The Birth Of ESPN & Major Media with Founder Bill Rasmussen [Podcast 244]

GTF 244 | The Birth Of ESPN

 

Have you wondered to yourself, “How can I be a part of this media game today? How can I get myself out there to be positioned as an authority, to have a greater influence and impact to move the needle?”

What if you had a chance to learn from one of the largest, most successful media experts in the world today?

Let me share a little bit about the background of someone I was blessed and fortunate enough to meet through a mutual connection fifteen to sixteen years ago.

His name is Bill Rasmussen.  He’s the Founder of ESPN. The worldwide leader in sports and now part of the Disney Group. 

With his vision and his dream, ESPN was launched. He’s daring, enthusiastic, and has had some good luck along the way in building the first 24/7 TV network for sports.

This network has changed the landscape of media, and it wouldn’t exist today without Bill.

Listen in to discover how you can use media to grow your influence. 

Listen to the podcast here:

The Birth Of ESPN & Major Media with Founder Bill Rasmussen [Podcast 244]

Have you wondered to yourself, how can I be a part of this media game? How can I get myself out there to be positioned as an authority, to be able to go out there and have a greater influence, a greater impact, to move the dial, and to move the needle? What if you had a chance to learn from one of the largest, most successful media experts in the world? Let me share a little bit about his background. We were blessed and fortunate enough to meet through a mutual connection many years ago.

He is the founder of a media monster called ESPN, the sports network. On September 7th, 1979, ESPN, this vision, this dream was launched out of necessity, out of frustration because he was fired a handful of months before from another position. He’s daring. He’s enthusiastic. He’s had some good luck along the way and built the first 24 hours, seven days a week TV network for sports. I’m a huge sports fan. My wife’s an incredible sports fan and this network has changed the landscape of media for that matter.

His name is Bill Rasmussen. He’s a serial entrepreneur. He is an expert. He’s a speaker. He’s innovated things that you and I probably take for granted. I don’t think Facebook exist now without Bill and ESPN, Sports Center and a lot of the advancement, innovation, advertising and broadcasting. Have you ever heard of the term March Madness? That was born from ESPN years ago. The idea of Sports Center grew or coverage of the College World Series or prime time contracts with some of the dominating sports forces like the NFL and more. Bill, weren’t you the first to get a large advertiser like Anheuser Busch for Cable TV? The largest contract ever.

That time it was the largest, over $1,360,000. We were quite surprised, but we took it.

When you look at the 60 seconds commercials for the Super Bowl and what they charge for those, it’s amazing to see where it’s gone. I’m looking forward to finding out where you think it’s going to be in the future. He’s also a bestselling author of the book called Sports Junkies Rejoice: The Birth of ESPN. He’s a veteran. He served our country. He has a degree from DePauw and an MBA from Rutgers. He’s also a frequent guest on radio, TV, podcasts and a whole lot more. You’re going to be seeing more of Bill in 2020 with the celebration of this tiny network that’s become a dominating force with their 40th anniversary. Bill, it’s a pleasure to have you.

Thanks, Dan. I’ve been looking forward to this.

This grew out of necessity In 1979, you had a job displacement. I’d love to have you share the story. It led you to solve a problem with this 24 hour, seven days a week sports network. Can you think back on your business journey? People hear about the success and they see what happened and they go, “That’s amazing.” Can you think of your biggest failure that you’ve ever had or your biggest mistake in business? What did you learn from it? What can our readers learn from it?

Everything is a challenge in life. Sometimes you're going to fall flat on your face, but that’s okay. - Bill Rasmussen Click To Tweet

I have never really taken anything as a failure. When I got out of the Air Force, I started a little business in 1959. It was an advertising service business. It grew out of a job at Westinghouse. We were having trouble shipping things and getting them to match their sales goals. The sales materials would arrive two or three months after the sale program was announced. I said, “That doesn’t work, but I have an idea. I’ll guarantee, I’ll get everything out in 24 hours if I leave Westinghouse, if you give me the job, if you give me the business.” We did it, oddly enough, with all part-time employees.

It was a question of how one could work from 12:00 to 3:00. Another gentleman could finish his regular days’ work and come in to work from 7:00 to 11:00. We never once failed to get whatever job we had, it was always out in 24 hours. That business grew. It was because of that business that I was able to go into broadcasting. First, I wanted to play sports, but it was too late when I got out of the Air Force. I thought I’d be a broadcaster. This business that we started in 1959. I made a deal with my partners that I would sell my stock if they would pay me for a year. I took that year to get started in the radio business. The way I started in the radio business was perhaps a little unique. There was a magazine back in the day called Broadcasting. There was a section in that magazine each month when it came out and it was a little ad, two or three-line type, “Sportscaster and newscaster needed.” It listed a phone number and the radio station. I was living in New Jersey and I picked up the magazine. There was a company in Westerly, Rhode Island and the radio station owner was looking for a sportscaster. I called him and said, “Can I come up and talk to you?” He said, “Sure.”

