for millions of ardent sports fans across the nation, it will be nothing short of the millennium—the answer to the prayers of all those armchair quarterbacks and Monday night managers who have quietly fantasized about this moment for years but dared not confess it outside of the congregation for fear of ridicule or divorce: twenty-four hours of sports on television, seven days a week, 365 days a year!
Bristol, an industrial town known mostly for manufacturing clocks and machinery, will suddenly become the sports broadcasting hub of America, offering more volume and variety of programming than the three major commercial networks combined. The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) this month begins broadcasting between twelve and fourteen hours of nonstop sports daily, most of it college events. It plans to operate twenty-four hours a day in several months. Football, soccer, golf, track, cross-country, basketball, swimming, wrestling, gymnastics, baseball, tennis, hockey, lacrosse, crew, fencing, skiing, volleyball, water polo—all these will be covered under an arrangement ESPN has reached with the National Collegiate Athletic Association. But ESPN won’t stop there; it plans to cover professional and amateur sports here and abroad, everything from drag racing to darts. And its most ambitious venture to date is a bid for coverage of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles—a move that cost a half-million dollars just for the application and pits the infant television system against CBS, ABC, and NBC for the rights to broadcast various events.
Just what is ESPN? And how did it manage, seemingly overnight, to persuade a major oil company to invest more than $15 million in the idea of an all sports network; snag the largest advertising package ever for cable television even before going on the air; pirate a well-known television announcer from one of the three commercial networks, and cause those networks to step up their war against cable television? Those questions are still being asked by all the giants of the communications industry, many of whom are scratching their corporate heads and wondering how they were beaten to the punch on such a ripe idea by a former hockey announcer from Connecticut.
Only a year ago, William Rasmussen, a former television news director and producer in Springfield, Massachusetts, and later play-by-play announcer and communications director for the New England Whalers, left the team with the idea of getting involved in cable television in Connecticut. His plan was to start a Connecticut sports network that would feed Whalers games and University of Connecticut sports to cable systems in the state for a fee.
Rasmussen and his twenty-three-year-old son, Scott, who also worked for the Whalers, decided to make a sales pitch to local cable operators, and on June 26, 1978, a meeting was held at the offices of United Cable Television in Plainville.
“They liked the idea a lot,” recalls Rasmussen, a stocky, congenial forty-six year old, in between incessant phone interruptions at his temporary office in the United Cable building in Plainville. “We wanted to look into using satellites for feeding, but the only problem at the time was that many of the cable operators in Connecticut were not yet capable of receiving satellite feeds.”
The use of satellites for cable television, which at that point had been done only on an extremely limited basis, was a departure from traditional cable systems, which relied on large antennas that picked up signals from far away and fed them to homes via cables. Cable began in the early 1950s as a means of bringing better television reception to rural areas that were far from broadcast transmitters. Eventually it began to play a supplementary function, bringing in feeds from up to a dozen or more broadcast stations within a several-hundred-mile radius. This gave viewers a much wider choice of stations.
The advent of satellite technology in cable television, pioneered by New York’s Home Box Office in 1975, allowed cable operators to send their own feeds—movies, sports, news—up to a satellite, which in turn bounced it back down to cable units across the country. The only hindrance at the beginning was that relatively few of the several thousand cable franchises in the U.S. had “earth stations,” a term for systems capable of receiving satellite feeds.
Rasmussen was encouraged enough by the meeting with Connecticut cable people to go talk with RCA about obtaining satellite time. He knew that most of the cable companies in the state had plans to build earth stations eventually, and he believed that once his network was in place it could send collegiate sports events to the thousands of people who followed college teams but didn't have time to attend games.
When Rasmussen and his son brought their request to RCA, a company salesman was intrigued. The company had launched a communications satellite in 1975 but had yet to sell six of the $1 million-a-year transmitting channels, called transponders. Potential clients appeared to be holding back until more earth stations were built to pick up satellite feeds. RCA knew that the construction boom in earth stations was just beginning to heat up, and they strongly advised Rasmussen to submit his application soon.
