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 Tuesday, September 7
ESPN at 20: Changing how we look at sports
By David Bauder
Associated Press

  NEW YORK -- It all began with a public-relations executive eager to find a way to televise Hartford Whalers hockey games throughout Connecticut.

ESPN has long surpassed its humble origins, growing into a corporate power with one radio and four TV networks, a magazine, Web site and chain of restaurants.

The ESPN phenomenon turns 20 and shows no sign of slowing down.

Along the way, it has dramatically influenced how a generation views, and plays, the games -- erasing whatever line may have divided sports and entertainment.

ESPN is wherever sports fans congregate. Commuters at Grand Central Terminal gaze at "SportsCenter" as their shoes are shined. Pittsburgh Pirates cluster around a clubhouse set to watch highlights of a game they just played. Rap star Puff Daddy eyes ESPN in the lounge near his Manhattan studio.

For millions of viewers weaned on videotaped touchdowns and slam dunks, home runs and holes-in-one, life without ESPN is inconceivable.

Yet the network was only a sports fan's fantasy until Sept. 7, 1979.

A humble beginning

William Rasmussen easily recalls the drive when he conceived ESPN's blueprint. It was Aug. 16, 1978.

A publicist for the former Whalers, he had hoped to harness the emerging cable TV technology to telecast their games. Before that could happen, Rasmussen and most everyone associated with the team were fired after a dismal 1977-78 season. He kept his TV contacts, though, and acquired a satellite transponder that enabled him to start a cable network.

But how? Rasmussen pondered the question that August afternoon as he drove from a Hartford suburb. His son suggested showing tapes of football games. By the time they reached the Jersey shore, Rasmussen had decided to try an all-sports network, ask the NCAA for the rights to televise college games and produce a prototype for a daily highlights show that would become "SportsCenter."

"When you have kids to feed and all of a sudden your job is gone, you think of things," he explains.

Rasmussen wanted the name Sports Programming Network, but that was already claimed. So he added "E" for Entertainment. In 1984, after he was gone, it became simply ESPN -- the letters no longer signifying words.

Like CNN for news and MTV for music, the idea seems obvious in retrospect. Cable was still a toddler then, and television was dominated by ABC, CBS and NBC. They aired some sports, but for a daily fix, viewers had to settle for brief segments during the local news.

"You didn't get highlights of every game. You didn't get previews of series. You picked up the paper and you opened it up and you looked to see how Rod Carew did," says Tony Gwynn, an outfielder for the San Diego Padres. "Now, you come home from the park and turn on ESPN. You find out right away what's going on."

ESPN began by reporting on Chris Evert Lloyd's U.S. Open tennis victory over Billie Jean King. Its first live event followed: 1979 Professional Slo-Pitch Softball World Series with the Milwaukee Schlitzes challenging the Kentucky Bourbons.

Instead of baseball and basketball, early ESPN aired darts and billiards. Several milestones helped it gain its footing: first live coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament, 1980; first live college football, 1984; first NFL football, 1987 -- another first, when ESPN began making money.

(Analysts estimated ESPN and its spinoff, ESPN2, made $1.6 billion last year.)

"It has only fed the fervor of the football enthusiast, the golf enthusiast, you name it," says golfer Hale Irwin. "You go to people's homes now and they might have three or four television sets on the wall. It has created a whole different home entertainment."

Pick a trend in sports over the past two decades, and it's likely ESPN played a part: the booming popularity of the NCAA's March madness, the stratosphere of athletes' salaries, the explosion in fees paid to leagues for broadcast rights.

"ESPN has been great for college basketball," says Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian. "The great popularity of the game is due to ESPN and (commentator) Dick Vitale."

