DISHING IT OUT : ESPN, the Little Network That Could, Finds There’s 24-Hour Sports Audience

Times Staff Writer

This city of 57,000, located in the center of Connecticut about 15 miles west of Hartford, is only a 2-hour drive from New York. But, when talking life styles, New York and Bristol are worlds apart.

Bristol is the home of ESPN, the cable sports network.

College football analyst Beano Cook said: “What Bogart and Bergman did for Casablanca, ESPN has done for Bristol.”

Steve Bornstein, senior vice president, said: “One thing’s for sure. We’re the largest television network in Bristol.”


ESPN is a small company--about 450 people work in Bristol with another 100 or so in New York--but it has made a big impact.

When it went on the air on Sept. 7, 1979, ESPN reached only 1.4 million homes. Today, it is available in 46.2 million homes, or 52% of all television households in the country. It is cable television’s largest network.

It has gone from taped showings of slow-pitch softball, rodeos, billiards and hurling to live showings of National Football League games.

ESPN is an American success story. The network, near financial ruin in 1982, last year made a profit of $55 million, according to media analyst Larry Gerbarndt of Paul Kagan Associates of Carmel, Calif. Sources within ESPN put the profit at close to $70 million.

Its current market value is $1 billion.

Sportscaster Chris Berman, who has been with ESPN almost since the start, said: “You want to know the biggest stride we made? Ready, here it is: Flush toilets! When we started, we worked out of trailers and, for about a month, used outdoor portable toilets.”

Sportscaster Bob Ley, who has also been with ESPN since the start, said: “I remember driving up here from New Jersey for a job interview and passing the cow pastures and sheep farms and thinking, ‘This is a place for a television network?’ ”


Now, there are plenty of people at ESPN who think that Bristol, a fast-developing yet still rural area, is the perfect place for a television network. Most employees have 10- to 15-minute, traffic-free commutes. And there is ample free parking.

The only tall building in the Bristol area is one in which elevators are tested.

What sets the ESPN building apart is the presence of 11 large satellite dishes, 7 of them on the front lawn. The largest measures nearly 34 feet in diameter.

The building, about 4 miles south of Bristol, is clean, well kept and modern. The people inside, unlike many of their counterparts at the major networks in New York, speak fondly of their jobs and workplace. There is another common denominator: Youth.

“Of the 120 people we have working in production, I’d say we don’t have more than two who are over 40,” said Bornstein, who will turn 36 on Wednesday.

Berman is 32, Ley just turned 33 and colleague Tom Mees is 38. Berman and Ley started at ESPN when they were 24. John Saunders, who came to ESPN in 1985, is 32.

ESPN salaries are considerably lower than those at the major networks. Berman was the highest paid of the on-air talent, making $150,000 a year, until ESPN recently signed Joe Theismann as an NFL commentator for $400,000. Basketball commentator Dick Vitale’s ESPN salary is $110,000.


But there are other compensations. ESPN can offer job security and peace of mind. And reasonable real estate prices.

Berman said: “It’s pretty remarkable to drive down these nice scenic roads nowhere near New York and walk into a studio to do a show that is seen across the country.”

Three years ago, Berman bought a home on an acre lot in Cheshire, about 15 minutes from ESPN. He paid $124,000 for the home.

Does Berman, who has two young children, ever have the urge to work in New York? “I have the urge not to work in New York,” he said.

Berman grew up in Greenwich, Conn., a suburb of New York, but has lived in central Connecticut since graduating from Brown University in Providence, R.I. Before he was hired by ESPN in 1979, Berman worked for a radio station in Waterbury, Conn., and delivered weekend sports for a TV station in Hartford. The TV job paid $23 a week.

Steve Anderson, ESPN’s 34-year-old director of production, joined ESPN in April of 1980 after two years as an assistant basketball coach at Fordham and two years in the insurance business. He began in a low-level production job and worked his way up.

Before arriving in Bristol, Anderson, the son of New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson, was a true-blue New Yorker. He, his wife and son now live in nearby Farmington, and Anderson says he has grown to like rural life.


Not everyone loves the area, however. Sportscaster Sal Marchiano reportedly said on his final day at ESPN: “Happiness is seeing Bristol in the rear-view mirror.”

Gayle Gardner, after accepting a job with NBC last year, said that Bristol is no place for a single person.

Which prompts the question: How does a television network end up in Bristol?