In fact, during Rasmussen’s meeting with RCA, the company offered a suggestion that transformed ESPN from a local college network to a national effort beyond even the Connecticut entrepreneur’s expectations.
“The salesman thought I had a good idea, but he said, ‘Why just Connecticut? For about the same price you can have the whole country,’ ” Rasmussen recounts. “I said, ‘Great, I’ll take one.’ The salesman nearly fell out of his chair.”
In 1975 cable television reached less than 12 percent of all television homes in the U.S. Only a small fraction of those were hooked up to the fewer than one hundred earth stations. By the end of last year, there were more than four thousand cable companies reaching about one- fifth of the seventy-five million television homes, or about fourteen million households. Earth station applications today are coming into the Federal Communications Commission faster than they can be processed. It is estimated that by the end of this year there will be more than fifteen hundred earth stations either in operation or under construction, reaching between seven million and eight million viewers. ESPN would be able to beam in on all of them.
Although Rasmussen had no idea where the $1 million for the transponder would come from (not to mention the money to set up nationwide operations on the ground), he felt confident it could be found. “I knew I had a sellable idea, and I figured the financing would come from somewhere,” he says.
Rasmussen was no novice when it came to turning bright ideas into reality. People who have worked closely with him observe that his enthusiasm for projects he believes in is matched only by the thoroughness of his preparation. “Bill doesn’t chase stars," one business colleague notes. “He's a very convincing man when he has a good idea.”
In 1959, when he was fresh out of the air force and working for the Westinghouse Corporation in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Rasmussen got his first bright business idea. Westinghouse annually launched two national advertising campaigns, sending out thousands of brochures and other promotional material to the media and potential customers. But the company always got backlogged in distributing the materials, and as a result the effectiveness of the ad blitz was blunted.
Rasmussen thought he could make some fast money by organizing a corps of part-time workers—housewives, teenagers, moonlighters—to help Westinghouse package and distribute the advertisements.
“The idea was kind of like Kelly Girls,” he explains. “We hired the people we needed only as long as the job required.”
Rasmussen got two friends interested in the proposal and they opened the business, called Ad-Aid Inc., in a small storefront office in East Orange, New Jersey. Within six months they had enough people employed to move into a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Newark.
“We then figured that if Westinghouse had distribution problems other companies must, too,” he recalls. They were right. Within a year they had accounts with General Electric, Ballantine beer. General Foods, S & H Green Stamps, and others. Ad-Aid Inc. is still operating today.
Rasmussen left that business in the early 1960s and moved to Massachusetts, where he worked for radio station WTTT in Amherst. While there he started the station’s first live coverage of University of Massachusetts football, and at the same time began devising plans to fill the demand for college basketball broadcasts. He decided to organize a Massachusetts college basketball radio network. In 1963 he lined up eleven stations across the state to pool coverage of games and sold the idea to Piel’s Beer and S & H Green Stamps, who sponsored the entire season.
That successful venture convinced Rasmussen there were great possibilities for syndication of sports programming—the field was fertile, he believed, for those with vision beyond their own station’s airwaves. Rasmussen moved from radio to television, taking a job at Channel 40 in Springfield for a short time, then moving to rival Channel 22, where he worked in news and sports. In 1974 he joined the New England Whalers as director of communications, doing play-by-play announcing and promoting coverage of the team on radio and television. That is where he received his first education in cable television.
By the time he confronted RCA four years later, he was an expert in the medium. He managed to round up a quarter of a million dollars from banks and other commercial lending sources for the down payment on the satellite and prepared his formal application. The Federal Communications Commission, which screens applicants for satellite transponders, operates largely on a first come first served basis. In late August, 1978, at the urging of RCA, ESPN sent in its application for the transponder.
