Founder of ESPN speaks to young entrepreneurs

11/18/2011 5:00 AM

11/18/2011 8:07 AM

In 1978, Bill Rasmussen had just gotten fired and didn’t know what he would do next. What he did next has changed the course of television and sports ever since.

Rasmussen is the founder of ESPN, which today provides sports 24-hours a day over six U.S. networks and 46 international networks – and still doesn’t have space for all the sports programming out there.

He spoke Thursday morning at the Youth Entrepreneurs Kansas breakfast held at Koch Arena. In the audience were dozens of students who hope one day to start their own companies. After the program, they enthusiastically lined up to have Rasmussen sign a copy of the book about his experiences, “Sports Junkies Rejoice, the Birth of ESPN,”and to have a few words with him.

Rasmussen’s story began with the day he lost his job as communications director of the New England Whalers, a pro hockey team in Hartford, Conn., after the team missed the playoffs. Rasmussen went to an already-scheduled TV interview, and while there they started talking about developing a package of University of Connecticut basketball games for the local cable channel, and then for all of the cable systems in Connecticut. After a little thinking and researching he grasped a miraculous fact: The technology and the audience was just emerging to allow for the creation of something new, a channel devoted to sports (or weather or news ) 24 hours a day. All he had to do was find the financial backing to do it.

“A salesman once told me that every sale starts with a ‘no.’ ” he said. “We knew we were going to be really be big because we got lots of ‘nos.’ ”

He succeeded in convincing Getty Oil of his vision, bought space on an RCA satellite, and started producing sports programming 24 hours a day Sept. 7, 1979. There were many nights of Irish hurling and tractor pulls (one early awkward moment: Budweiser sponsored the slow-pitch softball championship in which the Schlitz team was playing). It also pioneered the showing of hundreds of college basketball games, helping in the development of the Big East Conference.

The network’s growth was aided immensely by the complaisance of the television networks, who didn’t understand that many viewers wanted to watch what they wanted when they wanted.

“What we saying were going to have sports there whenever you walked in the room....it didn’t take very long to click in the minds in the cable operators.”

Rasmussen acknowledged that ESPN has become so powerful and ever-present that it has moved beyond showing events to shaping them, such as the impact its television contract with the University of Texas has had on destablizing the Big 12 conference.

“Obviously, their responsibility is to not become the story,” he said, “but you can’t help but become the story because of the amount of money.”.

Nor, Rasmussen said, is he bothered by the channel’s often over-the-top broadcasters.

“For the most part, especially the NFL show with Chris Berman, they realize they’re in the entertainment business and they give some information as well,” he said. “But Chris Berman and Dick Vitale, and these guys who are all over the place, when you meet them or know them in person, they are quite different.”

Technology is changing again, with the rise of video programming on the internet threatening the cable companies. But Rasmussen expects ESPN to be able to continue hold a leading position on sports programming in the new technology. The company, he said, continues to innovate, has a tremendously amount of money and more than a thousand people devoted to technology.

Rasmussen had some advice for the many prospective entrepreneurs in the audience:

“You don’t have to know all of the facts before you start, but you better have the passion and the ideas in mind,” he said. “If you don’t believe, how can you make anyone else believe?”

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