By Tom Shales
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Drawing upon over 500 interviews with the greatest names in ESPN’s history and an All-Star collection of some of the world’s finest athletes, bestselling authors James Miller and Tom Shales take us behind the cameras. Now, in their own words, the men and women who made ESPN great reveal the secrets behind its success-as well as the many scandals, rivalries, off-screen battles and triumphs that have accompanied that ascent. From the unknown producers and business visionaries to the most famous faces on television, it’s all here.
Table of Contents
It is the 27th day of August 2009, and a happy horde has gathered in remote Bristol, Connecticut, to celebrate—with equal parts sentimentality and pride—the thirtieth birthday of a television network. Not many broadcasting companies inspire this level of devotion, but this one is different.
The sun smiles down obligingly on ESPN's sixty-four-acre "campus"—the rolling, semiverdant site on which ESPN's buildings sit and from which its twenty-seven treasured satellite dishes suck signals from the sky, spewing others back into the ionosphere and out through much of the world. The grass all but glows green, something that couldn't have happened thirty years ago, when this place had less in common with a university than with the LaBrea Tar Pits, except that Bristol's primordial ooze was just plain miserable mud.
The thirtieth-birthday festivities are going to be much more understated than celebrations for the twenty-fifth. Then, cars full of ESPN stars motorcaded through Disney World, and even if you couldn't get to Florida, you could probably score one of the 1.3 million bottles of Gatorade produced in a special flavor called "ESPN"—or grab one of 300 million Bud Light cans with ESPN's twenty-fifth anniversary logo printed on the label. In the weeks leading up to the celebration, network nabobs chose what they thought were the top sports moments of the previous twenty-five years and aired a series of specials keyed to the anniversary—all the hoopla climaxing in one of the hottest tickets in the company's history: a blowout at the ESPN Zone restaurant in Times Square.
Because 2009 is turning out to be a brutally cruel recession year, ESPN's president, the unflappable George Bodenheimer, wisely elects to tone things down this time around. In a brief state-of-the-clubhouse speech, he looks to a rosy future before an audience that includes many of the company's senior executives and about fifty members of both old and new media.
So self-confident are the leaders of ESPN at this point in their history that they have even invited the head raccoon of Deadspin, the maverick and sometimes mean-spirited blog that has long considered the merciless ongoing examination of ESPN to be one of its public duties.
Deadspin editor A. J. Daulerio felt he couldn't handle spending the entire day cozying up to ESPN's big kahunas, so he dispatched "Blazer Girl," the blog's answer to Lois Lane, to cover the event. If Daulerio is hoping she will go all Woodward and Bernstein on ESPN, however, he's going to be disappointed; Blazer Girl goes soft among the ESPN cognoscenti, especially when she gets to pose for a photo with the network's longest-reigning superstar, Chris Berman.
After lunch comes a celebration within the celebration: homage paid to forty-three people who, like Berman, started with ESPN in the first year of its existence—and are still on the payroll as the first decade of a new century ends.
It's part of the mythology of the place that many an ESPN employee doesn't just date the company but marries it. Longevity is the norm. Over the years, occasional employees leave because they don't fit in; some leave because they simply can't take so-called life in lonely Bristol; and still others leave for better pay and more ego stroking elsewhere. Lastly, though there have been notorious examples to the contrary, it usually takes a lot to get fired by ESPN.
Of the forty-three stalwarts being honored with their own stars on the ESPN "Walk of Fame" on this super summer afternoon, Berman, practically the network's avatar, and Bob "The General" Ley (pronounced Lee), the network's best journalist, are not only the most recognizable ESPN personalities but among the most recognizable guys ever to have a mic pack jab their rear ends. The two soak up the admiring applause of several hundred in the audience—other honorees, ESPN employees and family members, press, and guests.
In a moment that is somehow pure ESPN, Bob Ley looks down at his star and does a double take when he sees "Rob Ley" spelled out in gold lettering, a whammy of a blooper that causes colleague Bill Shanahan, standing next to Ley, to explode in guffaws. Some might consider this a perfect reminder that through the years, ESPN management has never liked its personalities to become big names anyway; big names demand big bucks. They prefer keeping the talent humble.
Bodenheimer handles the officiating with presidential aplomb alongside Sage Steele—born seven years before ESPN was—as his mistress of ceremonies. Bodenheimer had rejected the organizing committee's first suggestion of an emcee and made the outstanding choice of Steele—who represents everything you could ask for in an anchor—himself. Berman and Ley speechify, then join other honorees posing for photos next to their stars and also with Bodenheimer, who on this day seems more benevolently paternalistic than ever.