Not having any idea, I drove from New Jersey to Rhode Island. When I walked in, the first thing he said was, “Did you bring a tape? I said no. He said, “What station do you work for?” I said, “I’ve never worked in radio.” He said, “Why would I hire you as a sportscaster?” I said, “Because I can do it and you’re looking for somebody.” He said, “This is an unusual interview, but I’ll make a deal with you. I’m putting a new station on the air in Amherst, Massachusetts, if you will help me get that station on the air, you’re my sportscaster.” We did it. I moved up there. I left my previous company with my year guarantee on October 30th. I moved up there in Christmas week and went on the air on April 1st, 1963 and I never looked back

We were in Amherst, Massachusetts where the University of Massachusetts is located and I said, “Why don’t we talk to the university about doing our football games this fall?” The owner said, “Sure.” I went out and met the athletic director. I walked in and said the usual greetings. He said, “What can we do for you?” They were aware of the new radio station in town. I said, “We’d like to do your football games.” He said, “Okay. That’s it? Anything else?” I said, “How about your basketball?” I figured out I’m on a roll now. He said, “Sure, go for it.” I went back and I said, “We’re going to do football games.” The owner of the station said, “Can you do a football game?” I said, “Sure.” I’d never done one before. The first game was in Orono, Maine. I was riding up there with the sports information director wondering if I should tell him that I’ve never broadcast a football game in my life.

We went up there and work on the program. People began to listen to the football games and that led on to basketball. We had a hockey and a minor league. Back then, there were only six hockey teams in the National League and six in the American League. I did some games in the American League. They had a team in Springfield. I just kept on going until the end of 1965. Nowadays, we have every station in America that does news from every broadcast station from 11:00 to 11:30 or 10:00 to 10:30. Back then, we only had two stations, NBC and ABC. The ABC station at 11:00 did fifteen minutes of news and signed off. That’s it, done. I went down and I asked to meet the general manager. He said, “Sure, young man, what can I do to help you?” I said, “I think I want to help you. I think you have to have sport at 11:00.” We talked about it and he said, “We’ll pay you $10 a show and you can start on Monday.” I went on Monday afternoon at 3:00. I‘ve never been on TV either. He said, “I changed my mind, you’re going to do the weather. “I said, “I don’t know anything about the weather.” He said, “Neither is anybody else.”

He asked me to call the weather station at Bradley Field around 10:30. They’ll tell you what the weather is going to be. We didn’t have graphics. We had whiteboards and magic markers. We write some numbers up on there. I did it, but I was still frustrated because I wasn’t doing sports. It so happened that the Springfield team was playing in Pittsburgh that night. I made a phone call and got the score. I’m on the weather and I said, “In Pittsburgh tonight, it’s snowing 32 degrees and the Springfield Indians beat Pittsburgh.” I knew I was going to get a phone call about that the next morning. Sure enough, I did. He came down and he said, “What were you doing?” I said, “I don’t know. It just struck me.” He said, “I did get some calls, and they seemed to like it.” After that, I added the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers. I was doing the weather and sports for four or five months. The NBC station promoted the fellow who had been there for ten years doing sports and gave him a new job down in North Carolina. I spent ten years at the NBC station. I was moved to do more hockey broadcasting, which ultimately led to my being fired. That’s what led to starting ESPN in 1978. It was a fun ride.

There are so many layers to this, Bill. News existed at the time that you did news, but it would only do about fifteen minutes. They just covered the news. They didn’t cover the weather. They didn’t cover sports, not just locally, but nationally, correct?

GTF 244 | The Birth Of ESPN

The Birth Of ESPN: The big three in New York decided that whatever the New Yorkers wanted to see is what the rest of us saw in those days.

 

That’s correct. The big three in New York decides whatever the New Yorkers wanted to see is what the rest of us saw in those days. Television was pretty young if you think about it. ABC didn’t start until the early ‘50s and here I am talking to the ABC station in the mid-‘60s. They haven’t been around that long. If you look back at some of the old videotapes, it was really archaic. We didn’t have color television until the late ‘60s. As a matter of fact, when ESPN went on the air in 1979, we didn’t have computers. It’s hard to believe. We had cameras, but the most exciting thing we had was an IBM Selectric typewriter. That was our advanced technology in the days.

Would you say that you’re an innovator or early adopter at least of bringing the weather to TV and also sports to TV?

I don’t know about weather. It has been happening since forever. When I did sports at the NBC station, we did a five-minute sportscast, which is really about three minutes and 40 seconds. That was all. Invariably, whenever I finished, no matter what you say, the phone would be ringing because I left somebody out, I didn’t mention their score. If it was the Red Sox and the Yankees, you could say with a straight voice, no inflection, no bias whatsoever, “Tonight, Boston 3, New York 2.” The phone would ring with Yankee fans saying, “Why do you have to talk about the Red Sox that way?” The next night it would be the other way around and the Red Sox fan will call. There’s this passion that began to get into my head and I’d been involved in sports my entire life. I had a feeling for sports for a long time. As cable television came along in the early ‘50s, all they did was repeat programming from the three major networks. This is hard for me to believe now looking back. In 1978 and 1979, the big three networks combined at about 1,300 or 1,400 hours sports a year. That’s three networks. One year’s worth of programming is 8,760 hours. They weren’t scratching the surface. They were doing maybe 25 football games a year. ESPN is doing 3,000 football games in 2019.

