ESPN Co-Founder Explains How to Take Your Startup From Local to Global
Interstate 84 is a highway across the state of Connecticut that Bill and Scott Rasmussen will never forget. For it was there - - in the hot, sticky confines of a car in a traffic jam -- that an irritable conversation took place between father and son that birthed the entire ESPN service offering.
Some 14 months after this spirited discussion, with the proverbial blood, sweat and tears having been shed, Bill Rasmussen’s vision for ESPN came into being, funded by a $9,000 credit card advance. At 7 p.m. (Eastern) on Sept. 7, 1979, ESPN host Lee Leonard introduced the network to viewers for the first time. His first words were, “If you’re a fan, if you’re a fan, what you’ll see in the next minutes, hours and days to follow may convince you you’ve gone to sports heaven.”
The main TV networks may have expected ESPN to crash and burn but the network soared and kept on soaring. Today, it’s in more than 100 million U.S. homes with a global presence in 200 countries.
By its slogan and supporting statistics, ESPN is the “worldwide leader in sports.” I interviewed one of the company’s co-founders, Bill Rasmussen, and he told me about ESPN’s “David and Goliath” battle with the major TV networks, the obstacles ESPN overcame to become the worldwide leader in sports and his take on whether entrepreneurs should get an MBA.
You co-founded ESPN with your son, Scott, and insurance agent, Ed Eagan. What roles did you all play in starting the company?
Rasmussen: My son did a lot of research for me. Ed worked with uplink provider, Scientific Atlanta, and regional cable companies in New England. I communicated with potential investors, advertisers, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), RCA Americom and cable companies across America.
With three major TV networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) on the one hand and a startup (ESPN) on the other, the ESPN story can be considered a modern-day “David and Goliath” battle. David defeated an over-confident Goliath with a slingshot. In your view, what was the “slingshot” that ESPN used to prevail in the battle against the TV network giants?
The slingshot we used was 24-hour sports coverage. We told the world, “Right now, you’re standing on the edge of tomorrow - - sports 24 hours a day, seven days a week from ESPN, the Total Sports Cable Network.” We told the world we would cover 8,760 hours of sports every year compared to the 1,300 hours of sports that were spread across the three leading networks.
What were the biggest obstacles ESPN had to overcome to embody its slogan and become the worldwide leader in sports?
The toughest sale was to the cable community itself. Most cable operators were happy to re-broadcast network programming and provide local access channels to their community. They were very skeptical about a new network. With the 1980 NCAA March Madness, that skepticism disappeared. We showed every early round game live and that opened the eyes of sports fans everywhere.
Prior to co-founding ESPN, you completed an MBA from Rutgers University, supported by extensive experience in advertising, radio and TV. Where do you weigh in on the debate about whether entrepreneurs should invest in an MBA to enhance their business prospects?
More valuable than an MBA is the enthusiasm and passion that are needed for an entrepreneur to succeed. My MBA provided many practical aspects that contributed to ESPN’s success. However, it was passion and persistence that made it all work.
You are regularly invited to perform speaking engagements across the U.S., where you chronicle the ESPN story. What are the main business lessons that you would like your audience to leave with?
The same principles I follow - - focus on the acronym “FACTS.” Every business needs these five things to succeed: financing, advertising (income or expense), content (your product or service), technology (how it works) and subscribers (customers). Recognize your competition by making them work for you.
ESPN overcame the odds and exceeded all expectations. Your startup can, too.