“When I got fired on a Saturday morning, I didn’t see it coming. I learned that no matter how devastating it may seem at the time, something good can always come out of it. When one door closes another door opens is a cliché, but it was true for me.” Bill Rasmussen
Memorial Day Weekend, 1978 – Hartford, Connecticut: Bill Rasmussen got a call on Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. It was his boss, Howard Baldwin, owner of the New England Whalers professional hockey team. “Bill, we are making some changes,” Baldwin began, “We no longer need your services.” Rasmussen asked if he could clean out his office but was told no. The following week he received a check for two weeks of pay.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Rasmussen was a lifelong sports fanatic. A promising baseball player, when his major league baseball dream fizzled, he joined the Air Force. In 1954 he received his bachelor’s degree in economics from DePauw University and later earned his MBA from Rutgers University.
Rasmussen spent three years in sales at Westinghouse before leaving to start an advertising services business with two partners. At age 30, he sold his interest in the business to pursue a dream of being a sports broadcaster. Despite having no radio experience, he was hired at WTTT – AM Radio in Amherst, Massachusetts. He did the play-by-play for the University of Massachusetts football and basketball games.
Three years later, he was off to WWLP, the NBC TV affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he spent eight years on the air as sports director. During those years, he also did play-by-play for local football, basketball, baseball and hockey games.
In 1974, Rasmussen became the communications director for the New England Whaler’s professional hockey team. In 1978, he and the entire front office were fired on Memorial Day weekend after another losing season. Rasmussen was 42 and out of a job. Though the firing was a shock, he remained positive.
While sitting in a traffic jam on Interstate 84, Rasmussen got an idea for a 24-hour sports TV station. At the time, the idea of round-the-clock programming was unheard of. The three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, were on the air from 7:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m. Their programming consisted of a couple hours of sports each week. The networks laughed, “Rasmussen doesn’t know what he is talking about. He can’t be serious. Who is going to watch sports 24 hours a day?” Rasmussen ignored the critics.
He needed lots of money, and he needed a sports contract. Rasmussen flew to Kansas City, Missouri, several times before he convinced Walter Byers, head of the NCAA, to grant him rights to televise college football and basketball games. The financing was more difficult. Rasmussen was turned down by seven potential investors and was close to giving up. Then on a rainy Friday night, he got a call from Getty Oil in Los Angeles. They were interested.
With the promise of financing, Rasmussen purchased a year’s worth of round-the-clock programming on an RCA TV satellite. On September 7, 1979 – just 12 months after being fired by the New England Whalers – with a $9,000 advance on his credit card and $145 million from Getty Oil, Bill Rasmussen’s dream network went on the air. The first broadcast from Bristol, Connecticut, was from an equipment truck because the control room wasn’t ready.
Major networks were betting the fledging network would not survive the first weekend of continuous 24-hour sports coverage. They were wrong. Rasmussen’s idea was a huge success. He dubbed the world’s first 24-hour, 7-day-a-week sports television station Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN). A couple months later, Rasmussen introduced ESPN’s signature program, SportsCenter, a 30 minute sports news update, which ran opposite the nightly news window on the three major networks.
Bill Rasmussen’s crazy idea not only changed the sports world, but it also changed the world of communication. More than four decades later, the world leader in sports is viewed each day by hundreds of millions of people in more than 70 countries. “I loved sports and I figured there were millions of sports junkies just like me, says the 90-year-old ESPN ambassador. “I knew my idea would work. I just had to be persistent.”