Bill, you’ve seen modern media evolve from essentially no media to print media, radio, TV, cable and social media. There are many lessons and opportunities. Sports Center and ESPN have become such a large company with thousands of people. If you can remember back when you were first getting started, how did you grow and scale your business and do it in a way where it’s sustainable? How did you finance this vision and this dream of yours when you were getting it rolling?

That’s really easy. It was a $9,000 credit card cash advance. $145 million from Getty Oil and there we were, network. We literally started with a $9,000 credit card advance. I was fired on Memorial Day in 1978. My son, Scott and I had been talking about some ideas. One thing led to another and I was scheduled to go do a local cable one-hour show. There were only five cable systems in Connecticut. They would produce one show on one big reel of tape, deliver it to one of the cable systems, pick it up two days later, and take it to the next one. It was easy with only five in a week and the show would be all through Connecticut.

I was scheduled to do something on the Whalers past season and the Whalers upcoming next years 1978 and 1979. The gentleman that I was to deal with, I called him and said, “You probably want to cancel the show because I don’t think I should do it. I just got fired.” He said, “I don’t know anybody else to talk to. Come by and let’s talk about being fired.” Fortunately, his office was in the United Cable Television in Plainville, Connecticut. I met the general manager and one thing led to another one. In a matter of days, we were talking about something called a satellite. What do I know about satellites? I couldn’t even figure out why they were carrying this tape from cable company to cable company.

I was intrigued. This was in June and early July of 1978. There were five cable systems on-air and five granted but not yet franchised. He said, “I will invite these guys.” About fifteen representatives showed up. He said, “Bill wants to know about this satellite. We all have satellites, but he’s really interested because he thinks there must be something we can do with that.” It is one of the funniest meetings I’ve ever been in. Everybody was laughing by the end of it because nobody knew anything about what they were talking about. Finally, the host said, “I’ve got an idea. Let me give you the phone number. Why don’t you call RCA America in New York?” They were the people that launched the satellites. I didn’t know anything about it, but I soon found out.

What's your passion? Don't ever stop investigating until you're exhausted. - Bill Rasmussen Click To Tweet

I called them. I thought that RCA wasn’t going to talk to me. I got fired. I’m just a little guy from the South Side Chicago and I have no job. Back in the day, you dial the phone and a real person answered. She didn’t know who I was. She was very polite. I was very polite. I said, “I’d like to speak with someone about your satellite.” A young man came on the phone. He said, “My name is Al Parinello, how can I help you?” I said, “I’ve been referred to RCA America to find out about this satellite. What’s this satellite stuff all about? I have an idea. We might be able to buy some time and do some things.” There’s a little bit of quiet time. He said, “Where are you in Connecticut?” I told him Plainville. He said, “I’ll be up in the morning.” He did come up and told us we could buy five hours. He told us all the various things available.

There’s one thing that they used to offer but don’t anymore. Nobody even talked about it. They just rejected it. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a five-hour contract. That’s $34,167 a month and you get everywhere in North America. My son and I went home and talked that night. He said, “That can’t be right. HBO is paying $1,250 an hour for five hours a night for 30 days. This $34,000 for 24 hours doesn’t compute.” We had confirmed with the guy. That’s what the number was. I called the next morning and said, “Al, we’ll take one of those things.” I saw Al for the first time in many years. We laughed about this conversation. I didn’t know it was a transponder on a satellite. I said, “I will take one of those things.” He said, “One of what things?” I said, “One of those satellite things you were talking about.” He said, “You mean the transponder. The 24-hour?” I said, “Yes.”

Here’s where the lesson comes in. Never assume that you know what the other guy is thinking or what his situation is. RCA had launched this satellite in December of 1975 and had twelve empty transponders flying around since December 1975 to June 1978. It is not producing one penny-worth of revenue. That’s why they were trying to talk to us? We were a potential customer for 24-hour use of the satellite. Once they understood that, I got calls from the Vice President of RCA America, “What else can we do to help you?” They became our ally in trying to put together an all-sports network that could reach across America, and introduced cable and satellite distribution to North America. I thought that was great. They thought that was great.

