1987: America's Cup (Geoffrey Mason/ESPN Images)
1987: America’s Cup
(Geoffrey Mason/ESPN Images)

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the culmination of ESPN’s critically acclaimed presentation of the America’s Cup from Australia, often cited as a landmark turning point in company history for the extraordinary attention the live late-night races brought the company. In fact, it has been cited as a key factor in convincing the NFL to award ESPN cable’s first NFL contract a few months later.

Starting with the first race in 1851, the U.S. had dominated the event for 132 years — the longest winning streak in the history of sports. In 1983, Australia II stunned the sailing world by becoming the first challenger to break the streak and taking the trophy down under. Thus, 1987 became the year for the U.S. to avenge its defeat.

Starting in the fall of 1986, ESPN televised 79 hours of programming, including 43 hours of live racing – the Challenger’s and Defender’s Finals and the best-of-seven Finals. Fans were captivated by the innovative on-board cameras as Dennis Conner captained Stars and Stripes to a 4-0 win over the Aussies. The final race earned a 4.5 network rating, unheard of at that time of day. Even David Letterman sent a complimentary telegram to the ESPN crew in Fremantle.

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