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At 25, ESPN Is All Grown Up

The all-sports network has gone from obscure programming to landing broadcast deals with the NFL, NBA and major league baseball.

September 05, 2004|From Associated Press

Happy birthday, ESPN. You've come a long way, baby.

On Sept. 7, the all-sports-all-the-time network will be 25 years old, and it turns the milestone with a mainstream reputation that is miles removed from its offbeat roots.

ESPN specialized in the obscure for much of its programming in 1979, when it went on the air, a bold experiment that changed the viewing habits of a nation. In those early days, the network operated on the periphery of sports, a site for some strange stuff. The first night on the air, ESPN showed the American Professional Slo-Pitch Softball World Series between the Milwaukee Schlitz and Kentucky Bourbons. The sponsor was Anheuser Busch.

And, of course, there were always dart contests and truck races.

Bob Ley, who was there at the start, remembered the Australian rules football, a first cousin to rugby, which had a major advantage for the fledgling network -- there were no production costs.

"I hosted two Australian football Grand Finals," he said. "We felt like curators of the absurd."

Chuckle all you want about that early programming, but ESPN found a niche.

Chris Berman, another original hire, said the network did what it had to do to build a base. He remembered how it went about that task in a world tiptoeing ever so tentatively into cable television.

"Remember what television was in 1979," Berman said. "You had an antenna. There were maybe six or seven stations in New York, maybe three or four in other cities. No one knew what cable TV was."

So what would ESPN do?

"We weren't going to have the NFL," Berman said. "We needed to put on stuff and we didn't make jokes of it. Hey, it's sports. It was a brave new world."

The network did have some legitimate stuff right from the start. In its first year, there was a deal with the Metro Conference for college basketball and that was the year Louisville went on to the national championship, a convenient turn of events.

"You could see them eight times on Tuesday nights before the tournament," Berman said.

At first, ESPN flew by the seat of its pants. Ley remembered the control room being a remote trailer sitting on cinder blocks, its survival placed in serious jeopardy when a bulldozer that was grading the parking lot backed into it.

"We had no buildings," Ley said. "Everything was in trailers."

A heavy rain and the studio could start sinking in a mud puddle.

Berman recalled the early days of this new-fangled network, when an itinerant skunk wondered out of the Connecticut woods and found his way into what passed for ESPN's studio.

"That smell doesn't leave in a day," Berman noted.

The cornerstone of the network, in the early days and now, no matter what came before or after, was its summary show. "There was always another SportsCenter," Ley said.

And that was vital. Suddenly, games played at night in Seattle and San Diego were more than just a rumor on the East Coast, with highlights available morning, noon and night.

"SportsCenter is the show of record," Berman said. "You had to come to us."

Now ESPN is all grown up, an all-inclusive sports network, showing NFL games, major league baseball, the NBA, and college football, properties that once belonged exclusively to the big boys like NBC, CBS and ABC.

It took a while for the change to occur.

Seven years into its existence, ESPN had no NFL, no NBA, no major league baseball. It was still in the business of convincing people there was a need for a 24-hour sports network. It looked for things to cover that the major commercial networks had overlooked. So the NFL draft, the College World Series and the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies found a home there.

Whoever thought of covering the NFL draft? ESPN did.

Slowly, it began adding events -- NFL games and the America's Cup races in 1987, major league baseball in 1990 -- properties that took the network from surviving to thriving, from downstream to mainstream.

As it grew, so did the scope of its programming. Now, the network offers the X Games with its dirt bikes and skateboards; the Great Outdoors Games, complete with target sports and timber events; the World Series of Poker, a high stakes, nontraditional card game -- material that can't be found elsewhere.

And speaking of nontraditional, there's Dick Vitale, a former high school, college and pro basketball coach, who happened to be fired by the Detroit Pistons at just the right moment.

Scotty Connall, one of a fistful of network TV executives who helped launch ESPN, heard Vitale speak at a banquet and decided he would be an interesting voice for the new network. Dickie V. figured it would be a convenient, short-term stopover until some team recognized his genius for X's and O's and hired him to coach again.

"I never went there with a thought of making it a career," Vitale said. "I wanted to buy some time to get where I wanted to be. I wanted to get back to coaching on the college level. That's where I thought I belonged."

When Connall called, Vitale was a tad skeptical about the whole idea.

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