ESPN History

#TBT: Letterman’s telegram to ESPN

David Letterman's telegram  about ESPN’s coverage of the 1987 America’s Cup.
David Letterman’s telegram about ESPN’s coverage of the 1987 America’s Cup.
We knew that a lot of people were suddenly watching, but Letterman…us? Our coverage had become a cultural phenomenon that could not have happened at a better time for ESPN.
Jed Drake

With comedian David Letterman’s final episode of his “Late Show” slated to air Wednesday, May 20, Front Row recalls a time when he uniquely expressed his admiration of ESPN’s programming – particularly its groundbreaking coverage of the 1987 America’s Cup from Australia.

He sent a telegram, pictured above, addressed to the attention of ESPN commentator Jim Kelly and producer Jed Drake. The message sent from New York to their base in Fremantle, Australia: “I think you’ve really got something with this TV yacht racing. It could be bigger than wrestling. Keep up the good work. All my best, David Letterman.”

Now ESPN’s Senior Vice President, Production Innovation, Drake remembers the telegram.

“There is a great irony here when you consider this telegram. It was still the fastest way to get a written message to the other side of the planet,” Drake said. “Meanwhile, we were on the absolute edge of new television technology, getting live pictures and audio from these boats competing on the Indian Ocean.”

What was it like to know that “TV yacht racing,” which often aired early in the morning Eastern Time in the U.S. but still attracted millions of viewers, had a fan base that included Letterman?

“When we went live for the first time, everything changed,” Drake said. “People started watching in big numbers, well into the night. It just floored all of us. We knew that a lot of people were suddenly watching, but Letterman. . .us?

“Our coverage had become a cultural phenomenon that could not have happened at a better time for ESPN.”

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