Then we had to go out and sell the cable systems. In those days, cable and television bill was only about $4 to $10 a month because all it was was a repeater station for the big three networks and maybe a local PBS. We had to go on the road. Most of the big cable systems had headquarters in Denver in those days. I can remember being really excited. I’m going to sell to everybody. The first guy I walked into. I was pretty animated about, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to have all those football games. Not only that, we’re going to give you some local avails.” I learned that phrase back in my TV days. He said, “What would I do with that? I said, “You can put your local Toyota dealer. You can put your local pizza house. You can sell local advertising. You will make money.” He said, “Why would I do that? I’d have to hire a salesperson.” This maybe was a bit impetuous. I said, “Here’s an idea for you. Go ahead and hire him. Whatever he sells, give him $0.10 and you keep $0.90.”

Local television now has grown into a multibillion-dollar business just on a local level. We already saw this as a great opportunity. It was opening the eyes and so on. It didn’t take long for them after that. It began to steamroll. We didn’t have very many people. There were no Nielsen ratings for cable or anything back in the day. It happened and then one thing led to another. We had to get investors. My life has been lucky enough to fall in line with other people having ideas. There was a small investment banking firm from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The principal of that small firm had left Fidelity Insurance in Philadelphia. Fidelity had owned the condominium complex where I happened to live. They asked if he could do something to increase and improve sales. They came to me. Since I was working with the Whalers when this happened, I said, “Can you get some of the Whalers come out to play golf? We invited them in and we had a golf outings show off the condominium complex. It was great. I was happy to help because I was living there and it’s going to be good for us.

When this whole idea of getting some money to make this happen began to take shape. I thought, “I’m going to call the guy that asked me for a favor and see if he could lead me to some other people.” He called me back about 10:45 that night. I talked for about ten minutes and he listened and he said, “Can you call this number in the morning? Tell the gentleman the same thing you told me.” I said, “Sure.” I called and did that. It turned out they were good friends. He said at the end of the conversation, “Can you come down to King of Prussia, Philadelphia tomorrow morning?” I said, “Sure.” We went down and they said, “Here’s what you need. We have put together a little business plan for you. We think it’s a great idea.” I’m wondering why do these guys think this is a great idea. It was almost that they accepted it.

It turned out they were advising RCA America up in Princeton. They were their management consultants. These things just all mashed. I went to seven different meetings for potential investors, including broadcasters, high net worth individuals and so on. I met with the board of directors. They’re very respectful and the chairman said, “Young man, it’s very impressive. We enjoyed chatting with you, but unfortunately your ideas are not going to work. As a matter of fact, in three years there will be no cable TV, broadcasting will be taken over.” They’re no longer around and ESPN is still here. Seven people said no. I was down in Annapolis one Friday, meeting with the chairman of the TV committee in early December. I called and talked to J. B. Doherty. He’s a fellow at K. S. Sweet Associates. He said, “I think we’re done. I have nobody else except we’ve got a possibility if you can get to Los Angeles by Monday morning. There’s a guy at Getty Oil that will listen to you.” Getty Oil had just hired them to sell a hotel in Hawaii.

GTF 244 | The Birth Of ESPN

The Birth Of ESPN: Local television today has grown into a multibillion-dollar business on a local level.

 

As it turned out, that gentleman had been waiting forever. He lived in Hollywood. He wouldn’t want to be in Hollywood. He was a Getty Oil Vice President. I come with a television idea. It didn’t take him long to agree. The meeting was on December 8. On February 14th, St. Valentine’s day, I was in Kansas City. The NCAA was saying yes and I got a phone call from Getty Oil. They said yes on that very same day. From mid-August until March 1st was a run for the roses. We came from way behind, but we caught up and we got the money and the programming. March Madness is grown. That was the biggest thing we did the first year.

We went on there, September 7, 1979. In the following spring in March, we did basketball. Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA. I remember him baiting me as we were in a meeting. I said, “We’ll do all of the basketball you can give us. That is a commitment.” There wasn’t very much commitment to that work. They only did Saturday afternoon and evening doubleheader basketball in those days. I remember him saying to me, “Do you mean to tell me that if Lamar Tech plays Weber State, you’ll televise that thing?” I said, “If it’s on your schedule, we’ll televise it.” It was on their schedule. I don’t know if that was set up to see if we would really do it or if they did go through the bracket that way.

I got two critical questions as it relates to our readers. I hope you’re picking up the lessons; relationship capital, hustle, vision, and commitment. I hope you’re picking up the idea. It’s the value of relationships with investors. When one door closes, another opens. There are so many layers of lessons here. I have two questions and I’m going to let you decide which one you want to address first. Over the years from what you’ve created, the start of this media model, you helped pioneer a media marketplace. You may not take credit for that, which I respect and appreciate. How many jobs do you think you’ve helped create over the years? As you look at what has evolved in the business, what would be the biggest breakthrough you’ve personally had going through? What do you consider your greatest skill set or capabilities to make this happen?

The number of jobs is one thing that I’m proud of. I have met people all over the country. It’s hard to believe. We went on air with 80 people. 30 years later, we still have 40 of them there. I went on a Sunday night baseball game several years ago, and they had 90 people at Yankee stadium to produce one baseball game. We started the network with 80 and they took 90 for one ball game. Over the years, the one lesson that I’ve learned is don’t ever be afraid to ask a question. Your idea might sound strange, but why wouldn’t you ask that question? What’s the worst thing that could happen if you ask an off the wall question?