Then they all adjourn to the ESPN Café and eat cake to commemorate the spectacular growth of the past three decades. ESPN was a funky little seat-of-the-pants operation in 1979 when it started, in a town so dull that employees worked eighteen-hour days to keep from dying of boredom outside. ESPN now encompasses six domestic U.S. cable networks, forty-six international networks, ESPN radio in North America and syndicated radio in eleven other far-flung countries, plus online operations, broadband, magazines, books, interactive media, wireless, CDs and DVDs, video games, and restaurants, all helping to pump coverage of more than sixty-five different sports into television sets, computers, and mobile phones in more than two hundred fifty countries.
Once a bastard stepchild filed, along with "almond groves," under "other" among the holdings of Getty Oil, ESPN is now the most important component of the Disney empire, worth more than the entire National Football League, worth more than the NBA, MLB, and the NHL put together.
This book pursues the mystery of ESPN's rise to stratospheric heights from subterranean depths. It reveals how a crazy idea grew into one of the most successful media enterprises of all time.
"Those Guys Have All the Fun." The men and women you will meet in these pages spend their days and nights talking and thinking about sports. Hard as they work, ESPNers toil in an environment that most folks would consider pure pleasure. And when they aren't working, ESPNers still have all the fun, or at least most of it. At ESPN, partying is a varsity sport.
What follows is not the history but the story of ESPN. It would take a dozen or more weighty volumes to provide an all-encompassing account of ESPN's innumerable hours of nonstop broadcasting through more than thirty sports-saturated years. More time and space would be needed to fully chronicle the many thousands who have come and gone—or come and stayed—over the decades. Still, many of those who have entered ESPN's orbit are here, and here in their own words. To write this book, over five hundred fifty people were interviewed, and the words you read are their own. In some instances, their quotes have been cleaned up (removing, for example, the "umms" and "uhs" that accompany most conversation); and certain discussions for the sake of clarity and exposition have been moved or compacted. But otherwise, what you read is precisely as it was told to us.
One thing that can be stated from the start is that the odds of ESPN happening just the way it did are somewhere in the neighborhood of a zillion to one. All sports, all the time—24/7 and 365 days a year? When the notion was hatched back in 1978, it was liberally ridiculed—even though logic and precedent tell us that eventually, somehow and somewhere, someone would have looked at the tremendous growth of sports and sporting events in the United States, noticed the morphing of athletes into superstar celebrities, taken stock of the wide-open explosion in the number of potential cable networks, and realized that tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars were lying around waiting to be made.
But it was hardly inevitable that anyone else's long-and-windy road to fruition as a media superpower would have started in a hamlet as unkempt, unlikely, and unheard-of as Bristol, Connecticut.
Maybe it all goes to prove that some higher power is a sports fan. Surely someone or something intervened to help see ESPN through the sometimes dark, sometimes bleak, occasionally slapdash early days. Today, lowly little Bristol has been transformed into the world headquarters of a globally branded, dominating presence.
Turns for the better were the results of crucial decisions made by six different men (and many others who worked for them or oversaw them). The men who at different times ran the company wound up being both the right guys for the job and, perhaps more important, the right guys for the eras in which they served. So much so that if, along the way, someone were to have started messing around with the exact order in which these men took charge, it could well have knocked ESPN off its trajectory. The company and the network that are ESPN might not even exist (much less be bookworthy), might have stumbled ignominiously into oblivion, if not for the exact sequence of these decision makers and of the decisions they kept making.
There were many more people involved, of course, than just executives and owners. In the chapters ahead, you'll meet them—people who worked at the company or who dealt with it from outside its cloistered campus. They all have stories of their own—happy, sad, adventurous, timid, wholesome as pie, or lurid as pay-per-view porn.
ESPN's playing field has been populated with winners and losers, champions and chumps, cads and catalysts, heroes and, for lack of a better word, villains—and theirs is a shared story of struggle, defeat, more struggle, losses, and victory.
The story began decades ago, but in a way, it's a saga that's just getting started. As, indeed, are we….
"A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."
It all started with a $9,000 investment, the purchase of a "transponder" by a father and son who had never seen one, and the suicide of a famous playboy.
