ESPN, originally an abbreviation for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, went on the air in September 1979 as a 24-hour, all-sports cable channel. The idea was conceived by William Rasmussen of Hartford, Connecticut, and it was made possible by satellite communications. Rasmussen persuaded Getty Oil to pay $10 million for 85 percent of the network seven months before its first broadcast, and Chet Simmons of NBC Sports, was hired to run the new network. ESPN at first paid local cable stations five cents per subscriber to carry its programming to build an audience.
The network started by broadcasting minor sports that cost little or no money, including hurling and slow-pitch softball, and much of its programming was rebroadcast in the early morning for sports junkies who worked the late shift. In some cases, the sponsor of an event actually paid ESPN to broadcast it. When Bill Grimes succeeded Simmons in 1982, he stopped paying local systems and began charging them seven cents per subscriber.
The number of cable systems grew from about 625 in 1979 to nearly 14,000 in 1985. As cable penetration increased, so did advertising revenue, giving ESPN more money to spend on rights fees for major sports. ESPN developed a strategy of sharing major events with the networks - for example, broadcasting the early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, leaving the regional and national finals for CBS. The network also picked up events for the rabid fan, among them professional leagues' college player drafts.
In 1983, ESPN covered the America's Cup races in their entirety. The United States lost the cup for the first time, to Australia, andin 1987 the network invested $2 Million in coverage of the races when the United Staes won it back. The investment paid off in more than $4 million of advertising from sponsors looking for the upscale yachting audience - Domaine Chandon champagne, for example. The coverage won rave reviews because of the use of miniaturized cameras mounted on masts, camera locations on helicopters, blimps, and boats, and microphones mounted throughout the yachts.
That was the breakthrough year for ESPN. The network had finally turned a small profit in 1985, and a somewhat larger profit in 1986. By the end of 1987, it had a larger prime-time audience than any other cable channel, and it moved inro really big-time sports with Sunday night pro football. In 1989, ESPN signed a contract with major-league baseball to televise 175 games in 1990, and ESPN officials were talking about tackling the 1992 Olympioc Games. The network at the end of 1989 was available to about 52 million viewers, and advertising revenue was well over $200 million a year.
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Hickok, Ralph, "The Encyclopedia of North American Sports History", Facts On File, Inc., New York, Oxford,1992, Library of Congress card number 91-6667, ISBN 0-8160-2096-5, page 148.