When we went to RCA, we had no idea what their problem is. We were manna from heaven for them and we thought they were the greatest thing. Never ever be afraid to ask a question. Always be curious. As a matter of fact, I use ABC and NBC since those are the two local stations I started with. Always Be Curious and Never Be Complacent. Ask the question and if you don’t like the answer, don’t stop there, just keep on going.

The numbers of jobs came home to me many years ago. We were doing a golf tournament and then a rainstorm down in Florida in the last day of the event. I saw this fellow in a yellow slicker. Do you remember the days when you used to have to haul the cable before all this wireless stuff became popular? He’s trudging along. I was heading for the car because the rain was out. I went into the trailer to say, “See you next time around guys, have a great trip back.” This fellow was walking through the rain toward me. I thought he was going to the truck and I changed my path a little bit and he changed his to match me. He walked up to me with water dripping down in front of him from his slicker, then he said, “Thanks for the job. I love it.”

This is a guy hauling cable at a golf tournament, but that’s the thing about sports. People just love to get into that. I’ve since talked to several people who started out as freelance people for ESPN. There’s a fellow in Indianapolis. I was at a baseball game in Indiana and his son was playing a college game. We got to talk. He mentioned some people that I know. ESPN used to call him. He was a freelance guy. He said, “Everybody wants to put together a company.” He put together a company and he said, the only thing ESPN demanded was when they call, they were number one. They are the first priority. He said, “As far as I’m concerned, they are my only priority.”

You might be defeated or you might be out, but if you've given it 100% you can't complain. - Bill Rasmussen Click To Tweet

Unbelievably during the course of that day, he did get a phone call. He said, “There’s one of those phone calls.” He said that something was happening at Notre Dame. I don’t know what it was, but anything in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and that area, they call him and he’s got guys all over. Those people are all over the country. I can’t even guess what the size of the freelance army is that ESPN employees when they do all these games. They don’t send their own cameras. They send their own directors or their own people to the major games. With 2,000 football game, you’d have to hire a lot of people on payroll, so they just do them all freelance. I can’t imagine how many jobs that would be.

I’d have to imagine directly or indirectly, hundreds of thousands easily.

I would think so. One journalist back many years ago in Texas said that he had a headline introducing me as the guy who created more jobs in sports than anybody in history. Whether that’s true or not, ESPN certainly triggered a revolution in sports.

The evolution of the modern-day market grew out of an idea, vision, faith, teamwork and a lot. Bill, as you think back on this idea of NBC and ABC, “Always be curious, never be complacent.” What do you consider your greatest superpower?

I don’t think I have any. I just operate on a positive note all the time. Do you know what happens when you do that? You could get no a lot of times. People say, “No, I’m not going to do that. He’s crazy.” People say a lot of things. I don’t know if you have to be very brave or you have to have a heavy coat or armor. I’m not sure which. I’ve never thought about either one. I always think we can accomplish it. It doesn’t always work. There’s no question. Sometimes you’re going to fall flat on your face. I’ve had. I remember back in the days when you have to call the telephone company and schedule lines to be hooked up to do a radio broadcast.

You had to have some other people outside of your circle. You had to depend on them and if they fell down, you couldn’t do anything. That happened once. The next time it happened, I knew what to do. It happened in New Hampshire, Vermont. We’re doing a basketball game and the phone company never lines. We went over to a payphone. Fortunately, near the broadcast area there was a payphone. We went over, made the phone call, unscrewed the mouthpiece. We put some alligator clips from the wire onto the phone. We did broadcast over the phone with several students standing by to make sure nobody would go through and remove the clips. You have to be innovative, sometimes.

If it hadn’t worked, we wouldn’t have collected the advertising money. We would’ve missed the game. Everything is a challenge in life. What are you going to do in the morning when you wake up? When I woke up, I was thinking about doing what we’re doing right now. My guess is that by the time, you had coffee, you were probably thinking the same thing in some fashion. Maybe it’s naive, but I’m going to be 87 pretty quick and it’s worked so far. I have the win on the wins and losses side. I think I’ve submitted that.

GTF 244 | The Birth Of ESPN

The Birth Of ESPN: All of the big companies are billions of minutes of streaming. You get your own stream of whatever it is you want to watch.

 

For people that are inspired by you, your work, your story, the history and they want to go deeper with you. What are you excited about and where can people go to learn more about what you’re up to or some of the causes that you’re a part of and such?

ESPNFounder.com is my own website. There’s a lot of historical information there as well as ways to get in touch with me through the contacts. That’s always exciting. I never know what’s going to happen there. What excites me now is what I can do. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I’ve talked to the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the American Parkinson’s Disease Association. As in business people who are having an illness of any kind or in my case the Parkinson’s, there are two things you can do. One is to say, “Woe is me,” and the other is to say, “Whoa, let’s go see what we can do.” I’m learning more and more about Parkinson’s every day and how it works.