BILL RASMUSSEN, Chairman:
I was fired as the communications manager for the Hartford Whalers in 1978, and then fired as executive director for Howe Enterprises. Gordie Howe was playing for the Whalers at the time, and the Enterprises job was just a way to do some things for Gordie and the boys. The way I was dismissed was intriguing. It was Memorial Day weekend, that Saturday morning, and I was getting ready to play golf. The phone rang and it was Colleen Howe, Gordie's wife. She said, "I don't have much time and I really wanted to see you because I didn't want to do it this way, but we're terminating you at Howe Enterprises. I have to catch a plane, so good-bye." It was a surefire way to ruin a good round of golf.
SCOTT RASMUSSEN, Executive Vice President:
My dad was in broadcasting my whole life. We have a close relationship, but it's complicated.
We would broadcast high school hockey games together, and when he was with the Whalers, I filled in with a pregame talk show a few times. I had taken a year off after high school, then went to college for two years and dropped out. I don't think my dad was surprised. School and I weren't the best of friends.
Then my father and I did a TV show on Channel 18 in Hartford—which was a religious station then—called Sports Only, which basically was SportsCenter in its earliest form. It was around that time that my dad and I started batting around ideas, but none of them were quite right.
Years before, in 1950, Bill Rasmussen had the opportunity to play in the Detroit Tigers Class D farm club; he would have grabbed at the chance, but like many others of that era, he felt he had to attend college—in his case, DePauw University—to hang on to a draft exemption that would keep him out of the Korean War. Sports remained his true love, however, and now, in 1978, with his forty-sixth birthday approaching, Rasmussen decided that the time had come to actually do what he dreamed of doing.
While working for the Whalers, Rasmussen had met an insurance man named Ed Eagan, who was working at Aetna but really wanted to be in television. Eagan had wanted to talk to Bill about the Hartford Whalers being the centerpiece of a monthly cable show about Connecticut sports.
I called Ed Eagan right after Colleen's call and told him, "I don't think it's a very good idea to talk to me about the Whalers since I'm not there anymore," but he said, "Come on in, and we'll talk about something else." We ended up thinking we should do what I was going to do with the Whalers but do it independently. As the conversation continued we thought, why not do UConn basketball, and then we thought, if we can do UConn, why not Wesleyan, why not Yale, why not Fairfield, and Southern Connecticut? One thing led to another. Ed even had the idea for the first two shows: hot-air ballooning and a game from the Bristol Red Sox. Ed said we would tape a show every month with a sports topic of interest to Connecticut, and take these big two-inch reels of tape in his car to cable systems. We could do shorter distances on bicycle.
Rasmussen knew virtually nothing about the cable TV business, but he wasn't alone: in 1978, there were just over 14 million homes receiving cable—less than 20 percent of all TV households. HBO had gone on the air in 1975 but offered limited programming and signed off at midnight. A year later, Ted Turner uplinked his then-piddling Atlanta UHF outlet to a satellite, thereby creating the country's first "SuperStation," but one that delivered more Braves games than original programming. The next year, televangelist Pat Robertson launched his 700 Club on satellite, and in 1978, despite the fact that HBO reached only 1.5 million homes, Viacom fired up its slow-blooming imitation, Showtime.
Regionally, cable was beginning to make some inroads. In Reading, Pennsylvania, a pioneering cable system acceded to demands from the local American Nazi Party to lease time on its public-access channel (regulations prohibited turning anybody down). On the other extreme, New York's Glenn O'Brien's TV Party provided a crazily kinetic TV home to punk rockers, subterranean semi-celebrities, and exploratory artists like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and David Byrne. Among the lyrics to the show's theme song: "We've got nothing better to do than watch TV and have a couple of brews…"
Beginning in the summer of 1978, Bill, his son Scott, Eagan, and Eagan's buddy Bob Beyus, who owned a video production company, sought the backing of cable operators and potential investors for a new sports channel. They had originally wanted to name it SPN, the Sports Programming Network, but something called the Satellite Programming Network had already laid claim to those letters. Bill knew they'd have a tough time filling hours with only Connecticut sports and argued that they'd have to include some entertainment programming. Thus was it born: ESP, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
On June 26, presentations began. ESP invited twelve representatives of Connecticut's cable operators to a rented conference room at United Cable in Plainville, Connecticut. Only five showed up, and those mostly out of deference to Bill Rasmussen's contacts in the industry rather than out of breathless anticipation of the new enterprise. Skeptically, they listened to far-fetched proposals about delivering Connecticut collegiate sporting events, amateur sports, the Whalers, and "entertainment" programming to cable operators via an interstate network. The reaction was a double shot of bad news: implausible, the cable crowd said, and too costly.
