| ||Monday, September 6|
|Chris Berman joined ESPN in its first month of operation on October 1, 1979 as an anchor for the 3 a.m. ET edition of SportsCenter. Then, he was a 24-year-old, long-haired sports host and traffic reporter for WNVR-AM in Waterbury, Conn. who worked weekends as the $23-per-day sports anchor on WVIT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Hartford, Conn. Now, he is a network icon, one of sports television's most visible and popular stars and host of the three-hour special to mark ESPN's 20th anniversary on September 7 at 7 p.m. ET.
Berman reflects on ESPN upon its upcoming 20th anniversary:
Q: What was ESPN like in the early days?
A: There were about 70 of us, kind of like infantry in a nuclear war wondering if we would make it or whether we would become a parking lot. But seriously, on paper we looked like a wing and a prayer, but we always felt there was an audience for ESPN . . . people like us who wanted to watch sports at any time, day or night, 24 hours a day. It was the right idea at the right time as we rode cable's coattails and cable rode ours.
Q: But then, no one knew it was the right idea or the right time. How did you decide to join a company that could be history in a few months?
A: I had nothing to lose. I was 24, single with long hair and a "Luis Tiant" Fu Manchu mustache. Also, I didn't have to move. In fact, the fact that ESPN wouldn't have to pay moving expenses was part of my negotiation -- it made me more attractive to them! Also, my career at that point could stand some risk-taking. From Monday to Friday I did sports shows and play-by-play on the radio in Waterbury, Conn., not exactly a major media market. I also did traffic reports, and let me tell you . . . traffic in Waterbury is always light to moderate or moderate to light. On the weekends I did the sports for $23 a day on the number four TV station in a three-station market. Believe me, applying to ESPN wasn't such a daring move.
Q: What are your memories of the early days on the overnight SportsCenter shift?
A: I started on the 3 a.m. SportsCenter which basically was a night light in a few homes and a companion for fathers handling the overnight feedings. At first, we didn't have a whole lot of video, which is not a good thing in television. But Tom Mees - God rest his soul - and I really clicked and we had a great time. In fact, those remain my fondest memories here. That was my training ground.
Q: There is one 10-minute stretch from 1994 etched in your memory. Tell us about it.
A: On Friday, June 17 at 2:50 p.m. ET, I'm in Oakmont, Pa. for Arnold Palmer's last U.S. Open. ESPN presented an emotional, tear-filled interview as he walked the 18th green for the final time. As host, I wrapped up coverage and threw to the studio where we reported that O.J. Simpson was now a serious suspect in the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. We then threw to Chicago for the first World Cup Soccer game ever held in the United States. Afterwards, Jack Whitaker, also working the Open, and I looked at each other and were incredulous at the enormous swings of emotion in such a short time - a tear-filled interview with a legend, an unbelievable breaking news story concerning a football legend and a celebration. It was one of the greatest 10 minutes of television I have ever witnessed.
Q: Can you compare the ESPN of then with the ESPN of today?
A: There is no comparison as to the product. Behind the scenes, it's very much the same place, just with more people and fancier equipment. There's still a bunch of us who remember those times and can vouch for that. But then we had 70 people working as hard as they can. Now we have more than 2,000 doing the same. Then, we were in 1.4 million households. Now, we get mail from every continent. Remember, after 10 years we still were just one network, ESPN, the original. But under the leadership of Steve Bornstein, the past 10 years have seen us expand to three other networks here, many others around the world, radio, a magazine, online and more. We didn't realize it at the time, but ESPN went from a cult station to an unmistakable brand name.
Q: What are your thoughts on the evolution of ESPN programming?
A: People said we couldn't find enough sports to fill a 24-hour network. Remember, sports was three minutes a night on the news and weekend afternoons. Now we have four domestic networks. I remember when we were excited to do the NFL Draft and show NFL Films programming. Now, we've had NFL games for 13 years. We used to show tons of college football games, but all on tape until 1984. But nothing shows how far we've come than the fact that I once did play-by-play on a telecast of darts . . . and later did the Cal Ripken game, one of sports' finest moments of the last two decades.
Q: Other networks have inquired as to your availability over the years. Ultimately, what kept you at ESPN?
A: I want to be George Brett and Tony Gwynn. I want to retire with the team I came in with. Once I go anywhere else, I'm a mercenary. I'm so proud to be one of the folks who helped lay the foundation here. Actually, by staying it's been just like going to a new job every few years as we add new programming and I get new duties. From SportsCenter to the NFL Draft to NFL Sunday Countdown and PrimeTime to Baseball Tonight and play-by-play to my work for Monday Night Football, in the end I'm better off for staying compared to anything else anyone could have offered. It's not about money, it's about loyalty. ESPN has been great to me, better than I could have ever hoped for.
Q: What is your impression of the typical ESPN viewer?
A: I think we know him, or her, very well because they are like us - sports fans. We have a passion for sports. We take it seriously. For all the nicknames and jokes and fun we have, and accepting that sports is sports and separate from the important parts of life, we take sports very seriously. We go deeper, we analyze more, we tell you things you won't hear elsewhere. That's what really separates us and that's what fans recognize and appreciate. The fun stuff gets noticed, but it's secondary to the information, and it's all delivered with a love for the games.
Q: Do you feel a bond with the viewer?
A: Absolutely there is a unique bond. In fact, we don't have viewers . . . we have fans. There's a trust between us. I felt it from the beginning and it carries through to today. When I do a telecast, I feel I'm talking to a friend - nobody in particular, but just somebody very familiar.
Q: What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
A: I was a history major at Brown, but I'm not sure how that would have played out in the job market. Maybe I'd be a singer in a rock-and-roll band, or maybe driving the beverage cart at Pebble Beach.
Q: Is there anything you would like to say to the audience upon ESPN's 20th anniversary?
A: Very simply, thank you. We do this for them and we're here because of them. They helped us through those wild and crazy early years. It's been an amazing ride, one I feel lucky to have had a pretty good seat on. It's hard to believe, but when you realize I started here in 1979 and it's about to become 2000, I'm about to be a four-decade man of sorts! An entire generation of sports fans has grown up with us. They can't imagine life without ESPN. I hope the anniversary show expresses our affection for everyone out there because this is something we all did together so let's share in it together.
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