Since ESPN first took to the airwaves on Sept. 7, 1979, sports fans have been able to indulge their passion practically around the clock. On Sept. 1, 1980, 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week sports television became a reality.
Credit goes to one family’s dream of a national sports network that sprang from a brainstorm in the middle of a traffic jam on Interstate 84 in Waterbury, Conn. on — of all dates — Aug. 16, 1978. It was Lynn Rasmussen’s 16th birthday, and her father Bill and brother Scott were leaving their Connecticut home to help her celebrate on a New Jersey beach.
By this time, the Rasmussens were already pursuing the idea of a regional cable television service to air University of Connecticut athletics statewide.
But then the infant E.S.P. Network scored a relative deal on satellite time and equipment. Though months away from an actual launch date, the Rasmussens realized they would need a national audience with nonstop programming to make the most of their investment.
As they boiled in a 1970s-era Mazda GLC with no air conditioning on a clogged highway, they traded ideas on how to satisfy sports fans.
“RCA really couldn’t give away satellite time. So RCA encouraged us,” said Rasmussen, who details how ESPN sprang from concept to reality in his book Sports Junkies Rejoice! The Birth of ESPN. “But 24 hours a day, how are we going to program all of that? We got stuck in that frickin’ traffic jam, and we’re throwing ideas back and forth . . . Scott basically said, ‘Let’s play football [on the air] all day, for all I care.'”
Why not supplement football with everything from college lacrosse to golf, aired at any time a fan might feel the need to watch sports?
“Our big thing was, [other networks] program your life for you. We’ll let [the sports fan] program [his or her] life,” Rasmussen said. “If you want to watch sports news at 2 in the morning, it’ll be there.”
The adrenaline rush a great idea provides continued.
“We were so full of ourselves,” Rasmussen recalled, “that by the time we got back the next morning we said, ‘Well, now that we’ve got the network, let’s lay out the building.'”
On a yellow legal pad 35 years ago, the Rasmussens scratched out the rough drawings of what eventually became ESPN’s Building 1 on its Bristol, Conn. campus.
So Aug. 16 and 17 are significant days in ESPN’s history — and, of course, the Rasmussens’.
“[Yesterday], I called my daughter to wish her a happy birthday,” Rasmussen said. “I said, ‘You know what today is?’ And she said, ‘Sure, it’s the [anniversary of the] day you and Scott started talking about ESPN and how it all got put together.”
Rasmussen and original ESPN anchor George Grande discuss the launch of the network and its flagship SportsCenter in the video above. Rasmussen and fellow ESPN pioneers Chuck Pagano and Bill Lamb talk about the network’s start in a series of videos found here.
– By Sheldon Spencer
ICYMI: Highlights from the past week on Front Row
• The Lineup: A dozen ESPN artifacts you wish you had in your man cave – including the original 2-inch tape from the first SportsCenter on Sept. 7, 1979.
• SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn revealed her favorite ‘This is SportsCenter‘ commercial, best SC memory, how she spends her commercial breaks and more.
• SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott also shared his favorite SC memories including visiting the U.S. troops overseas, covering the ’96 Olympic bombing and working with a horse in the ESPN men’s room.
• ESPN recruited filmmaker Peter Berg for the new Monday Night Football open. The new timeline open chronicles the 44-year history of MNF by combining football moments from past games with images of touchstone cultural events of the past four-and-a-half decades.
Row of Four
Our favorites from across ESPN over the past week
• From Rick Reilly: Antiquated NCAA rules on memorabilia and autographs need to change
• From espnW: What pushes LeBron James? He sits down and talks it through with Robin Roberts.
• From Grantland: Latest 30 for 30 Short, Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop, tells the story of the most important summer job in basketball history
• Enjoy an array of photos from ESPN Images