It affects different people in different ways, as you undoubtedly know from your own experience. It doesn’t have to restrict us. One thing that surprised me about Parkinson’s was nobody ever wants to talk about it. Nobody ever wants to say I have Parkinson’s. Their fingers might be trembling and they want to hide it. I still haven’t found out. I’m meeting with the Michael J. Fox when I’m there with ESPN. I’m curious and I want to talk about those things. The awareness is missing somehow. A lot of people know about Parkinson’s, but the people that have Parkinson’s for some reason go into hiding too many times. We can break through that and I hope to do that.

There’s got to be a way we can do that through sports. I discovered an interesting thing. I had a grandson who passed away at a very young age. We held the 20th Annual Memorial Golf Tournament for him and Chris Berman came out and played. It was a big hit, especially it’s a Saturday night there and the night before. He’s a good friend. I didn’t play because I can’t swing the golf club. This is a really interesting thing. My fingers might tremble at any time. As soon as I put my hands on the putter, there is no trembling whatsoever. I putted the way I always putted. I made four birdies for Chris when we played out. He said, “You are my designated putter.”

There’s some medical phrase for it. It’s like a selective memory. You learn how to putt; you do that and it’s stuck someplace in your brain. You don’t think about it because Parkinson’s is doing all those other things, but it doesn’t affect putting because it hasn’t hit that particular part of the brain yet. I have learned more and understand that. Is there something we should do with golf? Is there something we should do with the PGA? I want to help raise awareness and make people aggressively attack it. People can live for years, especially young-onset Parkinson’s. Michael Fox has been living with Parkinson’s for many years. There are lots of things that I want to do.

In the sports business at this point, I’m enjoying it. I’m absolutely fascinated by the numbers and the way it has developed. I mentioned the 1,300 to 1,400 hours of broadcasting that the network does. ESPN 1 and 2 do 8,760 hours each and so on, then up comes streaming and minutes. All of the big companies are billions of minutes of streaming. You get your own stream of whatever it is you want to watch. You can watch for 8,760 hours if you want. The problem of every sports fan is there are so many, how do you pick out what you want? You don’t have to wait for that one time a year when it comes around. You can probably follow them all year long on streaming.

There are many apps that are available. Disney Plus is coming up. That’s going to be intriguing. One of the most amazing things that I found out about the ESPN and Disney’s relationship is in little Bristol, Connecticut, where we started with that merry band of 80 in 1979, there are now over 1,000 Disney employees in Bristol, Connecticut. I’m astounded. They’re going to do a lot of transmission of many of the Disney Plus things from Bristol. It’s an unbelievable facility. It is 123 acres with more satellite dishes than you can imagine.

Don't do anything 50% if you're going to start down a new path. It's got to be 100%. - Bill Rasmussen Click To Tweet

I want to encourage you to go dive deeper into what Bill has available. Go learn the history. You can go to ESPNFounder.com. He’s got a wealth of resources there. Check out some of the things there if there’s something that will inspire you. If you want to know how to help Bill with his mission to raise the awareness around some of these issues and challenges related to Parkinson’s or if you want to get connected to Bill’s work, check that out.

There’s a contact form and I see them all. It’s amazing. We have the greatest opportunity for entrepreneurialism in this country. It’s unlimited and boundless in what we can do.

We will go into a rapid-fire thing to get perspective on some ideas. What’s something I should have asked you that I didn’t get a chance to ask you yet?

I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I will be going to go on an eleven-day tour of various ESPN facilities. That’s going to be fun.

I heard a little rumor that you’re training to throw out the first pitch before a ball game coming up. Tell us about that.

It’s true. That is on Sunday Night Baseball on the Anniversary Weekend in Fenway Park. I happened to be playing the Yankees. It will be a premier game. I’m going to throw a pitch. For the 30th Anniversary, I was in Philadelphia. I did the same thing. That was Pedro Martinez’s last win in the Major Leagues. I point out that I started that game and he relieved me. We had a lot of fun. One thing that some people asked me is what my two sons and my daughter are involved in. They have been involved in some amazing things and I’m proud of them all. Scott was with me in the ESPN and my second son Glen, who at the time was a Yukon student, was hired by the construction crew that summer. He would help literally put ESPN in place physically.

My daughter’s been a nurse here in Seattle for over 30 years at the Swedish Medical Center for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research that they do there. I’ve got grandchildren now. Scott’s oldest son just gotten his PhD at Baylor. I am now being overwhelmed by all of the knowledge that these grandchildren of mine have. Scott’s second son is a jazz guitarist. He’s into music. He’s got a fourteen to sixteen-piece band. He does various things. He’s done annual shows on ABC now on the 4th of July and Christmas for the past several years. I don’t know where all of this energy and knowledge. They just keep astounding me. It’s great to watch all of them grow. I can’t wait to see what next year is going to bring for all of us.