Five days later, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page article predicting an impending boom in cable television, noting in particular advances made possible by satellite technology. Within days the FCC was deluged with applications for the six remaining RCA transponders from the likes of Time, Inc (owners of Home Box Office), Walt Disney Productions, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Brothers Communications. If satellites were the communications highways of the future, they reasoned, they had better get a seat on the bus.
“Everybody suddenly wanted one,” Rasmussen recalls. “We just happened to get our bid in under the wire by blind luck."
On September 27 at 2 PM, RCA announced the companies that had been awarded the transponders, nearly all of them household names—except Entertainment and Sports Programming Network of Bristol, Connecticut.
“Everybody was going around saying, who are these guys and how in the world did they get it?” Rasmussen remembers.
The real significance of winning the transponder was dramatically underscored ninety minutes alter the RCA announcement. At 3:30 PM Rasmussen received a telephone call front a New York investment broker who said he had a client that wanted to buy out ESPN solely to acquire the transponder rights. “The guy said, ‘We can make you a most attractive offer for your company right now,'" Rasmussen recounts. “We were stunned. We thought, my God, if there is that kind of reaction already, there must be somebody out there willing to finance this company."
ESPN, enjoying the enviable status of a new kid on the block whose father just happened to buy the only candy store in town, began plotting its broadcasting strategy while at the same time seeking financial backing. Rasmussen brought his idea to K.S. Sweet Associates, an investment firm in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, in late September. The firm researched his plan further, looking into the potential growth of cable television, sports broadcasting, and satellite technology, and came up with a final prospectus to present to potential investors.
At the same time ESPN was working out an experimental programming deal with the University of Connecticut through which it would broadcast twenty-eight athletic events in ten different sports and offer the feeds via satellite to any cable companies in the U.S. without charge. By renting broadcasting facilities and technical crews, Rasmussen had ESPN on the air with University of Connecticut soccer in late November of last year.
“We sent up the whole package that season as a demo to anyone who wanted to pull it down," explains Dennis Randall, a former New England Whalers colleague of
Rasmussen who has joined ESPN. “We wanted to show that we could do a good job covering things like wrestling and track. We also wanted to see what kind of response we would get."
When ESPN sent out its programming it also ran a message across the screen asking cable operators and viewers to contact the company and tell them where they were and what they were watching.
“We couldn't believe it!" Randall remarks. “Cable systems in twenty-six states—everywhere from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Juneau, Alaska—watched things like Brown versus the University of Connecticut baseball doubleheaders. More than 850,000 subscribers picked up UConn baseball, and a lot of systems—in Louisiana, Oklahoma, all over—took the entire UConn feed."
Two Connecticut graduates who live in Fort Myers, Florida, were so pleased to see their alma mater on the tube that they telephoned athletic director John Toner to express their delight—the first time in twenty years they had contacted the school for anything.
The response immediately confirmed the instincts of former sports announcer Rasmussen: there are legions of sports junkies out there who would watch any kind of athletic competition, anytime, anywhere.
“We realized that there are all these cable owners out there who have the broadcasting channels open and are looking for stuff to put on,” Randall reasons. “They really don’t care what the hell it is, as long as it’s sports. After that trial, we knew this was going to be a really hot thing."
Besides the UConn package for the experimental broadcasts, ESPN also acquired several professional events, such as the World Championship Tennis matches from Monte Carlo via the BBC in London. The response was again astonishing.
With the Connecticut package going over so well, John Toner of UConn, who is a ranking member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Council, suggested to Rasmussen that he talk with the association about getting rights to broadcast its events nationwide. If ESPN could evoke interest from that organization, Rasmussen thought, the network would be more attractive to investors. The NCAA was impressed with the idea, and negotiations began in the late fall.
