The George Washington of ESPN led a different kind of revolution than our country’s first President. Bill Rasmussen and his tiny band of “cable TV patriots” charged into the advertising canyons of Manhattan and traveled across an America populated by sports fans armed with nothing more than an idea of freeing those fans from the regulated and sparse sports offerings of the “Big Three” networks: ABC, CBS and NBC.
Bill was fired by the New England Whalers on Memorial Day weekend in 1978. Before the calendar turned another full year, he had met with virtually every major sports entity, all major cable operators and numerous potential financial backers. There were plenty of skeptics and few believers.
Undeterred, Bill set about turning skeptics into believers. An NCAA contract added credibility; a few major cable operators cautiously embraced the idea; then Anheuser-Busch became cable TV’s first million-dollar advertiser. When Getty Oil agreed to finance the venture, the elements were in place for a September 7, 1979 launch of the world’s first 24-hour network. Launched - yes, but there was more to come!
The NFL on ESPN was another marquee property worth pursuing. Bill met with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle before ESPN was even launched. After listening carefully, Rozelle commented thoughtfully, “Not now, but someday.” Someday did arrive at ESPN... just 8 years later in 1987... and since 2006 the brightest television star of the NFL galaxy - Monday Night Football - has called ESPN home!!!
Today, with a global presence in more than 200 countries and over 100 million television households in the United States, ESPN has indeed turned skeptics into believers worldwide.