Paul Rouse: How ESPN went from hurling highlights to conquering the world

The broadcast of hurling — unfortunately — was not what ESPN needed to make itself a viable commercial proposition. 
Paul Rouse: How ESPN went from hurling highlights to conquering the world

There's a story told about ESPN, the American cable TV network that transformed the broadcast of modern sports. It comes from 1979. Bill Rasmussen has decided that his new station will broadcast all day and all night, every day and every night. That means trying to fill 8,760 hours of television with sporting events.

But he has only a limited budget. So in those first months of ESPN — known as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network —Rasmussen buys the TV rights for recordings of Australian Rules football and for niche sports such as slow-pitch softball and hydroplane boat races.

And then he turns to Ireland and starts buying sports off RTÉ. Sports Stadium is in its Saturday afternoon pomp at this stage. It had begun in 1973, with Brendan O’Reilly as presenter, and it centres on live horse races and recorded highlights of other sports.

Some of these recordings — notably cycling — are now sold on to ESPN.

And Bill Rasmussen also buys highlights of hurling matches off RTÉ.

This story is told in the fascinating ESPN: These Guys Have All The Fun book, published by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. The book is a sort of an oral history of the origins and development of the television station.

To help their readership understand the story, the authors explain: “Munster Hurling …. has nothing to do with vomiting cheese or trying to heave Herman, Lily, or Grandpa across a barroom floor.”

The broadcast of hurling — unfortunately — was not what ESPN needed to make itself a viable commercial proposition. The authors note, somewhat dryly: “For many years it had failed to take America by storm.”

It was actually not the first time hurling had been broadcast on American television. Back in 1948, when the live televising of sport was expanding a little in the aftermath of the war, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) broadcast a hurling match that was being played in New York, to anyone with a television set within a radius of 250 miles. As a letter writer from the time recalled: “The very popular Father Sean S. Reid, Pastor of the Carmellite Church, New York City, played on the Kilkenny team during the first half, and was asked by the National Broadcasting Company to report the play of the second half. Fr Reid is a native of Ballyhale, and is well-known in Waterford and Kilkenny circles in New York.”

There was no audience then and there was no audience for ESPN’s 1970s hurling broadcasts either.

But very quickly, it turned out that there was indeed a market for a 24/7 sports channel, provided it acquired the broadcast of the right sports.

Despite the sceptics who viewed the ESPN as a mad and doomed project, Bill Rasmussen (45) and his collaborators (including his son Scott and Ed Eagan, an insurance agent who had just started to produce a Connecticut-area sports programme) had the great fortune of good timing.

The key to this timing was the development of satellite distribution, a relatively new TV technology that allowed networks a much greater range of broadcast than terrestrial cable TV could. They managed to rent space for satellite distribution, just before the Wall Street Journal proclaimed on its front page that satellite broadcast was the future of TV.

The communications industry was being increasingly deregulated and other developments in the 1970s had led to more and more sport being shown on television. Indeed, as Travis Vogan has written in his history of ESPN, during the 1970s “average American households had their television sets turned on for approximately six hours a day and devoted roughly 20% of that time to sports programming — a figure that jumped to about 25% among male viewers.”

And for many of those viewers, American football was the beloved game. ESPN went after the hundreds of college football games that were played across America every weekend. A deal signed with the initially reticent National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), who controlled college football and other varsity sports, was the pivotal moment in ensuring that this was a visionary idea that could actually be turned into a sustainable reality.

It was a vital turning point also in the history of American sport and the deal that was brokered guaranteed extensive broadcast of women’s sports.

The branding of ESPN was immediately vital. It set out its stall as “The 24-hour total sports network” and courted advertisers who sought the key demographic of 18-34-year-old men. The signing of a deal with Anheuser-Busch — ‘This Bud’s for ESPN’ — was another massive landmark, as was a major investment from Getty Oil. It made it viable to launch ESPN on September 1, 1979.

Scott Rasmussen laid out ESPN’s mission in an article published before the launch: “What we’re creating here is a network for sports junkies. This is not programming for soft-core sports fans who like to watch an NFL game and then switch to the news. This is a network for people who like to watch a college football game, then a wrestling match, a gymnastics meet, and a soccer game, followed by an hour-long talk show — on sports.”

And there was nothing like it around.

Because it could not afford the rights to the major leagues in any of the most popular sports in America, ESPN worked the margins of those sports and in the process created events that soon became fundamental to the sports calendar.

For example, they made programmes from the National Football League draft and the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Cooperstown.

Slowly, insistently ESPN drew in subscribers and gathered a presence that allowed it — in 1982 — to begin to acquire footage of NBA basketball matches that were not shown on the major networks.

Interestingly, it was not one of those sports but, instead, yachting that allowed the next leap forward. Coverage of the 1987 America’s Cup yacht races between the United States and Australia, as America tried to recapture the cup previously held since 1870, was given a soap opera treatment with cameras on helicopters and on blimps and even on the competing yachts.

The success was a reminder that a healthy flavouring of nationalistic fervour was never known to lessen the appeal of a sporting contest — and the crossover appeal for the ESPN brand now gathered further momentum.

The acclaim which flowed from the coverage was enough to encourage the NFL to sign a deal with ESPN for preseason and regular-season American football matches later in 1987. It was a deal that was financed by increasing its subscriber fees. And it worked. It was then that ESPN achieved 50% penetration in television households. The walk from the margins to the mainstream was largely complete.

This process then fed on itself as through the 1990s and into a new millennium ESPN grew to the point where it was fundamental to the American sporting world.

As Travis Vogan wrote, after the Walt Disney Company’s 1996 acquisition of ESPN, the network further expanded when it “began to produce documentaries, publish books, create fictional series, curate film festivals, sponsor literary writing awards, and employ Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists.”

It was clear that the words of Bill Rasmussen had been vindicated: “We believe that the appetite for sports in this country is insatiable.”

- Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin.

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