ESPN is the brainchild of Bill Rasmussen, a one-time hockey announcer, and his son Scott.

They wanted to start a statewide sports cable network but discovered that, because of satellite technology, it actually would be cheaper to send a signal nationwide.

They selected a site near Bristol because the land, part of a redevelopment area, was inexpensive. As it turned out, the topography also was perfect for sending and receiving signals by satellite. “Just a stroke of luck,” Bill Rasmussen said.

The Rasmussens found a backer in Getty Oil, which agreed to put up $10 million. Getty Oil got 85% of the company.

In selecting a name for their new network, the Rasmussens chose the initials first--they liked the ring of ESPN--then came up with the words to fit the initials: the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. That name was dropped in 1985, and the network now is officially ESPN, Inc.


Said Berman: “People used to think ESPN stood for Espanol. You know, ESPN, the Spanish network.”

Once the company had Getty money behind it, it was able to make a rights deal with the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. for various sports, including taped football and taped and live basketball. It then got a $1.4-million advertising contract from Anheuser-Busch, and was on its way.

At Getty, the Rasmussens sold their idea to Stu Evey, vice president in charge of diversified operations who was based in Los Angeles. The Rasmussens knew of Evey through a mutual acquaintance.

“Getty was cash rich at the time, so $10 million was not a great deal of money,” Evey said. “Being a sports enthusiast and being fascinated by the new business of satellite television, I talked my board of directors into making the investment.”

But Evey met resistence elsewhere. “A lot of people told me a 24-hour sports network was a crazy idea, that it would never work,” he said.

Evey, after being named chairman of the board of ESPN, hired Chet Simmons, former NBC Sports president, as the president of ESPN. Simmons in turn lured two former NBC colleagues, production whiz Scotty Connal and popular announcer Jim Simpson.


Simmons started July 18, 1979, less than two months before ESPN went on the air.

In 1980, the Rasmussens left the company, although they retained their 15% until 1984, when they sold it to Getty. The Rasmussens are now television packagers of Big Ten sports.

Early in 1984, ABC Video purchased 15% of the company from Getty and later that year bought the rest, for $258 million, after Texaco had taken over Getty and decided to unload its diversified operations.

ABC Video became a Capital Cities property in 1986, and Nabisco came aboard later that year.

Currently, 80% of ESPN is owned by Capital Cities and 20% by RJR Nabisco.

From the start, ESPN pitched itself as a 24-hour sports network, but it didn’t go round the clock until 1980, after it had been on the air for almost a year.

When they first pushed the button on Sept. 7, 1979, there was a 1-hour introduction show. Actor John Forsythe, a friend of Evey, was the celebrity guest. Evey, Simmons and the Rasmussens were among those making appearances.

Then came ESPN’s first event--Canadian slow-pitch softball.

“In the early days, we had an insatiable appetite for programming, any kind of programming,” Evey said.


Bornstein remembers. “The way it worked back then was, we’d call around to a few schools to see if they were playing a hockey game that night,” he said. “If we found one that was, the next question was, ‘Can we get a tape of it?’

“If the answer was yes, then we had us a hockey game to televise the next night.”

Each event was repeated two or three times.

“The publicity value of going 24 hours was essential,” Simmons said. “So we had repeats.”

Evey said: “We needed more money right away, and I had to go to the board for it. The members knew oil, so my pitch went something like this: ‘There’s a reservoir down there, but it’s a hell of a lot bigger than we thought. It’s a hell of a lot deeper. We need more drill pipe.’ ”

Even so, Getty funds were limited. “I made a pledge to the board that I’d never get us in so deep that we couldn’t get out (without taking a loss),” Evey said.

“I knew from the outset the key was to get into the homes. Then it would be hard to get us out.”

In 1982, Simmons left ESPN to become the commissioner of the United States Football League. Bill Grimes, who had joined ESPN a year earlier from CBS, was named to replace him.

Later in 1982, Grimes made a decision that ultimately turned things around for ESPN. He gambled that the network was so entrenched with its audience that cable systems could be made to pay a fee to keep it instead of ESPN paying systems to carry it.


He turned the tables on cable operators, who had been collecting 10 cents a month per subscriber from ESPN. Now they were going to have to pay 10 cents a month per subscriber.

Operators complained and threatened to drop ESPN. But they knew they couldn’t without the risk of losing subscribers.

Once ESPN was in homes, it was going to be hard to get it out. And cable operators knew it.