Undaunted that the presentation bombed, the quartet of entrepreneurs pushed ahead, holding a press conference days later to spread the word. Of the thirty-five reporters invited to attend the grand announcement of ESP, a mere four attended, and none of them were particularly impressed. Neither was Beyus, who had thought it complete folly to hold a press conference without any contracts, but was outvoted by his partners. Immediately following the press conference, he officially flew the coop. Still undeterred, the Rasmussens and Eagan formally incorporated ESP Network on July 14, 1978, for a fee of $91.
When Scott and I talked with Jim Dover over at United Cable, he told us about something new coming along called satellite communication and said it was going to be the wave of the future. A couple guys over at United helped us try to figure out what the satellites did, but nobody really had any idea. Then someone said that RCA was doing a lot of this stuff in Europe and we should talk to those guys. We called in the middle of the afternoon, and a young guy named Al Parinello answered the phone.
AL PARINELLO, RCA Manager:
In 1978, I was one of two people hired by RCA to penetrate the cable-television marketplace and basically convince new emerging networks that satellite distribution of their television product—as opposed to terrestrial distribution—was the wave of the future. RCA had launched a satellite called SATCOM 1, but no one understood that this thing was real, that it actually existed. Think about it: you couldn't see it, you couldn't touch it, and there was no way to demonstrate that it really was up there 22,300 miles above the equator. So it was a concept sale.
The first deal that I made was with a reverend who called me and said he wanted to buy one or two hours of satellite time. I said, "Sure. Where is the uplink going to be?" He said, "We'll use your New Jersey uplinking facility," and I said, "Okay, great. Now, where do you want us to bring the signal down? We have facilities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, wherever." And he said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, where's it going, where do you want the signal to go?" He said, "I want it to go to God." I said, "What do you mean you want it to go to God?" He said, "This is a program that my parishioners and I have put together. It's our message to God, and we want to send it to him by satellite. It's just going out there; it's not coming back." So I said, "Okay." It was a $1,200 or $1,300 deal. That was the first order that was ever on RCA SATCOM for cable television usage.
Al wanted to get together and asked us where we were located, but we didn't have offices. We asked Jim Dover at United Cable if we could rent the conference room there and he said, "Give me a $20 bill." So that was the rent, and Al came and showed us all these diagrams of satellites and how this happens, and how that happens.
We're talking pewter ashtrays, a big oak table, and china dishes that lunch was served on. Bill said, "This is our headquarters." Little did I know that he had rented this beautiful room.
My first question was "What kind of programming are we talking about?" And the answer was we're talking about regional sports programming—UConn sporting events, and so forth. I was confused. I'm like, "Bill, you need to understand that when you utilize satellite communications, your signal is going to go up to a geosynchronous satellite orbiting 24,300 miles above the equator. And because of that, anybody with an earth station anywhere can get your programming. So it seems to me that you shouldn't just be talking about Connecticut sports, why not think in terms of doing something a little bigger?"
That was the moment I saw Bill and Scott look at each other like I had just hit a nerve.
Wow, what an eye-opener.
I can still remember the conversation. Bill said, "Let me get this straight. You mean to tell me, for no extra money—for no extra money!—we could take this signal and beam it anywhere in the country?" And I said, "That's right." And then he asked again, "Anywhere in the country?" And I said, "Anywhere." I remember we went back and forth like this a couple times. Bill and Scott were looking at each other, and they might have been getting sexually excited, I'm not sure. But I can tell that they were very, very excited.
Al had been talking about us buying a transponder on the satellite for nightly stuff on an hourly basis, but then he said the fateful words: "We used to have another one that was twenty-four hours a day, but no one bought it so we took it off the market." We all just looked at each other for a moment. So then I asked him what that would cost. He said, "$34,167 a month."
I was only twenty-two at that point but I could figure out that $1,143 for twenty-four hours was a better deal than 1,250 bucks for five hours, so there was no question we should sign up for the full service. We were able to send a satellite signal around America for less money than it cost to send the same signal around Connecticut via landlines.
Before Al got in his car, Scott said, "We should get three of those," and I said, "We don't have the money to buy even one." But we called Al the next day and said, "We'll take one." And Al says, "You'll take one what?" We said, "We'll take one of those twenty-four-hour ones that you've never sold before."
Bill's first goal was to convince me, as the representative of RCA, that I should go back to corporate and recommend this new venture as a viable candidate, and I was convinced. I was absolutely blown away by these two. They were good people. They were smart. They were savvy. And they listened intently. I went back to the home office and said, "I think we have good people here who we can trust. I can't vouch for where the money's coming from, but if we don't have a check by X date, we'll throw this deal away." It was that simple.
