Monday, September 7, 2009

Happy Birthday - ESPN

30's hard to believe ESPN has been around for so many all their lives!!!

Thirty years ago today marked a historical beginning but what did folks think of it on the time?

From a tiny studio in Bristol, Connecticut ESPN signed on with its first Sports Center broadcast beginning the first 24 hour cable TV network dedicated exclusively to sports. On September 7, 1979, however, how many households much less sports fans had cable television? Sure in remote cities “pay” television had been available for a long time given only medium and large cities are likely served by all the major networks, but as the 1980’s were on the horizon, at that was about to change.

In its early days, ESPN was a rather quirky experiment. Sure Sports Center brought viewers national sports highlights several times daily with far more detail than fans typically got from the sports segments from their local news. In its early days, ESPN broadcast such things as pro wrestling, Australian Rules football, and boxing, but quickly they found a niche from which they could build a substantial audience picking up on college football and basketball not carried by major networks.

In 1980, ESPN began broadcasting the NCAA Men’s Basketball providing substantial coverage through the season then filling out the Tournament giving full coverage highlighting games from all elimination rounds giving fans access to the event as never covered before. The tournament’s success grew tremendously during ESPN’s reign which included Michael Jordan’s victory shot to give University of North Carolina the championship over Georgetown in 1982. The following year provided one of the tournament’s ultimate Cinderella stories, NC State’s run to the Championship under Coach Jim Valvano. While the finals were shown on CBS, the lead up helped create a following the sport had never seen. ESPN’s success would be its undoing as the tournament became so popular, CBS assumed full broadcasting rights in 1991 for the entire tournament, an arrangement in maintains today.

In its first year, ESPN would be drawn to quite a Pittsburgh affair with the Pittsburgh Pirates who are on the verge of setting the mark for seventeen consecutive losing seasons beat the Baltimore Orioles, now losers of thirteen consecutive seasons, in the 1979 World Series. The Steelers would win the first Super Bowl during ESPN’s reign.

1981 saw ESPN’s first NASCAR broadcast from North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. EPSN would contract with individual tracks for broadcasting rights showing the majority of races with some on TBS, TNN, and over air networks until 2001 when again their success lead to the sport being so big others would jump in with the national contract putting NASCAR on FOX, NBC/TBS. Since 2007, though Sprint Cup racing is on ESPN and ABC from the Brickyard forward and ESPN, mostly ESPN2 carries the Nationwide series for the entire season.

After the famous CBS broadcast of the 1979 Daytona 500, the sports world was ripe for NASCAR coverage and ESPN was instrumental in feeding that hunger. They covered the building rivalry between Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip who dominated the 1980’s. They saw Bill Elliot win his championship, set the speed record at Talladega, and win the Winston million. ESPN covered the meteoric rise and fall of Tim Richmond all in the first decade which concluded with Rusty Wallace winning his loan championship.

As ESPN grew, soon there was no room for quirky sports like Australian Rules football, but it was fun while it lasted. ESPN also showed society was overcoming many limitations of the past as female anchors joined the team from Gayle Gardner in its early years, then Robin Roberts and Linda Cohn just to name a few. Sports Center anchors and other ESPN personalities became as well known as sports commentators with the traditional networks. Chris Berman (ugh!) and Bob Ley have been with the network since its beginning.

In 1983 an upstart football league, the USFL which had spent big bucks on big talent became another one of ESPN’s big draws feeding fans’ year round appetite for football. In hindsight the USFL did a better job of promoting ESPN than ESPN did helping the USFL become a legitimate sport, but bigger fortune was on the horizon as in 1987, ESPN began its Sunday night football coverage shared with TNT during some of the early years but expanding the extent to which the nation watched select games.

Jon Miller and Joe Morgan were teamed together as a broadcast team in 1989 marking ESPN’s start broadcasting Sunday night baseball. EPSN would maintain a schedule of weeknight telecasts which continue to the present.

ESPN had a brief run with the NBA in the early 80’s before their current engagement and covered the NHL at times as well.

The 1990’s saw ESPN’s popularity explode as cable television had spread to become almost a household necessity. In 1992, they launched ESPN radio which would start grabbing up events held by the traditional networks eventually providing 24 hour a day sports programming to local stations. ESPN2 was born in 1983 originally attempting to target a younger hip audience with such programming as the beginning of extreme sports, largely an ESPN creation. ESPN Classic became a sports oldies station – some games just being days old. ESPN provides instant sports highlights and news 24 x 7. Soon ESPN was worldwide.

ESPN.COM began operation in 1995 quickly becoming one of the web’s most popular sites with scores, team rosters and information, player biographies, and commentary.

By 2000, ESPN was truly a cultural institution.

It’s hard to imagine how any sports fan can avoid a steady diet of ESPN thirty years after its beginning. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, ESPN personalities like Dick Vitale, Chris Berman, Stuart Scott, and many others while stirring up pro and con passion have added their share of catch phrases to the sports vocabulary.

As popular as sports programming is, it’s remarkable to note that ESPN remains the only long lasting nationwide sports network with both ESPN and ESPN2 providing full coverage of live events and original shows. Turner attempted to launch CNN-SI, essentially the same concept as ESPN News. It was short lived. Now Comcast is attempting to make the former Outdoor Life Network (OLN) network into a legitimate sports network branded as VERSUS which carries the NHL, IRL motorsports, some college events, and even the Davis Cup tennis which helped launch ESPN. VERSUS also got on the map with extensive Tour de France coverage. Ironically, they moved their headquarters from Comcast Corporate in Philadelphia to Stanford, Connecticut not far from ESPN’s domain in Bristol. As VERSUS attempted to go primetime, they could not seize ESPN’s Major League Baseball.

Love ‘em, hate ‘em, or a little bit of both, sports fans are drawn to ESPN every week. ESPN served as one of the networks that originally helped make cable television such a desirable commodity along in the early 80’s. We admit we love them, but GADS CHRIS BERMAN, we’ve been sick of him since around 1990!!!

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