The major networks already had exclusive live coverage rights to NCAA football as well as championship finals in basketball, gymnastics, track, and several other sports. But network coverage represents only the fringe of collegiate sports. For example, every weekend in the autumn, there are hundreds of football games, and the networks carry only a handful; in basketball, there are sometimes more than three hundred games a night, and the networks might cover only the most important weekend games; in gymnastics and track, networks cover only the finals of the biggest meets. ESPN, with twenty-four hours of sports time, could cover entire track or gymnastic meets; in football and basketball, it could show dozens of games every week on a tape delay basis.
While Rasmussen was trying to cast his copious net over the NCAA, his investment brokers were trawling in corporate waters. The brokers were trying to sell the novel concept of a cable television network devoted to sports that would derive virtually all its revenue from advertisements. This proposition raised the eyebrows of many potential investors as well as people in the communications field who traditionally had thought of cable solely in terms of pay TV Cable with advertising had been introduced a short time before by l ed Turner's WTCG in Atlanta. He had begun using the RCA satellite to broadcast Atlanta sports nationwide as well us old movies, news, and entertainment programming. But his heavily bankrolled network was considered too new to qualify as a reliable prototype.
“People were highly skeptical about Turner's operation,” notes J.B. Dougherty, who handled the ESPN account for K.S. Sweet Associates. “When the idea emerged, nobody within the cable industry was prepared to acknowledge that a cable network could be supported by advertising. They thought something like this would have to be a pay TV operation.”
In pay TV, viewers pay a fee above the monthly cable charge for specific programs, such as Home Box Office movies. Rasmussen reasoned that his costly sports network would have to carry a hefty price tag if operated as a pay TV system. Moreover, he believed that advertising, although it might be annoying to cable viewers who were accustomed to commercial-free broadcasts, would be more palatable than high subscriber fees. His investment company knew that the combination of high start-up costs (about $10 million was the initial estimate) and the riskiness of the venture required an investor that could afford such a gambit.
February 14, 1979, was a day Bill Rasmussen says he will never forget. Five months later as he describes the extraordinary sequence of events that day, he stares dreamily at his wall calendar as if trying to convince himself that it really happened that way.
“I was in Kansas City talking with the NCAA. We had talked for months about the idea and, finally, that afternoon they decided to go ahead with it and give us exclusive rights to a whole range of things. We signed an agreement right there,” he recounts. “While I was still in the office I got a message that there was a phone call for me. I picked up the phone and it was a representative of the Getty Oil Company saying they liked my idea very much and that they had decided to go ahead with it. He asked me if I could fly directly to Los Angeles rather than go back to Connecticut.”
The communications industry was stunned by the news that Getty had bought 85 percent of ESPN for more than $10 million (Getty now says the total first-year investment will be in the $16-million range). For this huge oil conglomerate, whose revenues last year reached $3.76 billion, that sum is about as daring as purchasing a daily lottery ticket. But the mere fact that big oil was now moving into the nascent satellite cable television business provided an immense boost in prestige and value to the industry—and ESPN.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that our involvement has added a great deal to its potential,” says Stuart W. Evey, Getty vice president. "This gave us an opportunity to become involved, at a relatively nominal investment base, with a project that we felt had excellent long-range possibilities.”
Besides capital, Getty has put at ESPN's disposal its staff of lawyers, accountants, and other business specialists. The company felt that ESPN would be a worthwhile investment even if the network failed. Getty would still have possession of the satellite transponder, which could be put to other uses.
Getty’s announcement prompted Sporting News magazine to declare: “The biggest television sports story of the year emerged from little Plainville, Connecticut, the other day. Big Oil has diversified into the industry.”
A leading communications newsletter was far less impressed: “. . . anyone who believes that their (oil companies) soaring profits from gasoline, diesel fuel, and home heating oil will all be plowed back into exploration and refinery construction believes Christmas comes in July.”
