As someone whose business career has largely consisted of working for start-up companies, and whose radio career has consisted of starting an afternoon radio show from scratch on a station started from scratch, I have a special place in the "appreciation" compartment of my heart for risk takers, people of vision, leaders. For sports fans, perhaps one of the most important visionaries to our enjoyment of sports today passed away yesterday when Chet Simmons, ESPN's first president, died of natural causes at age 81.
My experience as a consumer of ESPN is a unique perfect storm of age, geography, and living in a neighborhood where we were one of the last people to get cable television in our town. I grew up in Connecticut in the late '70s and '80s, about 20 minutes from the set of trailers that in 1979 made up the ESPN campus. Today, it's an actual campus, with buildings, and a gym, and a cafeteria. Back then, it was a miniature trailer park with satellite dishes.
Unfortunately for me as a kid at that time, I only got to sample ESPN on vacations or at friends' houses. As someone who didn't get cable television in my neighborhood until 1984 (which back then was the equivalent of getting running water in, say, 1972), anytime I had a chance to watch Australian Rules Football, Davis Cup tennis, or whatever the hell else they wanted to throw on ESPN, I was in. The fact that it was a network that was all sports -- ALL SPORTS!! -- unto itself made it cool.
It was under Simmons' leadership that ESPN planted the seeds that took them from a bunch of 20-something kids covering sports from trailers to actual buildings covering mainstream sports. Simmons hired the good young, pre-"caricature of himself" Chris Berman and the steady hand Bob Ley. After a first three years that was co-founded by Simmons and Bill Rasmussen on the desire to cover sports in Connecticut (Hartford Whalers, bitches!) and evolved into a melange of Sportscenter and off beat sports (CFL, anyone?), ESPN eventually wound up with rights to the NBA, which appropriately enough was planting the seeds for its own exponential growth move at that time.
Since that time, ESPN has carried broadcast rights to literally every major league sport in our country. We know what it's evolved into today -- about a dozen different channels, a monster website, gigobyte upon gigobyte of online content, and arguably the single most influential entity in the sports world. Literally, as I type this, the show before mine on 1560 is taking place and they are debating how much ESPN has to do with the love/hate relationship we all have with the Duke Blue Devils basketball team. Answer: Tons.
It's a chicken and egg thing. How much the explosion of the NBA in the '80s and the NFL in the '90s had to do with ESPN, and how much the embedding of ESPN into our experience as a sports fan has to do with those leagues blowing up would certainly be an interesting case study. Those leagues had their own visionaries -- David Stern for the NBA, Pete Rozelle for the NFL. They each had their own unique set of challenges, especially Stern, leading the NBA from the abyss of tape-delayed Finals games and rampant cocaine use to a textbook sports marketing machine. But one thing neither of them did with those leagues was start it from scratch. The foundation, as dilapidated as it may have been in Stern's case, was already there; the foundation is the hard part.
As I type this, my 12-year-old son is watching Sportscenter highlights of last night's NCAA Regional games on his Netbook computer, a far cry from when I was 12 years old inviting myself over to my buddy Rob Stone's house just so I could watch the Montreal Alouettes against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on this "new channel called ESPN." One generation later, my kids can watch virtually any ESPN content they want from anywhere in the world at any time....oh, and Rob Stone is an ESPN employee.
I don't know Chet Simmons, and never met the man. I don't know if the ESPN we see today is what he drew up on the chalkboard with the Rasmussens in 1979. I just know that without it and without Simmons' leadership, the world of today's sports fan would not be the same. Not even close. Hell, he was even the first commissioner of the USFL. Little known fact -- I LOVED the USFL! Another topic for another time.
Just know that when I say "Thanks, Chet", it's mostly for ESPN, with a slight fist to the chest for the USFL (and the Pittsburgh Maulers). So...thanks, Chet!
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 weekdays on the "Sean & John Show", and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.