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 Wednesday, September 8
ESPN at 20: It's come a long way, baby
By Joe Donatelli
Scripps Howard News Service

 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.

The view from the front door at 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 cable TV?"

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.


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 possibility."

  • 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

  • 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

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    Wojnarowski: 20 years later

    Multimedia from 20th Anniversary show

    Twenty years highlighted in a three-hour show Sept. 7

    20 years of memories

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