What we didn't know was that there was going to be a column in the Wall Street Journal the day after Labor Day saying the wave of the future was satellites at RCA. They got a ton of applications after that, but we already had our transponder reserved.
All of a sudden we had this distribution technology, but we had no idea about anything else.
It was August 16, 1978. Scott and I were driving to the Jersey shore from Connecticut. We were on our way to see my daughter, who was working down there for the summer. It was her birthday; we couldn't miss it, we had to go. So we had a blue stick-shift Toyota, no air-conditioning. It was going to be a hot day, so we started driving early in the morning because we had to drive at least four hours. And as we approached Waterbury, just east of route 84, traffic just stopped. I bet I could place us within a hundred feet of it if we were driving right now. We were just sitting there in traffic and it was real hot. So we started doing a lot of brainstorming.
Putting the two of us in a car was a sure recipe that all we were going to talk about was the business and what we were going to do with the transponder. We were having arguments, creative arguments, and they got pretty heated. At some point—we were on I-84 in Waterbury—I just got really fed up and turned to my father and said, "I don't care what you do with it, show football all weekend, see if I care." And for the first time all morning he didn't yell back at me. He said, "That's it! Not football, but sports!"
From that moment on for the rest of the day I was scribbling notes on a pad. We showed up at the Jersey shore but ignored my sister on her birthday. We were coming up with all kinds of ideas, estimating cable penetration, and trying to figure out how many people we would need. We talked about the cable subscribers and what kind of deal we could offer them. We talked about coming up with programming, and that we'd have one anchor sportscaster and then hire a bunch of other people for next to nothing. I probably filled every piece of paper on that pad. That night we couldn't even get to sleep.
In one single day we decided that we would do sports twenty-four hours a day, have a half-hour sports show at 6:30 every night, which would be the sports center, that we would go out and hire sportscasters, and buy a fleet of trucks that would roam the nation covering sporting events.
The next day we got in the car and talked all the way home. The plan was born, I won't say fully hatched, but the big parameters were already in place before we got back to Connecticut that night.
When we got in the house it was well after midnight and we couldn't think of anything more to talk about, so we decided to design a building, you know, what's our building going to be like? We took out a ruler that was marked off in eighth-of-an-inch increments and so we decided that one inch equals eight feet in our scale. I think the initial size was 96 by 64 and we made it two stories. We put in the executive-office corner, and we put in the studio. And we're rearranging and drawing and it's probably two in the morning and my dad just roars back and starts laughing. He says, "It's funny, we've got to have a tape room!" He took an eraser and erased the outside wall, made the building eight feet longer, and we had a tape room! What we sketched out that night is what was done. The executive offices, the control room, everything.
I can't fully describe the excitement of those two car rides. We were thinking we had the greatest idea in the history of the world and needed to guard it really carefully because people were going to want to steal it from us. It took us a little while to realize most people were going to laugh at us when they heard it, so eventually we got over that initial paranoia.
Then RCA called. They were concerned because they didn't have our financials on record to back up our order. I basically said, "You know I can't believe you're even asking this question. You haven't sent us an invoice. If you have concerns, send us an invoice and we'll pay it." Then they probably thought, "All right, well, it must be okay, and we'll send them an invoice." Fortunately they didn't send it for ninety days.
At first, I was just using my own money—about $9,000 that I had put on a credit card, but that was no way to finance a business. So I went to my family in Chicago—my sister, my brother [Don], my mother and father—and put together $30,000.
DON RASMUSSEN, Regional Manager:
I was a junior high school principal in 1978, and on December 14 my dad called and said, "Your brother Bill's here and he wants to come down and see you." I said, "Okay, have him come on down." When I got off the phone and told my wife, she said, "Bill wants money." Now, you have to understand that my wife and I had been married for twenty-two years and Bill had never been to our home. So this was really something.
There's a dynamic in our family that was either intentionally or unintentionally cultivated from the time we were kids—it impacts us to this day and had a big impact on the creation of ESPN. My brother Bill is five years older than I am. We had another brother who was less than a year older than me, who was killed as a naval navigator in a plane crash. And we have a sister who is three years younger than me. There was never any affection in the family at all. Now, as we grew up, Bill was the king of the roost, the child with talent and intelligence, and everybody else came in second. No matter what I did, it never measured up to Bill and all his successes.
- On Sale
- May 24, 2011
- Page Count
- 784 pages
- Little, Brown and Company