You know the old saying, unemployment is the mother of invention? Well, ESPN might never have come to our living rooms—all 8,760 hours of it per year—if the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association hadn't fired their communications director and radio play-by-play man back in the spring of 1978. Poor 45-year-old Bill Rasmussen, out on his ear. But maybe you need to be unemployed to think up a network that would one day program Irish hurling against the World Series and would—someday—prosper by doing so. And maybe you've got to be a little cut off from real life to think you might get away with airing tape-delayed basketball 24 hours a day, along with rodeo and demolition derby.
Rasmussen, of course, wasn't looking to create ESPN or television history. All he was looking to do, during that downtime of his 16 years ago, was find a way to provide coverage of University of Connecticut basketball games through the dozen or so cable operators that were servicing Connecticut. When he talked to the cable operators, they kept mentioning some new distribution technology. To Rasmussen, who had spent his career working with little more than telephone lines, the idea of satellite transmission was fairly exotic. Being unemployed, Rasmussen had time to look into this. He called somebody at RCA headquarters and discovered that the company had been keeping a vastly underused satellite aloft for two years and was hungry for customers. "Of RCA's 23 active transponder sites," Rasmussen says, "there were six that were entirely available, and the others were in use no more than five hours a day."
Rasmussen had stumbled onto satellite technology just barely before everyone else. He discovered that he could shoot the UConn basketball games to as many cable operators in the state—all states, actually—that wanted them by using a satellite and paying by the hour. But as the satellite man explained the rates, Rasmussen noticed something else. One could rent space for five hours for $1,250 or—and this wasn't even on the rate card, so ridiculous a proposition was it—one could rent space for 24 hours for $1,143. So Rasmussen decided to try offering coast-to-coast, 24-hour-a-day programming simply because it was cheaper to do so than not.
But Rasmussen wasn't a pioneer yet. "You could say we had a little programming problem," he says. What, for example, would he broadcast all day long? He and his son Scott, then 22, were stuck in traffic one hot August afternoon in 1978, pondering this very question. They went back and forth, and as the traffic inched forward, tempers became frayed. "Put on football all day long for all I care," Scott said testily. This is cable's version of "Eureka, I have found it!" After negotiating with a reluctant NCAA, Rasmussen pretty much did put on college football all day long. Not only that, but he often played tapes of the same games again and again to fill out the airtime.
The other key element in the development of what was at first called the E.S.P (Entertainment Sports Programming) Network was that RCA didn't want any money up front for the satellite rental. Rasmussen's company moved forward on the $9,000 he squeezed from his credit cards. The network began broadcasting in the fall of 1979 with limited airtime during the week and 24-hour coverage on weekends, and in September 1980 it began airing sports around the clock. In the years since, ESPN—it became that after its stationery came back from the printer with that letterhead—has negotiated increasingly important contracts with almost every league. The slo-pitch softball games have been replaced by major league baseball, Irish hurling by the NFL. ESPN now reaches more than 60 million homes and is a billion-dollar company.
Rasmussen didn't hang around long. The corporate turnovers (ESPN was first bought by Getty then ABC) that were necessary to keep the station alive during the money-losing days of its early growth period forced Rasmussen out by 1980. But he did all right. By the time he had cashed out, in 1984, the Rasmussen family interests were estimated to be worth $25 million. By then Bill Rasmussen was finally able to relax and do nothing—and with a clear conscience, or so he thought. He retired to Naples, Fla., and tried playing golf for days on end. Then he got to thinking. In 1990 he bought into a company that offers home-automation services. He swears it's the technology of the future.
GEORGE LONG, 1979