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Ben Smith

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ESPN generation has 1 man to thank

OK, young minds of tomorrow, come in here and take your seats, and no dithering, if you please. The man from another planet has a lot of ground to cover.

His name is Bill Rasmussen and he comes to you from a galaxy far, far away, which is to say 1978. There were no iPhones. There were no Kindles. There were no websites or apps or links or even laptops, because there wasn’t an Internet yet, and so what would you do with a laptop?

Use it as fuel for the woodstove in your one-room schoolhouse?

“You know, we only had 12 (TV) channels then,” the man from another planet says.

Twelve channels?!

What did the heck did people do for fun?

Well, if you were Bill Rasmussen, you invented ESPN.

If you were Rasmussen, and it was Aug. 16, 1978, you sat in a room with three other people and played What If. What if there were a cable entity that actually provided content instead of just signal enhancement? What if it were devoted solely to sports? What if it aired 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Who wouldn’t go for that?

Besides one of the four people in the room, that is?

“One of the four was the guy we thought would do our initial production,” says Rasmussen, in town this week to talk to college students and serve as keynote speaker for the 17th annual CEO Forum today at the Keith Busse School of Business and Entrepreneurial Leadership at Saint Francis. “He said, ‘You guys are crazy. I can’t be part of this.’ And he walked out.”

Rasmussen got a lot of that in those days. No one in the cable industry then could conceive of original programming; they figured cable was there to solely make sure the yokels who lived on the other side of the mountain could get a TV signal.

“We’re going to give you programming you can’t get on the networks,” Rasmussen told one cable rep.

“What’s wrong with sports the way we do it?” the guy replied. “Look, we’ve been doing these two cameras things in black-and-white forever, and the fans love it.”

“Well, if they had five or six or seven cameras in color, they might love it more,” Rasmussen said.

Eventually, people started to agree. And on Sept. 7, 1979, ESPN launched. And now it’s 31 years later, and Rasmussen looks out on the classes he regularly lectures these days, and he sees an entire generation that’s never known a world without ESPN. Heck, he bumps into people in their 30s who’ve never known that.

“Those are the ones that surprise me,” Rasmussen says. “I realize that, even if you’re 35 years old, ESPN’s been around forever.”

Certainly it is venerable, not to say pervasive. Too much so, its critics say. Like any 24/7, it’s driven by the need to fill airtime (“The number we always live by is 8,760 – the number of minutes it takes to fill one year 24/7,” Rasmussen says), and sometimes that means stories are presented that aren’t really stories. And yet they become the story, simply because ESPN wields such enormous clout.

“There is probably some of that,” Rasmussen admits. “Every now and then, and even when you watch the Sunday morning NFL show with Chris Berman, … sometimes it seems they really, really are just trying to fill time.

“But you know what? For the avid, avid NFL fan, it’s still probably not enough.”

Class dismissed.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by e-mail at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648 or at the “Ben Smith” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net.

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