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#TBT: ESPN Founder Bill Rasmussen On Steps To 1980 NCAA Tournament Field Announcement

In 1980, ESPN made NCAA Tournament "Selection Day" must-see sports TV; In his new book, ESPN: One Giant Leap For Fankind, Rasmussen relates how important landing an NCAA rights deal was to the new network's success

Like millions of other sports fans, Bill Rasmussen eagerly anticipates the “Bracketology” speculation about the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Division I Basketball Tournament fields next Sunday, March 12 on ESPN.

But ESPN’s founder has a unique perspective on the company’s first NCAA Men’s Tournament “Selection Show,” which 43 years ago was presented as the “National Collegiate Championship Preview.”

Watch a portion of that program, hosted by then 25-year-old SportsCenter anchor Bob Ley, in the video above.

“This is pretty amazing! A very young Bob Ley introduces a concept that became an absolute ‘must-see’ come March each year,” said Rasmussen, who recounts ESPN’s birth and more in his new book ESPN: One Giant Leap For Fankind, co-written with Donald T. Phillips.

“This is just one of Ley’s contributions Outside The Lines,” Rasmussen said in reference to the ESPN show Ley anchored for so many years. “The General is an ESPN icon!”

ESPN’s pioneering television presentation of the NCAA Men’s Tournament field that winter in 1980 – just months after its Sept. 7, 1979, inaugural telecast – would only have happened with Rasmussen, a former Hartford, Connecticut-area public relations guru.

When Bill and his son Scott Rasmussen conceived the idea of a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week all-sports network during an I-84 West traffic jam in August 1978, they knew content would be king.

While the Rasmussens had enough connections within the state to air college football regionally, they would need a national deal with a sports entity to make an impact.

“So we had to call the NCAA,” Rasmussen writes in Fankind, “which only allowed three [football] games to be televised each week. Their constant fear was that if they allowed more games to be televised, fans would not show up for the games . . . .”

Then-UCONN athletic director John Toner, who would become NCAA President in 1983, arranged a meeting with the organization’s TV committee head, Bo Coppedge. By October 1978, the Rasmussens – including another son, Glenn – pitched the ESPN concept to Coppedge’s committee. By November, ESPN was televising UCONN sports regionally via rented satellites to have material proof of concept.

By Valentine’s Day, 1979, Rasmussen’s group met with then-Executive Director Walter Byers at the NCAA’s headquarters in Shawnee, Kansas.

As described in Fankind, “. . . this time, [Byers] finally agreed to a deal. ESPN would broadcast 400-500 NCAA events annually – at least one every day of the year. It was a two-year contract starting July 1, 1979.”

The deal paid the NCAA $1,000 per live game for baseball, hockey, and other Olympic sports; the fee jumped to $3,500 per basketball game. In addition, ESPN initially presented NCAA football on a taped-delayed basis.

To seal the deal, ESPN needed funding.

From 1986: Bob Ley (L) and Dick Vitale (R) report from the “NCAA Tonight” set.
(Rick LaBranche / ESPN Images)

George Conner, a Getty Oil executive, called Rasmussen with the news that the giant was willing to finance the start-up with $20 million (which eventually grew to $145 million, Rasmussen writes in Fankind).

Getty’s commitment was “the final piece of the puzzle. ‘ESP Network’ now had the financing and delivery system,” Rasmussen recalls. “And when Byers asked when we could come back to work out the details of a contract, we had our programming!”

Rasmussen’s Fankind, a sequel to Sports Junkies Rejoice: The Birth of ESPN, has more details on the birth of the partnership between ESPN and the NCAA. During a 2011 panel with ESPN employees, Rasmussen discussed the NCAA deal.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, watch the Tampa, Florida, ABC-TV affiliate WFTS’s recent profile of Rasmussen, who discusses the founding of ESPN, Fankind as well as his Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis.

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