The television world was forever changed on Sept. 7, 1979, at 7 p.m. when the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network first took to the air.
Of course, few realized it at the time. Fewer still actually viewed that first "SportsCenter," or the college football preview show and professional slo-pitch softball tournament that followed.
The sports and television landscapes were much different then, usually coming together only on weekends.
Many major sports leagues had their seasons -- and even their playoff games -- contested away from the bright lights of TV cameras.
And March Madness? For hard-core fans, it was mostly maddening, since the opening rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament usually were found only on high-numbered UHF stations.
The idea of creating a channel devoted to sports programming actually sprung from former sports announcer and publicist Bill Rasmussen's desire to feed Hartford Whalers hockey and University of Connecticut games to an in-state audience. For a little more money, Rasmussen discovered he could reach the entire country.
ESPN will celebrate the result Tuesday at
7 p.m. -- the 20th anniversary to the minute -- in a three-hour retrospective of the games, stories and major news events that shaped the past two decades. It also will include a light-hearted peek at the evolution of the Bristol, Conn., network that revolutionized TV sports -- and unleashed the likes of Chris Berman and Dick Vitale on an unsuspecting nation.
The creation of an all-sports network "was a really good idea for people like me," said Berman, who at age 24 joined ESPN in its first month. "But who knew how many people were like me, and how many had the ability to get cable?"
ESPN joined a cable universe of about two dozen channels, and the network's Friday-night-to-Monday-morning airings were available in only 1.4 million homes. (The subscriber base is now 76 million.)
To keep up to date on sports, the rest of the fans had to be resourceful. "You had to have the TV on at 11:18 for three-and-a-half minutes of sports each night" on local newscasts, said Berman. "I remember distinctly in the mid-'70s, I'd wait for the Thursday morning paper for the Tuesday night San Francisco Giants box score."
Current college students, used to instant access of news and sports from the Internet, pagers and dozens of cable stations -- 50 more are set to start up this year -- have a wide-eyed reaction to Berman's look back-back-back.
"I tell them Abe Lincoln and I used to walk through the woods and then light a fire to read," he quipped.
Berman, who went from covering darts and billiards to coining player nicknames during late-night highlights to becoming a five-time national sportscaster of the year, is just one example of the changes that have taken place at ESPN's 43-acre headquarters.
The network that went on air with 70 employees now has 2,100. Joining the original channel are ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, plus 20 international television networks that reach some 150 million households in 21 languages. Also, there are a 620-affiliate radio network, a magazine, product stores and restaurants.
Yet, somehow the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports" retains a plucky, small-time charm -- enhanced by a clever advertising campaign and hip cultural references on the ever-present "SportsCenter," the longest-running program in cable history.
Whereas the network once had to seek out events to fill its programming day, it now spends millions of dollars on rights fees for professional and college football, baseball, college basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, soccer, boxing and auto racing. Reporters are on hand to cover every major event -- and to create a few, such as the NFL Draft, the Great Eight college basketball tournament and the summer and winter X Games of extreme sports.
Bob Jenkins recalled that three cameras covered the first auto race he worked for ESPN in 1979. Now, there are 20.
"In the early days, we'd call a press box for score updates and say we were from ESPN, and someone would ask, `How do you spell that?' " recalled Bob Rauscher, a senior coordinating producer. "It's amazing how far we've come. In the early days . . . the goal was to keep us on the air."
That quickly changed, and soon so did sports coverage everywhere.
As ESPN grew, so did the national audience for several sports, including the NHL, NASCAR and America's Cup sailing.
Along with what viewers watched, ESPN also changed how they saw it:
Live. In 1982, the network coverage of a Davis Cup tennis event lasted 9 hours including an epic 6-hour match between John McEnroe and Mats Wilander.
ESPN also had the first live national reports of the earthquake at the San Francisco-Oakland 1989 World Series.
With bells and whistles. Just six months after its launch, ESPN introduced the "cut-in" format of checking on men's college basketball tournament games in progress. The network also presented the first sports event with stereo sound (a 1983 Oakland-Philadelphia U.S. Football League game) and was first with a continuous on-screen scoreboard (for 1994 World Cup soccer).
ESPN also has mounted cameras on jockeys, pit crew members, baseball catchers, hockey goals and yachts. In 1994, ESPN2's coverage of an Indy-car race was presented almost entirely from in-car cameras.
And recently ESPN began measuring the speed of batters' swings and showing a computer-generated first-down marker for NFL games.
So, what's ahead for ESPN?
Berman said that's a question for the Swami, his prognosticating alter-ego.
"The sky continues to be the limit," he said. "Maybe we'll be broadcasting from the moon to viewers on Mars. And on the moon, I'm sure the long jump record will be broken."
Did YOU KNOW?
Sept. 7, 1979
ESPN goes on the air.
Presentation of more than 20 NCAA championship events, including men's basketball tournament games.
April 29, 1980
NFL Draft televised live.
Sept. 1, 1980
May 31, 1981
10 million homes subscribed.
Dec. 31, 1984
Hawaii becomes 50th state to receive ESPN.
July 25, 1985
NHL signs 3-year agreement.
March 15, 1987
NFL awards first cable deal.
July 23, 1987
ESPN is first cable network in 50 percent of U.S. homes.
Dec. 2, 1988
Jan. 5, 1989
Major League Baseball signs 4-year, $400 million deal.
Sept. 30, 1991
ESPN returns to an all-sports format, dropping the morning "Nation's Business Today."
March 4, 1993
First ESPY Awards show.
Oct. 1, 1993
June 24, 1995
The inaugural Extreme Games (now X Games).
Oct. 1, 1996
First Major League Baseball playoff game on cable.
Nov. 1, 1996
Oct. 8, 1997
ESPN acquires Classic Sports Network.
With Antarctica, ESPN is available on every continent.
March 11, 1998
ESPN: The Magazine debuts.
May 17, 1998
July 11, 1998
First ESPN Zone restaurant opens in Baltimore.