With solid financial backing secured, Rasmussen confidently began plotting the course for ESPN’s debut in September. Construction began on an ultra-modern earth station in Bristol, complete with broadcasting studios and executive offices; orders were placed for seven remote broadcast vans (about $1.5 million each) that would allow crews to cover sports events anywhere in the country and send microwave feeds to Bristol, where they would be sent up to the satellite; recruitment began for a start-up staff of about 130 people, including efforts to pirate a network “big name” announcer to add stature to the fledgling network (they even ordered red and orange blazers—Getty Oil’s company colors—as well as t-shirts and hats for ESPN crews); national advertising was solicited and cable operators across the country were contacted.
In the middle of this frenzy to get on the air quickly came the second quake in the communications world: ESPN announced on April 19 that it had put up a half-million dollar bid for coverage rights to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The commercial networks, which traditionally have enough to worry about as they trample each other in the race for Olympic rights, didn’t know what to make of this brash new kid with the flashy red and orange sneakers. Rasmussen said he wasn’t trying to steal the whole show, but rather wanted to obtain rights to the hundreds of events networks treat superficially or not at all.
“There’s more than enough to go around,” he maintains. Formal negotiations are expected to begin at the end of the year.
ESPN will be vying for coverage rights with CBS, NBC, ABC, and an organization called Tandem Productions of Los Angeles. Tandem, which is partly owned by television producer Norman Lear, is operating as a fourth commercial network solely for the duration of the Los Angeles Olympics. It plans to offer extensive competition coverage to any commercial stations that want more programming than they normally are offered.
Following the dual announcements of the Getty investment and the Olympic bid, ESPN became a hot property for advertisers. In an almost unheard of procedure, two of the largest companies in the country, Kodak and Xerox, contacted the network's temporary office in Plainville even before its ad sales team began soliciting. Each has been negotiating for million-dollar plus packages for the first year. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., already has signed a $1,380,000 package giving it a thirty-second commercial every hour of every NCAA event. That is by far the largest ad contract ever awarded to cable television. Other clients queued up by mid-summer were Bristol Myers, Hertz, Ektelon (a raquetball company), Gillette, United Air Lines, Goodyear, Toyota, Chevrolet, and others.
However, advertising agencies point out that the initial rush of clients reflects only their desire to get on the inside track of something that could become big. No one is making any long-term commitments yet. “This is a development program. We’re not buying this for its cost per thousand rate right now,” says Gene Petrillo, corporate TV director for D’Arcy-MacManus & Masius Inc., Anheuser- Busch's ad agent. “We’ll go with them for a year and then we'll take a hard look at their figures. They will have to compare favorably in CPM (cost per thousand rates) with local and network advertising. The average advertiser would not continue unless it is price competitive.”
Rasmussen says he is confident ESPN will stack up favorably in a year if it is compared with other cable stations.
“Of course, you can’t compare us with the 75 million commercial television homes in the nation,” he maintains. “The networks would like to do that, but there is no way to do that. We have to be compared within the smaller cable universe. We sell national commercials in prime time for about $1,000, and the networks sell a spot during the Super Bowl for $468,000.”
ESPN will be rated by A.C. Nielson along with commercial and public television. In some markets ESPN will be competing for viewers with two dozen or more stations on the cable. Petrillo says that if ESPN gets a 3 percent rating of the six million to eight million satellite cable homes in the first year, that might be acceptable to advertisers like Budweiser.
Rasmussen was no neophyte when it came to the high rolling ratings game. He knew the infant network needed to enhance its image by associating itself with “biggies,” as he called them, people recognized and respected by sports fans. In early summer his corporate commandos began staking out the three commercial networks, looking for talent they could persuade to defect.
By mid-August they had succeeded beyond expectations, coming home with the top generals from NBC Sports. Chester (Chet) Simmons, president of NBC Sports and former ABC Sports vice-president, was appointed president of ESPN. Rasmussen assumed the title of chairman of the board. Several weeks later, Allan B. (Scotty) Connal, NBC vice-president for sports operations and a thirty-two-year veteran of the network, came to ESPN as senior vice-president of operations and production.
