Sunday, September 05, 1999

SPORTS ON TV-RADIO


ESPN changed history of sports

BY JOHN FAY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        George Grande was at the anchor desk in the middle of a half-finished studio.

        Dan Patrick was on the couch in “The Ghetto” at the University of Dayton watching.

        Chris Berman was in Waterbury, Conn., doing weekend sports for the No. 4 station for a $23 a day.

        Dick Vitale was in Detroit, freshly fired by the Detroit Pistons, wondering what he would do with his life.

        But when the red light went on and the image of Grande and co-anchor Lee Leonard was beamed to all of 1.4 million homes at 7 p.m. Sept.7, 1979, television and sports history was about to be made.

        You can argue that the launch of ESPN was the biggest change in the sports landscape since Jackie Robinson broke the color line.

        Grande, Patrick, Berman and Vitale did not know it, but that day in 1979 would change their lives.

        “We had a vision of what it could be,” said Grande, who spent 10 years at the network as the senior announcer. “But we didn't know it would last one year, much less 20.”

        ESPN now reaches 76.2 million homes. Its sister network, ESPN2, reaches 65 million. In 1979, there were 70 employees. Now, there are 2,100 (42 of whom are former pro athletes).

        There's ESPNews. ESPN Classic. ESPN Radio. ESPN.com. ESPN: The Magazine.

        But the impact reaches much further than the line of products. ESPN has changed the way Americans view sports. ESPN is the No. 1 network — broadcast or cable — among men. Rarely does anything spectacular happen on the college or pro level in the major sports that doesn't make it to ESPN.

        ESPN will celebrate with the ESPN 20th Anniversary Special at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The three-hour program, hosted by Berman, will take viewers on the long, strange trip that took ESPN from an upstart to the main force in sports television.

        Before ESPN, there was a baseball Game of the Week. Now there are six Games of the Night. Sports like college basketball have flourished largely because of ESPN. Things like the NFL Draft became events because of ESPN. ESPN even affected the American lexicon. Say “gone” the right way, and people think home run. Kids who never studied Spanish can tell you what “en fuego” means. Patrick is responsible for that.

        ESPN was the brain child of Bill Rasmussen. He had been the public relations director of the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. He bought a 1-acre parcel of land in Bristol, Conn., for $18,000. He picked Bristol because it was near his home of Avon, Conn., and it didn't have any ordinances against satellite dishes, which would be needed to send ESPN's signal around the country.

        Rasmussen hired Chet Simmons and Scotty Connal from NBC. He then got Getty Oil to buy 85 percent of the network.

        “Those three elements were all equally important,” Grande said. “Bill had the vision. Chet and Scotty gave it instant credibility. And Getty Oil provided the money. They lost $20 million a year for the first five years. But we knew the marketplace was there.”

        Patrick, sitting on that couch in Dayton, knew it too, and he wanted to be part of it.

        “I was watching the first show I ever saw,” Patrick said. “George Grande and Bob Ley, and I remember it to this day, I said, "That's where I want to be.'”

        SportsCenter was the first show and the show that network was built around.

        “It was the place-holder,” said Ley, who joined the network two days after ESPN went on the air. “It's still the centerpiece of the network.”

        The idea, of course, was brand new.

        “Television sports until that time had been three minutes of highlights on the local news,” Grande said. “The networks had weekend programming, but it was mostly events.”

        In the early days, SportsCenter was on at 7 and 11 p.m., but the anchors constantly were counted on to do updates to fill the gaps between programming, which was sparse in the early days.

        “On paper, we looked like a wing and a prayer,” Berman said. “But I will say this, that never along the line did we think ... We never put on junk. It may not have been sports you wanted to see necessarily, OK?”

        That's true. The first SportsCenter was followed by a live doubleheader from the Slo-Pitch Softball World Series, the Kentucky Bourbons vs. the Milwaukee Schlitzes.

        But the programming came. The first NHL game was shown three months in. In 1980, the network got 23 NCAA Tournament games.

        Some point to that as the turning point for the network. ESPN drew up the blueprint on how to cover the early rounds of the NCAA. (CBS still doesn't compare).

        Grande said one of the keys was that ESPN, a non-union shop, could do a network-quality job for a fraction of the cost.

        “I put together a budget to cover the '84 Olympics,” he said. “It was $240,000 for everything. I showed it to Don Ohlmeyer of NBC. He started laughing. He said, "That's what our budget for limos is.' Now, 20 years later, ESPN is a lot more like the networks and the networks are a lot more like ESPN. We showed you could do more for less.”

        Another example: ESPN did its first NFL Draft with 30 people.

        “The network would have used 230,” Grande said. “But we scrimped and scraped and got things done.”

        ESPN gradually added more live and better programming. By 1983, it became the largest cable network, with 28.5 million homes. In 1987, ESPN got an NFL package. Sunday Night Football has been the highest rated cable series ever since. In 1989, ESPN and Major League Baseball reached a $400,000 agreement under which ESPN would televise 175 games a year. ESPN has been the baseball network ever since.

        Australian Rules Football was no longer a staple.

        Vitale, who did ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979, started to see a difference in the way the network was treated.

        “The kind of response we receive is unbelievable,” he said. “They roll out the carpet for us.”

        Some of the on-air people — Vitale, Berman, Patrick — became huge stars. Berman has been in six movies. Patrick does commercials for beer, chips and restaurants. Vitale is better known than any college player he covers.

        “I don't think any other network has fans like we do,” Ley said. “They have viewers. We have fans. It's a unique relationship.”

        But for all Dickie V's yelling and Boomer Berman's nicknaming, ESPN is a network with great substance. Its statistical graphics set the standard. It hired respected print reporters like Peter Gammons, Chris Mortensen and John Clayton.

        “We're a news-gathering organization,” Ley said.

        The network often breaks stories. CNN/SI and Fox Sports Net have programs that compete with SportsCenter,but they rarely beat it. And they don't have the identity with viewers.

        Vitale speaks for many sports fans when he talks about SportsCenter.

        “I'm a sports junkie,” he said. “I'm totally lost without it. It's become part of life.”

        The same could be said of the network as a whole.

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