This month, fans will indulge in an unprecedented sports smorgasbord, a result of revamped scheduling in the pandemic era.
It’s a good thing ESPN exists to deliver it all, around the clock.
But it was only 40 years ago today – Sept. 1, 1980 – that ESPN anticipated its first birthday with the advent of true, 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week programming.
The start of an “endless sports marathon” with “no more timeouts” was news that then-ESPN President Chester R. Simmons wanted publicized any way possible, as ESPN Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, Chris LaPlaca, wrote in a Sept. 2011 Front Row post.
ESPN heralded the move with a dramatic announcement (see video above featuring SportsCenter anchors George Grande and Sal Marciano and play-by-play announcer, the late Jim Simpson) and a comedic promo from The Famous Chicken (see sidebar below).
ESPN debuted Sept. 7, 1979, a full eight months before fellow media pioneer Cable News Network (CNN) launched in Atlanta on June 1, 1980. But CNN offered programming around the clock months before ESPN.
There were days when ESPN programmed around the clock, but many days it did not.
What did ESPN offer in the wee hours between SportsCenter ending the “broadcast day” at 2 a.m. and the 6 a.m. replay of that show?
Did ESPN “sign off” with the playing of the national anthem and the posting of a test pattern, as was the approach of most conventional television stations of that era?
The definitive answer won’t be found in ESPN’s vast video archives. Back then, the fledgling operation often reused videotapes in order to save money. Thus, some wonderful content has been lost.
“I don’t recall seeing ESPN sign off the air,” ESPN Founder Bill Rasmussen says. “We followed programming with a ‘sign-off,’ but it was a scrolling ‘Program Guide’ that ran until conventional programming began again at 6:00 a.m. Eastern.”
SportsCenter anchor Grande does recall playing the national anthem as a signoff.
“When we went to 24/7, we filled with taped SportsCenters, running the 2 a.m. SportsCenter all morning long,” Grande said.
Said Rasmussen: “1980 was more like having just another birthday. During that first year ESPN had done so much: NCAA basketball, College World Series, Frozen Four. It was good press – behind the scenes there was frequent frustration, but turning off the program guide and never signing off again was indeed a big deal, just nowhere near as big a deal as the launch in ’79.”