"I watch ESPN all the time. I can't remember what it was like before we had ESPN. I know it's made a big impact on the way I watch sports news."
-- Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin

"If you're going well, you're the greatest, you're awesome. But if you're not, it's like a joke. If you strike out five times and they make fun of you and say, 'With the whiff ... .' Isn't there a kinder way to do it?"
-- Pittsburgh outfielder Al Martin

"I try not to watch it too much. They make jokes out of everybody's mistakes. Some players worked their butts off to get here and it's hard to play at this level. I don't like the criticism and the sarcasm from people who have never played at this level and don't know what it's like to play at this level. It's easy to criticize when you don't know how difficult it is."
-- Arizona outfielder Tony Womack

"The only time they show the Cowboys is when we do something wrong or we get smoked out by a team."
-- Dallas running back Emmitt Smith

"It has only fed the fervor of the football enthusiast, the golf enthusiast, you name it. You go to people's homes now and they might have three or four television sets on the wall. It has created a whole different home entertainment."
-- Hale Irwin

"I'm always trying to make something happen so I can see myself on 'SportsCenter."' As long as it's something good. If you do something bad, you're definitely going to be on there. And those guys can make you look pretty bad."
-- Atlanta outfielder Brian Jordan

-- Associated Press

Butch Davis, a football coach at the University of Miami, says ESPN has similarly helped his sport -- maybe too much. Sometimes, he complains, fans are so seduced by all the games on TV that they don't bother driving to the Orange Bowl.

ESPN has "brought another dimension to the intensity of the game: the quality of the exposure," says Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. "It's not one or two days, it's ongoing. It's a big happening when they come on campus.

"It's put a lot of pressure on coaches and kids," he adds. "There's a little more than maybe some kids can handle."

It's all in a name

Chris Berman cannot recall which nickname he announced first on "SportsCenter": Frank Tanana "Daiquiri"? John Mayberry "RFD"? Hundreds followed, but it was on a baseball field that he realized just how deeply his comic signature had registered.

In 1982, Berman hovered near the batting cage, watching the Kansas City Royals prepare for a pivotal late-season game with the California Angels, when third base star George Brett approached. The Royals were concerned, Brett said, that they didn't have as many nicknames as other teams. Teammate Willie Wilson voiced the same complaint. So did U.L. Washington.

Nonplussed but proud, Berman wondered: Shouldn't they be more worried about the pennant race?

"SportsCenter" is ESPN's showcase, airing several times a day. From the beginning, comedy was as constant as film clips. Anchors Berman, Dan Patrick, the late Tom Mees, Keith Olbermann and others have always been quick with a wisecrack, or a snide aside.

It served as a model for ABC's "Sports Night," a highly regarded sitcom entering its second season. The annual Espy Awards is the "SportsCenter" to the extreme, with athletes like baseball slugger Mark McGwire and anchors in tuxedos celebrating what looks good on TV. ESPN has effectively expanded the reach of its credo: Sports news isn't just news. It's entertainment.

"They keep it fun," says Brian Jordan, an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves. "They're always laughing and enjoying themselves. That's what people like to see."

ESPN anchors try to have fun with sports, since that's why fans are fans. "We talk with people," Berman says, "not at them or down to them."

Dick Trickle values his "SportsCenter" joke. Patrick effectively adopted the NASCAR driver, mentioning where Trickle finished every time ESPN reported on a stock car race. It's not clear why, except that Trickle's name could guarantee a snicker among teen-age viewers.

Nearing 60, Trickle has heard sophomoric jokes since he was a kid. The journeyman driver doesn't mind ESPN's humor, especially when he considers what it's done for his career.

He never has to worry about attracting sponsors, and his fan club is nearly as big as circuit star Jeff Gordon's. ESPN, he says, "has made me one of the most popular drivers."

Phil Mushnick, a columnist for the New York Post, considers ESPN humor a marketing strategy. "It sometimes seems that the hearts and minds of the people they want to capture is in an 18- or 19-year-old male, wearing a Motley Crue T-shirt, probably hung over, living in his parents' basement with a half-eaten pizza in a box on the floor."

He isn't the only one who doesn't appreciate the humor. Last winter, the Major League Baseball Players Association asked ESPN executives to meet with offended players.

"They make jokes out of everybody's mistakes," says Tony Womack, an outfielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks. "I don't like the criticism and the sarcasm from people who have never played at this level."

Failed "SportsCenter" jokes are easy to wave off. Just ignore ESPN's recent "Which Bear Project," a spoof of the Chicago Bears' search for a quarterback that spun off the hit film, "The Blair Witch Project."