Grimes’ plan was implemented in early 1983.

The fee to operators was increased from 10 to 13 cents in 1984 and to 19 in 1985.

It is now 28 cents, plus another 9.25 cents for systems that take the NFL package. Only about 1% of ESPN’s cable affiliates decline the NFL package.

ESPN grossed $218 million in 1987, according to analyst Gerbarndt. About 60% of that came from advertising, the rest coming from cable operators.

Cable operators, since the Cable Communications Policy Act in 1984, are permitted to pass their cost on to subscribers, so there is less grumbling now.

Another government act in 1984 was also a boon to ESPN. The courts did away with the NCAA stranglehold on college football, enabling ESPN to begin showing games live.


ESPN also has lower production costs than its network rivals. Being union free, it is able to avoid work rules that push up costs.

To shoot an hour of football costs ESPN about $80,000, whereas it costs the unionized networks about $200,000.

ESPN has a male-dominated audience, which appeals to certain advertisers. So do ESPN’s less-expensive ad rates. As the networks raised their rates to offset overpriced rights fees, sponsors began turning to ESPN.

Grimes, who turned 47 last month, is the person most single out when talking about the network’s success. Before 1985, it had lost $100 million in 6 years. It made a slight profit in 1985 and netted $25 million in 1986.

Gerbarndt projects that ESPN will net $75 million this year on a gross of $273 million.

That kind of income enabled ESPN last year to make a 3-year, $153-million deal with the NFL.

“We are proud of what we’ve accomplished, but there is still room for improvement,” Grimes said. “Our big void now is no major league baseball. We would like to correct that.”


ESPN doesn’t have a contract with the National Basketball Assn., either. But Grimes says ESPN has so much college basketball, the NBA is not a major concern.

Major league baseball’s current network television contract expires after the 1989 season. ESPN wants to be a part of the next one.

“What we’d like is a package that would give us two or three games a week that we could put on in prime time,” Grimes said.

But there is a catch. Grimes said EPSN is not interested in baseball if superstations such as TBS, WWOR and WGN continue to televise baseball via cable. He wants some sort of exclusivity.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering rules that would essentially take superstations off the air. The legislation is referred to as syndex, short for syndicated exclusivity.

Syndex rules, if approved, would not allow superstations to televise any syndicated programs that are already shown by another station in a particular market.

Major league baseball and ESPN are among those who favor the syndex legislation.

Grimes also wants to strengthen ESPN’s information and news shows, such as the nightly SportsCenter segments.


SportsCenter has been a part of ESPN since the beginning. Fans used to getting sports news in 3-minute segments on commercial stations welcomed the half-hour SportsCenter shows.

And Berman, the show’s main anchor, soon attracted a cult following by giving baseball players nicknames.

“As a student at Brown, my buddies and I used to make up nicknames,” Berman said. “One night I was doing a 2:30 a.m. SportsCenter and I said either John Mayberry RFD or Frank Tanana Daquiri. I can’t remember which one. It just slipped out. I remember saying, ‘Oops.’

“But then the camera guys starting cracking up. The nicknames were born.”

Some of his more memorable ones include: Doyle (Brandy) Alexander, Joaquin (the Dog) Andujar, Bruce (Eggs) Benedict, Hubie (Babbling) Brooks, Julio (Won’t You Take Me on a Sea) Cruz, Jim (Washer and) Dwyer, Dwight (Johnny B) Gooden, Moose (Antler) Haas, Glenn (Mother) Hubbard, Ron (Ma and Pa) Kittle, Rick (Innocent) Lysander, Eddie (Eat, Drink and Be) Murray, Ken (Good Morning Mr.) Phelps, Jerry (Rolls) Reuss, Vern (Golden) Ruhle, and John (Tonight Let It Be) Lowenstein.

Recently, ESPN hired John Walsh for a newly created Sports- Center position, that of managing editor. Walsh, 43, has an extensive background in print journalism. He was managing editor of U.S. News and World Report in 1985 and 1986, and earlier was the founding editor of the original Inside Sports magazine. He has also worked for Newsday and the Washington Post.

Walsh’s job is, among other things, to develop story ideas. “But, we realize taped highlights are still the backbone of what we do on SportsCenter,” he said. “We will not sacrifice highlights for feature stories.”


That’s good news to ESPN viewers who watch because they are hard-core sports fans. And there apparently are plenty of them. ESPN has discovered that.