Espn: An Impact Player

September 06, 1994|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,ESPNSun Staff Writer

Just a couple of months after ESPN first signed on the air Sept. 7, 1979, from a piecemeal studio in wooded Bristol, Conn., Chris Berman got nervous.

Heavy rain had come to the area, turning the parking lot into a quagmire. The time to begin planning the overnight "SportsCenter" was rapidly approaching, but the producer, a heavy-set fellow named Fred, was nowhere to be found.

"It was raining cats and dogs, and no one knew what was going on," said Berman, the anchor. "Finally, about 9:30 or 10, we went outside and looked around, and we found that Fred had sunk waist-deep in the mud.

"We heard these muffled cries, and three of us pulled him out of what had basically become quicksand. He came in and produced the show looking like 'Pigpen' out of 'Charlie Brown.' "

As the network prepares to mark its 15th anniversary tomorrow night, it's a fair bet that nothing associated with ESPN is mired in mud.

From its humble beginnings, when the only people watching seemed to be insomniacs, folks just off the night shift and those who couldn't get enough of Australian rules football, ESPN has burgeoned into a behemoth.

ESPN is America's largest cable network, with more than 63 million subscribers and penetration into 67 percent of American homes that have televisions.

Try to imagine life without ESPN and all the things it has introduced into the culture:

* "SportsCenter," a nightly sports news program.

* Coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament that allowed the viewer to see concluding action in one game while another was in progress.

* Periodic updates that occupied a corner of the screen, permitting the viewer to get the latest scores without missing any action.

* Continuing coverage of the America's Cup yacht race that brought what had been considered an elitist event into the nation's living rooms.

* An often stark-raving-mad former basketball coach named Dick Vitale.

Fifteen years later, ESPN's influence on American sports -- from what happens on the field, to what the viewer sees, and even to the sports lexicon itself -- is far-reaching and undeniable.

"I thought it would take much longer for them to have the impact that they have," said Keith Mills, Channel 2's weekend sports anchor. "In the beginning, everybody sort of shrugged it aside as another gimmick, but they are better than any [broadcast] network covering sports."

Said Berman: "All kinds of people come to us. We're a constant. When you travel, you can watch an amazing play in a hotel room, and you call a friend of yours and he's seen the same thing. It doesn't matter where you are, you can talk the same language. It really is amazing."

It's even more amazing when one remembers ESPN's early days, when it was known as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network and ran business shows in the early morning hours.

Then, it was owned by Getty Oil, and aired an eclectic mix of frequently repeated programs that often ranged from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous.

"Those first few years, it was tough to call people to get passes and explain that we're not the Spanish network," said Bob Ley, who, with Tom Mees and Berman, is one of three remaining sportscasters who have stayed from the beginning.

Slowly but surely, ESPN began to build a following and a reputation, thanks to its "whip-around" coverage of the early rounds of the NCAA tournament and the NFL draft, events that had not appeared anywhere else but gave the fledgling network an identity.

On more than a few occasions, Getty threatened to pull the plug on ESPN, but when ABC purchased the network in 1984, placing it in the hands of broadcasters who understood that such an undertaking would need time to prosper, ESPN's success was assured.

Announcers fed growth

From there, ESPN exploded, thanks in large part to a strong stable of announcers, which included NBC's Greg Gumbel and former Baltimore sportscasters John Saunders and Gayle Gardner, who went on to network success.

ESPN's coverage of the 1987 America's Cup races from Australia garnered high ratings and critical notice, and set the stage for its biggest acquisition to date later that year: a weekly NFL game.

For "lifers" such as Berman, who had suffered through the network's lean early days, ESPN's first NFL telecast -- an Aug. 15 Chicago Bears-Miami Dolphins exhibition game -- was not to be missed.

"When I tripped on 40 engineers here that day, I knew we were on to something," said Berman. "For those who had been in here in our what I call 'Wonder Bread' or formative years, that night was special, and when I turned to send it to Mike Patrick in Joe Robbie Stadium, there were tears in my eyes."

Next, ESPN acquired a portion of the baseball contract in 1990, and in effect, became the home of the Game of the Week, although the original, four-year, $400 million deal became a financial loser for the network.

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