IQ Interviews Bill Rasmussen- Founder of ESPN!

Daily inspiration and advice for the ambitious savvy young professional
IQ Interviews Bill Rasmussen- Founder of ESPN! blog image

IQ Interviews Bill Rasmussen- Founder of ESPN!

This blog was written by Elizabeth Solomon, an Intern Queen summer intern majoring in Strategic Communication with a minor in Psychology at the University of Missouri- Columbia. Learn more about her here:

This summer as an Intern Queen intern, I’ve been reading emails, blogs, Tweets, Facebook posts— the list goes on— from people that want to make it in this world and want to know how to do it. They look for inspiration, for motivation, for tips and tricks on how to succeed. Listening to the stories of those who made it happen can be that necessary inspiration, that light bulb to make the path to doing what you love more clear. You’ve heard Lauren Berger’s story of how she made it; now here’s another one, from Bill Rasmussen— the founder of ESPN.

ES: Mr. Rasmussen, tell me about how you came up with the idea for what is now ESPN.

BR: Before I started ESPN, I had been on television as a local sports anchor on stations in Connecticut and in Massachusetts, and I had always been frustrated by the amount of time I had on the 11 o’clock news to give the sports results. We only had about three minutes to give the scores and highlights, and even then we were limited in what we could cover– mostly pro sports that were popular where I worked, like the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots. We didn’t get much time to talk about college teams or other teams outside of the area. At one point I had started a half-hour highlight show that ran one night a week, but that wasn’t enough and the station didn’t support it for too long. When I started ESPN, one of the things that I really wanted to do was have all the time I ever wanted to report all the scores and stories that I could – which is why I started with the idea of a 24-hours a day sports channel, with a nightly “news” show which everyone now knows as ESPN Sports Center. I’ve always been a sports fan, and always wanted enough time to cover it all.

ES: About how many times were you told "no" when trying to turn your idea into reality?

BR: We were told “no” by everybody for a while in the early days – “no, it will never work,” “no one will pay for cable TV,” “no one wants a 24-hour sports channel.” We were turned down by a number of potential investors and partners. You have to realize that I had this idea in June of 1978, incorporated the company July 14, 1978, had a $9,000 credit card advance, and was trying to sell people on an idea that was ahead of its time. A colleague of mine, working in the cable television industry in Denver, said flat-out ‘this is never going to work. It will not work. But if it does, I want to be your first customer!’ I knew the tide would turn after that. We were running out of cash when Getty Oil made their investment in the company in February 1979, and by September 7, 1979, we were on the air, 14 months from the moment we had the idea for ESPN. I wouldn’t take “no” for [an] answer!

ES: How did you stay motivated even when everything looked like it was going to fall apart?

BR: I always believed it would work. There were a few moments where I wondered if we could pay for it, but I never doubted that the basic idea for ESPN would work, we just had to find the right people who believed like I did. Once we found a major advertiser, who believed in ESPN, and once we had an agreement with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), then there was no stopping us. In fact, many of the people who told me it wouldn’t work later ended up coming to work at ESPN.

ES: To you, what is the most rewarding part of founding ESPN?

BR: From an investment point of view, getting Getty Oil involved was huge. And also getting a $1.3 million contract with Budweiser, before we went on the air, for a one-year exclusive beer sponsorship was also important. Then being in the control room with our friends from Budweiser, Getty Oil, and my son Scott when we went on the air for the first time, September 7, 1979. Later, My most pleasant surprise was the first time I heard the Monday Night Football theme music on ESPN. When I started ESPN, the commissioner of the National Football League told me, “not now, but someday.” Monday Night Football was the biggest sports show in the country then, and to have it now on ESPN was the best surprise.

ES: What advice do you have for people wanting to develop a big idea and make it real?

BR: One of the great things about being in the United States is you don't have to go and ask permission to develop a new idea. If you're curious and you ask enough questions, you'll say, ‘Wow, nobody's doing that. How about let's try this.’ I've been curious my entire life, asking questions about why doesn't this work and how does that work and why can't we do this. And you also need passion. I think the culture in which we live lets that happen. It fertilizes good ideas. Just come up with an idea. Go try it. You don't have to know everything there is to know about that topic. You don't have to know any of the facts really. You can find somebody who knows. I don't know how television pictures fly through the air, but I've been fairly successful in television. I don't have to know all that technical stuff. You just have to have the vision and the passion.

ES: What is the best piece of advice you ever received regarding not giving up on something you care about?

BR: A salesman once told me that every sale starts with a ‘no.’ We knew we were going to be really big because we got lots of ‘nos.’

ES: Do you have anything else to add?

BR: I get asked by a lot of people how to get started in the sports business. First of all, sports has to be a passion or they wouldn't even be thinking about that, whether it's just they're curious about being a television producer or an announcer or a lawyer at one of the major networks or whatever it might be. But I think what they have to do is understand, and the best way to understand how sports begins, is it doesn't hurt to start small. Go and be a production assistant someplace. Go to a small radio station and learn all you can learn. Ask all the questions you can ask. And when somebody's kind of brushing you off and saying, ‘Yeah, don't bother me, kid,’ just say ‘Well, I don't mean to bother you. I really want to know. I have a passion to learn this business, and I want to be doing what you're doing.’ And carry that passion into every interview. And be prepared. If you're going to ESPN, you don't want to talk about things that the Cooking Channel has been doing. I'm not putting down the Cooking Channel. If you're going to the Cooking Channel, you don't want to be a sports fan. You better know what you're talking about there. But I've just always believed in paying attention, learning as much as you can beforehand. All the facts are not necessary. You'll learn the facts; you'll learn the specifics of the business. But whoever it is that you're applying to has to see the passion, see the desire to be successful. I'm fortunate in that I see a lot of that. You just know they're going to be successful kids, when I’ve visited colleges across the country over the past few years. And then you see others who, you know, they don't even want to walk across the street unless it's required. I don't mean to be putting anybody down, but the people with the passion, the people who ask the questions, the people who are willing and anxious, I guess would be a better word, anxious to learn all there is, they're the ones who are going to succeed. What's amazing is that you can pick almost any field and if the youngster has that passion, they can learn anything. It doesn't have to be sports. It can be Wall Street. It can be the Cooking Channel. It can be anything. Passion, enthusiasm and never be afraid to ask questions.