The ties were wider. The hair was wilder. The anchor desks resembled airport rental-car booths. And 24-hour televised sports, as pioneered by Connecticut-based cable network ESPN, was a concept so new, "you could tell people there was cable TV but they didn't know what it was or where it was," said Chris Berman, 49, who has anchored for ESPN since its Sept 7, 1979, launch.
"ESPN was not the very first cable station. HBO preceded us, and CNN went on in 1980. But no one could have predicted cable's growth, which was straight up, like the Empire State Building, rather than on an incline," he said. "We at ESPN landed on a pretty good spacecraft and we helped it fly, but I can't say we had the road map."
Today, in addition to its signature "SportsCenter" broadcast, the network carries sports around the clock, and has moved far beyond its early programming that famously included Australian rules football. NFL, NHL and NCAA basketball and football games are among the major events covered, in addition to more eclectic offerings such as poker, rodeo and cheerleading. With ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN Today, ESPN Classic and ESPN International dotting the dial, sports of all sorts always fill the airwaves out of Bristol, Ct.
The network is marking its 25th anniversary with "ESPN25," a show each Tuesday evening that features memorable moments and the headlines in sports from 1979 through the present.
Bob Ley anchors "The Headlines" segment of "ESPN25." And he, like Berman, has been with ESPN from the start,
In 1979, "nobody had a master plan when Scotty Connal and Chet Simmons hired us," he said. "It was get on the air and stay on the air."
He called the early days of the network "an electronic foxhole with no rules and not nearly enough tools. I arrived on the second day, started working on the third and there were pizza boxes everywhere."
Ley, 49, said some perspective is needed to fully appreciate ESPN.
"There is a generation that has no understanding of the novelty of ESPN," he said. "It is now an expectation. But 25 years ago, you had sports news from three over-the-air stations. On the 11 o'clock news, you got maybe a three-minute sportscast, and you had to get out of your chair to change the channel. You got weekend events from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. But all of that has changed and we are a factor in all of it."
Berman agreed. "Any kid under 30 doesn't know a three-channel universe," he said. "Now we are a brand. They hear ESPN, they may not know anything about sports, but they know what we are, whether they watch it or not."
Berman said he knew ESPN was finding viewers "in the early '80s, when the letters started coming in from the fathers, up feeding their kids in Iowa at 3 a.m. They'd write, 'Thank God you're on the air.' At the time I didn't have kids, and didn't get why they were awake feeding their kid at that time. But I knew they were watching."
The network was the brainchild of Bill Rasmussen, who had worked for the defunct New England Whalers hockey team. When he sought a way to put University of Connecticut basketball games on some of the state's early cable systems, he discovered that, for the same cost, the signal could be sent to all 50 states.
"When it was founded, who knew what this was going to be?" said John Walsh, 59, executive editor, who joined the network in 1987. "I can imagine they kept thinking it could be this and it could be that for a period of time, since no one could remember what the letters stood for."
And what does ESPN stand for? Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. "I believe Rasmussen inquired about using the letters SPN, to stand for the sports programming network but a fledgling Spanish network had it," Berman said. "So we put in the E for 'entertainment,' since we had to call it something. Now it doesn't stand for anything."
Berman said the biggest change for ESPN since its early days stems from improved technology. "Twenty-five years is a short time, but a long time in television," he said. "When is the last time you saw an antennae? We were archaic then," he said. "There were games that weren't on TV, so we couldn't show you something that happened, we would tell you about it. Today, the immediacy of it all, of information, redefines currency."
If technology has changed, so has the look of ESPN. The early anchor team's red jackets, complete with a stitched pocket patch spelling "ESPN" are long gone. Basketball commentator Dick Vitale has traded his plaid pants for a more subdued look.
"There are many fashion and hair statements that have been mistakes over the years," said Ley. "The photo-gray glasses, the hair, and those wide ties. I have thrown out and given many away. They've been bugging me for footage from my old sportscasts but that is locked up and stays that way."
Rosa Gatti, who joined the network at the start to handle public relations and is senior vice president of communications, said ESPN has been a boon to women, both in its coverage of women's sports and for women working in the TV sports field. "Viewers weren't accustomed to hearing women on the air delivering sports and it took time for people to get used to that," said Gatti, 54. "[Former ESPN anchor] Gayle Gardner worked hard to make that happen."
Berman compared ESPN's growth to another path in uncharted territory. "It's amazing that this journey has gone this far. I feel like we are the Mercury astronauts," he said. "We never landed on the moon, but we went around the earth a few times. Let's not overstate what we at ESPN are. It's not national security, but if we can provide enjoyment to a wide variety of people, then I am pretty proud of the company as an entity."
ESPN: A Look Back
What began as a novel idea -- sports on TV around the clock -- has morphed into a franchise that spans all seasons. ESPN's timeline of growth has mirrored the viewing public's expanding appetite for televised sports.
Sept. 7, 1979:
ESPN launches at 7 p.m. ET.
April 30, 1984:
ABC completes acquisition of ESPN, bringing the resources of the network to the cable operation.
ESPN airs the America's Cup live from Australia to great viewer response.
March 15, 1987:
ESPN awarded NFL's first cable contract; begins fall 1987.
Jan. 5, 1989:
ESPN and Major League Baseball reach a four-year deal to begin in 1990.
April 1, 1995:
ESPNET SportsZone (now ESPN.com) launches.
Oct. 1, 1993:
ESPN2 launches in 10 million homes. Within eight years, ESPN2 reaches 75 million.
Feb. 8, 1996:
The Walt Disney Co. completes acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC, Inc., which owns ESPN, Inc.
March 11, 1998:
ESPN magazine launches
July 11, 1998:
First ESPN Zone opens in Baltimore.
Oct. 22, 2001:
ESPN announces an 11-year agreement to televise every game of the women's NCAA basketball tournament.
Jan. 22, 2002:
ESPN reaches agreement for multimedia NBA coverage, becoming the first network to televise all four major professional sports -- NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA.
Sept. 7, 2004:
ESPN marks 25 years on the air.