What is harder to overlook are the legions of ESPN imitators on local TV and radio stations who deliver sports with a healthy helping of smugness and smarm.

A recent survey of broadcast journalism students at Syracuse, Missouri, Columbia and Ohio universities found that half of the men enrolled aspire to be sportscasters. Most list ESPN as the place they'd like to work.

That's one reason why often twice as many women as men apply for local TV news jobs, says Chris Tuohey, a broadcast professor at Syracuse who explains the frustration of his colleagues.

"A lot of students do the sports reports on their student newscasts in the ESPN style," he says. "They are more interested in being funny and using sports lingo than they are in doing local feature pieces. They don't understand that there's no market in local television news for the ESPN style."

Indeed, there's been a backlash among TV news directors against this style, says John Quarderer, a vice president at the broadcasting research firm of Frank Magid and Associates. They figure viewers who want humor and highlights will watch "SportsCenter," so it's better to fill local sports reports with local news.

Those who try to appropriate the network's style forget that humor should come second to information, ESPN's Berman says.

"I don't know if they're imitating us or if they're just trying to be noticed," he says. "It's like a bad sports coat."

A cultural phenomenon

A Little League player smacks a long drive toward the left-field fence. He stands in the batter's box, twirling his bat, admiring his work. When the ball bounces off the fence instead of sailing over it, he's caught flat-footed -- and thrown out at second base.

A witness to the scene, Mushnick knew where he saw that posturing before. On TV. On "SportsCenter."

Another time, he watched as kids in a pickup football game got in only a few plays before they abandoned it to practice the end-zone spikes they'd do if they scored a touchdown.

Style over substance -- a pervasive effect that some critics blame on years of "SportsCenter" clips that emphasize the colorful more than the competent. What message gets through if taunting gets more attention than teamwork?

Youngsters see hitters hang back at the plate to admire their home runs and hear "SportsCenter" anchors note how the star wields his "whipping stick." Their coach may say it's important to run hard to first base, but TV shows the home-run trot.

Basketball purists claim the fundamentals are deteriorating; shooting is slipping, scoring is down. Some coaches, like Indiana's Bob Knight, point to ESPN, suggesting its infatuation with the slam dunk has fostered a culture of individual play, not teamwork.

ESPN's Berman is sensitive to the criticism and suggests ESPN may have erred in celebrating excessive displays after dunks or touchdowns.

"It does go a little too far, which is why the NFL has put a flag on it," he concedes. "After a while, we realized we should have a flag on it, too."

The Braves' Jordan doesn't believe athletes alter their style of play to get on ESPN, but he knows many relish the chance to get on TV.

"I'm always trying to make something happen so I can see myself on 'SportsCenter,' as long as it's something good," the slugging outfielder says. "If you do something bad, you're definitely going to be on there. And those guys can make you look pretty bad."

Even then, ESPN may be irresistible. A disgruntled Emmitt Smith, running back for the Dallas Cowboys, watches "SportsCenter" twice, sometimes three times, a day.

"The only time they show the Cowboys is when we do something wrong or we get smoked out by a team," he grouses.

But still he tunes in.

"Oh, yeah," he says. "I'm gonna watch it."

Growing older gracefully

Twenty years. In real life, just out of adolescence. In television terms, ESPN is the geeky kid who wouldn't leave his room yet emerged as an Internet millionaire.

Rasmussen couldn't save the Whalers. But, day after day, he's reminded of ESPN when he hears the mechanics at a gas station talking about Chris Berman or passes by TV monitors in sports stadiums. "You had something to do with that, didn't you, Pop-Pop," his grandson will say.

Barry Larkin, a veteran shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, can recall a time before ESPN when he thinks about its influence.

"Before, there was only a limited amount of time on network news devoted to sports," he says. "ESPN was a vehicle that allowed more people to watch sports and, in turn, sports became more popular. Not just baseball, but all sports."

Larkin looks to his 6-year-old son, DeShane, for confirmation.

"He wouldn't have known anything about hockey before 'SportsCenter,"' he says. "Now, he wants to be a hockey player."

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