The raid left NBC Sports without its two top executives less than a year before it was to broadcast the summer Olympics in Moscow, an event Simmons had been instrumental in acquiring for NBC. ESPN would not disclose the salaries offered to these two “biggies,” but some idea was offered in a recently published newspaper article stating that the salary of an NBC executive several tiers below Simmons and Connal was “about $400,000.”
ESPN’s next move was to attempt to steal a celebrity announcer, and once again it infiltrated NBC. As of this
writing, ESPN said it could not disclose the name of the person they had tentatively signed, but Rasmussen describes him as someone who is “instantly recognizable" to sports fans.
Cable systems across the country are being offered five-year contracts for ESPN at a nominal fee. Rasmussen says the service will be offered free after 1984. In the beginning cable companies will be charged $2.40 per subscriber for the five years (based on the number of subscribers the day of contract signing, regardless of how many new subscribers sign up within five years). That works out to forty- eight cents per viewer annually, or four cents a month.
ESPN’s agreement with the NCAA, which will comprise the bulk of first-year programming, calls for fees paid to schools ranging from $1,000 per game for minor sports to $3,500 for each basketball game, regardless of the size of the school. Questions have been raised about whether live broadcasts of collegiate sports would hurt attendance. Rasmussen says ESPN has worked out an informal agreement in which the network would consider cancelling broadcasts if a school could demonstrate that it faced serious attendance problems as a result of the television coverage.
Sitting in his makeshift office in Plainville, which is littered with computer printouts, graphs, and marked up calendars, Rasmussen ventures that ESPN will turn a profit in 1981. The network’s initial projection for the opening night subscribers was just over 3.5 million, but by June that had jumped to well over 4 million and by now it could be well over 5 million. The computer printouts on Rasmussen’s desk predict the growth of ESPN taking into account the expected increase in the number of cable homes as well as the continuing proliferation of earth stations. Accordingly, 12 million subscribers are expected by 1982, and 18 million by 1984.
“Almost all our projections so far have been on the low side, and I expect it will be much higher than that," Rasmussen proffers. “But even if we get the low numbers we’re predicting, this thing will be incredibly successful."
Most people in the cable television business believe that he will succeed. Getty Oil believes he will succeed. The NCAA does, too. So do advertisers, although they are playing it cautious for now.
There are some real possible pit- falls, however, such as what happens when new communications satellites are launched in the next few years, opening airwaves to other companies? Any organization with enough money could jump in and do the same thing as ESPN, possibly carving up the relatively small cable market to the point where everyone would suffer. There is also the chance of glutting the airwaves with sports.
Rasmussen maintains the likelihood of those things happening is slight for several reasons. For one, all the earth stations in existence—and those now being built—are pointed at his satellite. If a new network began broadcasting on another satellite, it would have to convince cable owners to abandon SATCOM I and aim at the new satellite, which would mean losing access to all the existing programming on SATCOM I, such as Home Box Office, WTCG, Madison Square Garden Sports, and others. Also, by the time the new satellites go up ESPN expects to have long-term exclusive contracts with many collegiate and professional sports teams and the 1984 Olympics.
As for the possible sports overkill on TV, Rasmussen discounts that, too, noting that commercial networks will never be able to broadcast more than a small percentage of sports competition. And while cable could do more, there will always be two dozen or more options on the cable dial for those who don't want to watch sports. “We can survive just with the small number of hard-core sports fans, who will always watch as much as we can give them,” Rasmussen says.
Commercial networks, naturally, look at the blossoming cable business with all the affection Russians harbor for Chinese troops setting up housekeeping along their borders. Repeatedly at congressional hearings, networks have argued that cable threatens to “undermine the public right to free broadcasting.” They are not as vociferous, however, in adding that it also threatens their heretofore government-sanctioned license to print money.
Networks dread the inevitable day when a cable system like ESPN outbids them for exclusive rights to a major sporting event, such as the baseball World Series.
“There is no question that day will come,” Rasmussen predicts.