GTF 244 | The Birth Of ESPN

The Birth Of ESPN: Whatever ESPN had – quality people and whatever came along – they used every ounce of their knowledge, enthusiasm, and experience to take advantage of it and make ESPN as successful as it is.

 

With your knowledge base and your wisdom, which comes from a lot of experience of both successes and failures looking at media, if you were to give your grandchildren advice in their teens or twenties, if they came to you and asked, “How would I go out there and best position myself in the media now so that I could have the greatest potential impact and influence out there to help people?” What would you say to them?

One of my grandchildren who is a senior at Gettysburg did come and ask me a question close to what you just said. He astounded me. He and his dad had gone to an industry meeting and Adam Silver was going to be speaking. They went to this convention and Will, my grandson, came out and said, “I heard something about fan engagement and the measurement of fan engagement for the NBA. It’s what Adam Silver was talking about.” Think about that, fan engagement. We are all victims now. I say victims because you’ll listen to Major League baseball. We used to play the game with a ball and a bat. Now, they have to talk about launch angles and speed of the pitch. He’s fascinated by all the technology and what can he do to get into fan engagement. That’s what everybody’s fighting for. Major League Baseball is in a dip. They’re looking to get things back.

I encourage all my grandchildren. I’ve got three granddaughters. One has moved to Texas. She’s down in Austin. The two are here in Seattle. They’re all bright. They all are pursuing great things. I couldn’t ask for more. When they come in and they ask me about this. What’s your passion? Is your passion History? Don’t ever stop. Investigate it until you’re exhausted. Is it Wall Street? Is that the financial world? Is it the sports world? Is that fan engagement? Whatever it is, I encouraged them every step of the way. Sometimes I think they probably wonder what this old guy is thinking about who didn’t even have computers when he started at ESPN. That’s okay. I just looked forward to being around a long time, being positive and helping whoever I can and achieve what they want to achieve.

You’re an inspiration. You’re a true American success story, Bill. I’m grateful that we’ve got a chance to know each other over these years. I’m a huge fan of ESPN. I had a few people that submitted a few questions. You talked about your upbringing in sports and then that evolved to what you created. What was your favorite sport?

Baseball, no question. When I was in grade school, we had maybe a half dozen different schools in our area in the South Side of Chicago. I remember wanting to play and being invited to play with the eighth-grade team when I was in the fifth grade. I thought I must be okay. Then I found out, one of the seniors later told me I was playing left field. Every time they hit a foul ball there was a fence down the third baseline. I was the fast guy who can go over the fence and get the ball. In those days, the umpire didn’t throw a ball out after one pitch and scuffed the dirt. We had two balls a game. That was my start. Later on, I got to play with the eighth grade and I played all the way through my days in the Air Force. I always thought I was going to play third base for the Chicago White Sox, but that didn’t work out. They’ve had some pretty good ones and they’ve had some pretty bad ones. I don’t know where I would’ve fit. That’s been my favorite sport. I watched the MLB Network because you can get as many different games and scores as you possibly can in a compressed time. That’s a lot of fun.

It’s still a great game for a lot of reasons. Who’s your favorite athlete, Bill?

One of my granddaughters is pointing at herself right now. She’s a swimmer. She’s my favorite one because she was in the room. I had a very good fortune to meet a lot of great people over the years. Some of the Red Sox players, I’ve met them everywhere. I think the most intriguing and because I got to know him playing golf with three days in a row was probably Gordie Howe. I know that he’d be my son’s favorite because they had a good relationship. I had a good relationship because he and I got to know him and his wife very well.

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I think about that for a long time because there are so many great players that I’ve seen. I’ve had the good fortune to meet so many of them. It’s difficult. They all have a different thing. Yogi Berra wants to talk about golf. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with one that’s a favorite. I’ve met Johnny Unitas. He’s a pretty good guy and a pretty good ballplayer. Joe DiMaggio came up and introduced himself to me. That was pretty exciting. We were playing a charity game. He was there coaching third base just to be participating in a charity. That was staggering to me. I’ve just been blessed to meet so many great players. All of them fit someplace in sports history. It’s hard to come up with one favorite athlete. In every sport, I can find somebody.

Who would you say your game as a young guy was most like?

That’s going all the way back. The reason I wanted to play third base for the White Sox was they didn’t have any good third baseman ever in those days. A fellow by the name of Stan Hack was playing third base for the Cubs. The guy that influenced me the most because I was not a home run hitter by any means, the White Sox has a second baseman named Nellie Fox. He could manipulate the bat. He was a good hitter. He only struck out twelve times in the entire season. Guys do that now in a doubleheader sometimes. He influenced me the most because I never hit a ball a long way. All I had to do was figure out a way to get on first base, then I could try to steal and turn it into a double with my legs rather than hitting it down too long and too far down the line. It’s one of the early lessons I had when I was in college playing ball. We were playing the summer league and I was pretty quick. You get a knack for stealing bases. I don’t think it’s all speed. I think there’s a little study that goes into it.

