Thursday, February 8, 2024

Review: The Early Days of ESPN (2024)

By Peter Fox

The lives of sports fans changed drastically on September 7, 1979. That's when a new television network called ESPN signed on the air, with sportscaster Lee Leonard doing the honors. 

It hasn't signed off since that moment - with the exception of a few technical problems, no doubt - and since then it has lived up to its promise that it would show nothing but sports programming for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 (or 366) days a year.

While plenty has been written about those early days of the network's programming, ESPN didn't simply appear out of the ether one day. Several months of planning went into the debut. In fact, the first broadcast by the network took place 10 months earlier in November of 1978. The opening game was an exhibition basketball matchup between the University of Connecticut and Athletes in Action, a tourimg squad. 

Peter Fox was there at the beginning, as ESPN's founding executive producer. He's finally gotten around to putting some of his (and others') memories on those start-up days on paper, and the result is "The Early Days of ESPN."

The idea for the network came almost accidentally. Bill Rasmussen was interested in transmitting Connecticut basketball games around the state by satellite, and discovered that he couldn't just rent the time for a few hours a week. No, he had to agree to use it 24/7. A family member half-jokingly suggested to fill the time with other sports, and they plunged into it. 

After setting the scene a bit, Fox mostly relies on the memories of those who worked there in those early days. Some came from Hartford television, while others were from the immediate area of the Northeast. As you'd expect, the start-up was rather chaotic, with rented offices and potential clients (cable companies and advertisers) wondering how ESPN would fill all that time. Come to think of it, the employees wondered that too.

But eventually, it all came together. The big steps in personnel came when Chet Simmons and Scotty Connal - two big names in television production - were hired. Then the Getty Oil Company, which was sitting on piles of cash at the time, decided a television network would be more fun to own than drilling a dry hole in the ground.  

As you'd expect, the new employees mostly were young people who really didn't have much to lose professionally and loved sports. So there are stories of long hours, equipment breaking down, visits to local watering holes, office romances, more visits to local watering holes (hey, work hard, play hard), etc.

That all sounds like it has the elements of a reasonable book. However, the finished product has a couple of good-sized flaws attached.

For starters, this is part oral history and part personal narrative. The problem is that the material is not presented particularly well. It's rather disorganized, and sometimes it's tough to figure out where on the timeline of ESPN's story we might be at a given page. That's a good-sized drawback in a book like this. There are a few sections along the way that are simply tough to read for that reason. It's also a short book, checking in at under 200 pages with some filler along the way. Readers may not feel they will get their $29.95's worth of information from this.   

Fox comes off as a good and interesting guy, and he probably would be good company for lunch and diet colas. But "The Early Days of ESPN" comes across as something that might appeal to a very small piece of the audience. There are other books out there that might be more satisfying to someone looking for a quick overview of the start of the popular broadcasting outlet.

Two stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)  

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