Jeff Tolvin, ABC’s director of business information, contends that “If this happened, say, with the World Series or the Super Bowl, people are going to be deprived of some of the biggest sports coverage just because they can't pay for it or they don’t want to pay for it.” The networks are asking for congressional action to prevent this.
Rasmussen smiles with the smugness of a baseball manager who is asked whether he wants to let a rookie go to bat in the top of the ninth with his team ahead 17 to 0. “Something like that wouldn’t happen until cable had
grown dramatically, say to reach 35 or 40 percent of all TV homes.” he says. “We just look at the transitional period now and say that we are offering more programming than has ever been available before. We're not denying people programming, we’re offering things that have never been televised before.”
There is a certain irony in Connecticut being the home of the most ambitious undertaking in cable television history. The state was the last in the U.S. to receive cable TV, in 1971, and even today two of the most populous areas of the state, southern Fairfield County and Hartford, are without it. But the growth rate in recent years has been encouraging to say the least: from nothing in 1971, when the first system began in Danbury, the business grew to thirteen companies in 1976 serving 129,000 customers; as of June 1 of this year there were nineteen companies broadcasting to 260,000 homes, more than doubling in three years. With the state’s urbanized areas the next to be hooked up to cable, that figure is expected to swell even faster in the next five years.
A parallel growth rate is foreseen nationwide, a forecast that brings a beaming grin to the visage of Bill Rasmussen—and to corporate executives at Getty Oil headquarters in Los Angeles.
When ESPN goes on the air September 7 it will begin with a live studio show from its new Bristol headquarters introducing the announcers and discussing the network’s plans for coverage. Then it will show taped previews of the four NCAA football games that will highlight the first weekend’s broadcasting: Villanova at Maryland, South Carolina at North Carolina, Oregon at Colorado, and Grambling versus Morgan State at Yankee Stadium. Those games all will be shown on a delayed basis to comply with the commercial networks’ rights. The first game will be shown at 1:30 a m. Sunday Eastern Time, the next at 10 a m. Sunday, then three other broadcasts (Sunday night at 7 and 10 and Monday at 1 A.M.) Each of the games will be repeated at 7 P.M. during the week. Throughout the year, hundreds of NCAA events at large, medium-sized, and small schools will be televised. ESPN also has signed agreements with the Ladies Professional Golf Association, the men’s PGA, World Championship Tennis, the American Professional Slo-Pitch Softball League, the Irish Open Golf Tournament, and dozens of other professional and amateur sports leagues. In addition, the network is negotiating with the National Basketball Association, the North American Soccer League, and other professional organizations for eventual coverage.
The nation’s sports addicts now will be able to mainline, via cable, more sports than they ever dreamed of. “I read somewhere that one of the groups that will benefit most from ESPN will be divorce lawyers,” Scott Rasmussen remarks half-jokingly during a tour of the earth station headquarters in Bristol.
His father already is talking about beaming ESPN into Canada and Central America in several years. Satellite technology makes almost anything possible for relatively little added cost.
As Bill Rasmussen puts it, “We just keep rolling the dice and they keep coming up in our favor.”
With a backer like Getty Oil, the odds are certainly with him.
More sports stories from the archives:
Terese Karmel’s “Husky Heaven” (March 1995) takes a look at the classic UConn basketball women’s team at the start of their phenomenal streak.
Get to know Fairfield native and former Westport resident James Blake, Connecticut's most famous tennis product, in “Blake’s Progress” (April 2002) by K. Lee Howard.
Lime Rock Park gets an early profile in these pages in John Birchard’s “Lime Rock Bridges the Gap” (May 1972), a look at the auto racing venue's broad appeal.
And Charles Monagan visits the starting line of a slightly less, let’s say sanctioned, type of auto race in “The Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash” (June 1979), a Darien-to-California cross-country race that was the inspiration for the 1981 big-screen comedy The Cannonball Run.
Read even more stories from Connecticut Magazine's 50-year history at connecticutmag.com/archives