I hadn’t been caught all year and we were playing the last game. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but I had figured I could steal a base. The last game, I took off for a second base. I was quite proud of myself because I knew I was going to be in it. I let up and of course you know what happened. I was slapped on, gone out and I thought that’s my fault. From that point on, anytime I tried to do something, it was 100% all the time. You might be defeated or you might be out, but if you’ve given it 100% you can’t complain.

That one still bothers me because I didn’t go 100% and that’s what I’ve done in business all the time. We can look at ESPN and the first company we started or in between. I got involved when I left ESPN in the late’80s with a home automation company. A couple of fellows came and they had an idea that you could access your house from a distance. You could turn out lights from a distance, isn’t that amazing? They had this wonderful idea in the 1980s. That’s what do we do today. Every house is that way now. I’ve been blessed with patience and I want to see things through the end, win or lose. Nobody wins them all. If we don’t win them all, that’s okay. Win the ones that you can and stay positive. As I say, ABC and NBC had served me well over the years and I never give up.

What are one to three action steps that you hope our readers take from our conversation?

I hope that they can sense enthusiasm for what they have. Don’t do anything 50% if you’re going to start down a new path. It’s got to be 100%. Don’t ever give up. You’re going to win or lose. You never end in a tie when you start down that path. Be persistent and be positive. When you lose, you wake up in the morning, you’re tired and you’re a little bit negative. You should never let that be your mantra for the day. Get out of bed with the visions for the day, even if it’s only enjoying the sunshine or sitting on the beach. If you’re doing some project that you’re working on, give it 100% of the effort all the time. Don’t be discouraged by people that say it’s not going to work because I guess the Wright brothers were probably told that’s not going to work either.

One other thing that I was asked a lot of time. When we started in 1979, did we ever think ESPN could be as big as it is? I always say yes. That was our vision to be as big as possible. We didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have email. We didn’t have all of the streaming and so on. I was talking to one of the young ESPN people at some ball game in Tampa. He was quite excited to meet me and asked how we introduced ESPN. He was jumping around and in his excitement he said, “What do you use? Was it the passive contact campaign or something like that?” I said, “That hadn’t even been invented yet.” He said, “How could you say then that you know it’s going to be a success?” Because ESPN had quality people and whatever came along, they were going to use every ounce of their knowledge, their enthusiasm and their experience to take advantage of it and make ESPN as successful as it is. They’re still doing it to this day. I would say never give up.

Never ever give up. To our readers, I hope you’re inspired. I’m like a kid in a candy store whenever Bill and I get a chance to have a conversation. I would encourage you to go check out what Bill’s doing at ESPNFounder.com. If some of the work compels you, reach out. If you want to see how you can help contribute to Parkinson’s and the mission that he’s on, reach out to him. I encourage you to take action with what Bill has shared. I’ve got four and a half pages of notes from what Bill has shared. ABC, always be curious, NBC, never be complacent, and never ever give up. Bill, it’s been an absolute pleasure and a privilege to have you with us. I hope we can do this again in the next couple of months.

It’s wonderful, Dan. I always enjoy chatting with you and it’s fun to recall some of these things. You tend to forget about them, but when I start talking to you, you’re getting me excited.

I hope Bill doesn’t mind me sharing this. It was a private conversation that we had. I said, “Bill, what are you doing to train to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park with 50,000 people and millions of people watching on TV?” He said, “I’m throwing fifteen to eighteen pitches a day.” How you do anything is how you do everything. Bill knows one way to play, and that’s all in 100%. It’s not a 50% player but 100% and it shows up in his personal life, whether he’s throwing out the first pitch, whether he’s creating companies, creating movements, creating ESPN and also putting it out on the field for us. I hope you’ll take action with what he shared with you. Seize the day.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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About Bill Rasmussen

GTF 244 | The Birth Of ESPNOn September 7, 1979, ESPN was launched. Entrepreneurial daring, irrepressible enthusiasm and a dash of good luck gave the world the first 24-hour television network. Once unleashed upon sports fans, ESPN’s impact forever changed the way we watch television. The man who had the dream, the founder of ESPN, is Bill Rasmussen.
A life-long entrepreneur and sports fan, Rasmussen’s innovations in advertising, sports and broadcasting are too numerous to list, but they include the creation of “Sports Center”, wall-to-wall coverage of NCAA regular-season and “March Madness” college basketball, and coverage of the College World Series. He broke the advertising barrier to cable television by signing Anheuser Busch to the largest cable TV advertising contract ever.
Rasmussen is a frequent guest on radio, television and the internet, and is the author of the best-selling book, “Sports Junkies Rejoice! The Birth of ESPN.”
A United States Air Force veteran, Rasmussen received his bachelor’s degree in Economics from DePauw University and his MBA from Rutgers University.