Within a year of being fired as communications director of the New England Whalers hockey team, Bill Rasmussen went on to change sports history with the launch of ESPN in 1979.
That’s the kind of “making lemonade out of lemons” approach that the 86-year-old ESPN founder has embraced ever since, even when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which he made public earlier this year.
“I just think anyone with a positive attitude is going to be successful. The less time you spend being discouraged, the better your life,” Rasmussen told TheWrap following a Q&A with ESPN staff in Los Angeles to commemorate the network’s 40th anniversary.
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“A day wasted moping around saying ‘woe is me,’ is not advancing the ball,” he added. “I just think life is here to be lived and we should do it on a positive basis and experience the good things.”
From Rasmussen’s abrupt dismissal from the Whalers, through a light bulb moment while driving on the 1-84 to a birthday party in New Jersey, and hand drawing plans on a yellow notepad, the switch was finally flipped on at ESPN on Sept. 7, 1979.
The first-ever episode of “SportsCenter” was aired live from the (still unfinished) Bristol, Connecticut studios, was broadcast to 1.4 million cable subscribers throughout the U.S. And the rest is history.
Getty Oil purchased 85% of ESPN and Rasmussen left by agreement on Dec. 31, 1980, but he has remained part of the network’s DNA ever since.
Read the full Q&A with Rasmussen below.
TheWrap: How different is what ESPN evolved into, compared to your initial vision 40 years ago?
Bill Rasmussen: Nobody could know back then what we’d have now in terms of streaming shows and cellphones. But aside from digital developments, it is exactly what I envisioned it would be. There is nothing in the sports world that you can’t find out via ESPN. I go to ESPN to look up any question in sports, a lot of people go to Google, but I don’t have to do that. I know right where to find the authentic guys … they’re legit and have incredible resources to get the picture, the right facts, the right story or whatever. That is what is it all about — informing the fans correctly.
Your drive to help people seems to still be alive at the company with the Humanitarian Awards, ESPYS, the Jimmy V Foundation — how did that continue from the early days?
I think it comes down to the kind of the people we hired. I always say, if we can help one person, then it has been a good day, that is what it is all about. I can’t imagine being negative in life.
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Why did you always believe ESPN was going to be a success, even when surrounded by doubters?
From the very beginning, it was all about the fans. Sports teams aren’t like rival countries — if you’re a rugby fan, and I’m a soccer fan or a baseball fan, we are all fans. North, east, south, west, young, old, male, female — it doesn’t make a difference. All of the rest of things you can argue with your neighbors about like politics or whatever. Really, all we did was harness the interest of fans and build a business to meet their demands to watch more sports.
Why do you think ESPN has managed to survive waves of changing technology and consumer demands?
They are all always trying new things. We had 80 people there on Day 1 and on the 30th anniversary, 40 of them were still there. The accumulated knowledge and experience of 40 people times 30 years experience with this product adds up.
How do you feel about ESPN now covering WWE, which was not even considered a sport when you launched the network?
If there are fans, we should be doing it (I say “we” as the collective we, as I’m no longer an employee). There was one time when I was there and someone from New York City came up and pitched us the rights for New York rooftop tennis. We were hurting for programming but that one was over the edge. That’s probably the only sport we ever said no to!
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What do you think of streaming platforms now airing live sports, such as football games on Twitter?
I think it is great that you can go and find anything you want.
What is your favorite ESPN memory from over the years?
Flipping the switch for the very first time. There was so much riding on it, everything like the satellites were in place but when you count it down “5,4,3,2,1” — everyone was still terrified that it wouldn’t work. There was one glitch though, we had Chuck Fairbanks in Boulder, Colorado, as the new coach of the college football team, and as we were telling everyone that this was the future of technology … the audio died and there was total silence. It only took a few seconds to fix it, but for all of us in the control room, our hearts were in our throats and we were gasping.
Were you ever scared of failure?
I never thought we would fail, I always thought we would win. I am still like that to this day. Have I ever lost? Of course. You just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. It is fun and life is fun.
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Did you use that approach when you were first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease?
Yes. The first thing I did was call the Michael J. Fox Foundation after ESPN released a press announcement about my diagnosis. My mother had Parkinson’s but she never talked about it, and it’s the same to this day. The foundation is working so hard on medical research but in the meantime we need to hasten the recognition of the disease. About 60% of people with Parkinson’s are afraid or ashamed to admit it and many won’t even go to the doctor. How sad is that? It’s not going to kill them but it’s going to impact their whole life. So big mouth here, I am going to tell everyone!