| ||Hard to believe, but there was a time when NBA playoff games were
shown on a taped delay, "en fuego" was not part of the American
vernacular and fans had to make do with three and a half minutes of
sports highlights at 6 and 11.
That was all before cable. Before Sept. 7, 1979. Before ESPN.|
Tuesday, the nation's first and largest cable sports network
celebrates its 20th birthday. Chris Berman will host a three-hour
special starting at 7 p.m., ET, and will be joined by several
commentators, including longtime SportsCenter anchors Bob Ley and Dan
Patrick. The show will take its viewers through the network's
highlights over the last two decades.
What the program won't delve into is the way ESPN has changed the
flow of sports information into fans' lives. We now have a whole
generation of fans that has never had to wait until the 11 o'clock
news to get the latest score or for the morning paper to get
commentary on the latest trade. But there was life before ESPN; it
just wasn't very fulfilling for some sports fans.
Like John Walsh.
For highlights, ESPN's executive editor remembers watching the
"Monday Night Football halftime show, the local 11 o'clock news and
whatever Sunday wrap-up shows were in existence then. Those half-hour
specials -- mostly local.
"At the time I would have certainly welcomed more," added Walsh,
who was editor of Inside Sports magazine back then. "When ESPN first
started, and the better they became, the more I watched."
When ESPN first started very few gave it a chance. Berman, who
joined the network a month after its launch, remembers the naysayers.
He also remembers fans' sparse alternatives.
"If you think to 1979 or 1980 sports on TV was what networks
allowed you to see -- a little bit on the weekend and the very special
Wide World of Sports," he said. "It was very special because that is
the only place you saw anything other than a football or baseball
game. Or golf. Think of what TV was. Everyone had antennas. Maybe you
had UHF with a few extra stations, depending where you lived. And if
you lived in the mountains you were pretty much out of luck. What was
An idea, mostly. One that didn't catch on until the mid-to-late
'80s. By then, a young Dan Patrick was working at CNN, looking to
fulfill his career-long dream of hosting SportsCenter. The man who
would popularize the term "en fuego" (Spanish for "on fire") saw
that sports broadcasting had come a long way.
|The view from the front door at ESPN.|
As a youngster, Patrick watched Cincinnati's six o'clock news each
evening, waiting for the latest highlights. There were never enough.
Unsatisfied, Patrick and his brothers would head outside and enact
their own version of the day's events.
"We didn't see Hank Aaron's home run, but this is how he must have
hit it," Patrick said. "We made our own highlights.
"Like three minutes was supposed to be enough."
It was barely enough for SportCenter anchor Linda Cohn, who used to get her highlights from New York City's local affiliates.
"I grew up a huge sports fan in New York, and my dad was this
mega-fan," she said. "It was my ritual every day after school. We'd
watch the six o'clock news. I enjoyed the different deliveries from
each anchor, and we'd watch to see who got which interviews. We'd use
the remote to capture every guest on every show.
"Growing up I only knew New York teams. Now kids all over the
country know Ken Griffey Jr. They know Matt Stairs, for goodness sake.
The only way I would know an Oakland player is if he played New York
in the World Series. I got as much news as I could locally, but I
missed out on so much from the rest of the country."
Enter ESPN. A national joke when it was launched, the
now-Disney-owned network reaches 76 million homes and has spawned
three more channels, a radio network, a magazine, a Web site, an
awards show and even a burgeoning chain of restaurants.
But before there was ESPN and before there was SportsCenter, there
was -- well -- not much. That's why Patrick and his roommates were so
excited to get cable his senior year at the University of Dayton,
though it was a decision that left them anything but "en fuego."
"We had a choice of pay for heat or pay for cable and we opted for
cable," Patrick said. "We had sleeping bags down in the living room
and we would bundle up and watch cable. We got cable because ESPN had
come on the air and it was my TV so we were going to watch what I
wanted to watch.
"It was on 24 hours. We thought, 'If you are going to pay for
something and it is going to be on 24 hours that's a pretty good
bargain. You can pay for cable and get HBO and there may only be a
movie on once. You turn on ESPN and there was always something on.' We
became huge Australian rules football fans."
Joe Donatelli writes for Scripps Howard News Service
AND THE NEXT 20 YEARS
How will ESPN evolve in the next 20 years? Here's what a few folks had to say:
Anchor Dan Patrick: "I dunno. I thought ABC affiliates may just
tap into ESPN, so to get your sports they would go into ESPN for three
minutes. But that may be down the road. I thought that might be a way
of giving a national presence to a local newscast and maybe something
different. I'm not sure how many more networks we can open up and what
the long-term plans are at ESPN. I'm along for the ride. They tap me
on the shoulder and say, 'We're doing it this way now,' and I say,
'Thank you.' "
Executive editor John Walsh: "I would go the other way, and this
shows how many opinions there are. I think local news coverage has
been changing dramatically and will be changing dramatically because
the idea of having national news is that if people are seeking out
national news they now have so many options with ESPN, CNN/SI, FOX,
whoever, to get their national news. If a local channel feels they
have to cover the national news, (a feed from ESPN) is a real
Anchor Linda Cohn: "I'll just have to say the typical thing: the
Internet. And more things like the bottom line (scrolling scores) on
ESPN2 and on SportsCenter in the mornings. Focus groups and viewers
say they want more scores now."
"When will the amount of sports information reach critical mass? No
one is sure, but anchor Chris Berman says it will be easy to know when
it is time.
"I think we'll know from our viewers -- as we always do -- when
enough is enough," he said, later adding, "How fast cable grows is
beyond our reason."
-- Scripps Howard News Service
ESPN at 20: Changing how we look at sports
Wojnarowski: 20 years later
Multimedia from 20th Anniversary show
Twenty years highlighted in a three-hour show Sept. 7
20 years of memories
The first ESPN broadcast didn't go as smoothly as you might think.
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