Changing the Playing Field--Again
In a testament to ESPN's success and synonymy with sports, Will Ferrell, playing his Ron Burgundy character from Anchorman, proclaims, "Sports around the clock? That's never going to work." During the skit, Burgundy auditions for--and fails to land--an anchor position on the newly created SportsCenter, adding, "That's really dumb. Seriously, this thing is going to be a financial and cultural disaster."
Bill Rasmussen, ESPN's co-founder, can easily recount the days when people scoffed at the network's concept. "Many people laughed, and you can imagine the comments," he says. "'Who's going to watch sports 24 hours a day?' was the knee-jerk reaction, and then you'd say, 'Well, who watches television 18 hours a day?'"
The memory is still fresh in Rasmussen's mind as he launches his newest endeavor, CollegeFanz.com, a site devoted entirely to college sports and their fans. The site aims to do for Division II and III athletics what ESPN did for sports on TV: bring under-represented sports and teams into the limelight, but this time, using the web to get fans involved.
The site will feature traditional sports content, such as videos, photos, highlights, general sports information and news, alongside a Web 2.0 interface that allows users to create a personalized homepage. The homepages will be entirely customizable, with things like logos and school themes and colors, all sponsored by brands such as Nike, Dell and Home Depot. Much like social networking giants MySpace and Facebook, CollegeFanz will allow users to upload images and videos to their pages and search for other fans online.
"We can fulfill two parts of the puzzle that ESPN even today doesn't really get to," Rasmussen says. "One is the ability to show little-known sports and, two, create a social community that allows fans to speak to each other and to us about whatever it is they want to talk about." The site will charge $4.95 per month for access to the content, but will also feature free services, such as "SportsTalkStudio," a virtual broadcasting room where fans can create their own online sports radio shows. "This is all about the fans and all about the small schools, and all about the little guy having a chance to have his say," he adds.
Despite his success, Rasmussen definitely understands "the little guy." He started ESPN in 1978, an era when TV was ruled by ABC, NBC and CBS, and cable was seen as more of an experiment than a viable alternative to network programming. He sees a lot of similarities between those early days and his experience with CollegeFanz.com. "I could almost change the words 'ESPN' and 'cable' to 'CollegeFanz' and 'internet' and they would follow the same pattern." While skeptics initially questioned hiring salespeople to sell ads on cable TV and were proven wrong, many companies now are seeing the value of advertising online.
When Rasmussen began meeting with investors and developers for CollegeFanz in late 2006, he brought the same enthusiasm as he did to ESPN in the '70s. With less than $1 million in initial seed money, he expects the largely untapped online market for Division II and III college sports to generate $500,000 for his site by the end of the year. "There are thousands of schools and athletes who really never get [to see] the light of day as far as any publicity," he says. "I've always been of the opinion that if two teams are pretty evenly matched, the excitement and the effort and the competition are just as fierce."
Rasmussen admits that his previous success with ESPN has opened many doors for him, including being able to meet with investors and developers for his new venture. But his success with the "four letters" in the past hasn't changed the way he thinks about business. "[It's] amazing to me how many people say to me, 'You can't do that,'" he says. "I have probably heard that phrase more than anything, and if anybody tells me that then it's almost a crusade to find out about it."