ESPN has become one of the biggest TV networks in the world, and the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports”. The network now gets millions of people to watch a Monday Night Football game or the College Football Playoff, but it wasn’t always like that.
When the network first went on the air on Sept. 7, 1979, it didn’t have the rights to major professional leagues like the NFL. So in the early days of ESPN, the network had to fill time with lesser games and events that weren’t as popular as the events the network airs today. That’s why the first game that ever aired on ESPN was a slowpitch softball game in Wisconsin.
The beginnings of ESPN
Bill Rasmussen and his son, Scott, came up with the idea for the network in the middle of 1978, and his vision came to fruition a year later when ESPN launched as America’s first 24-hour sports network.
The Connecticut residents began the business in Bristol, a town in central Connecticut, where ESPN is still headquartered today. SportsCenter, which would become the network’s flagship program, was the first show to air on the network at 7pm ET on Sept. 7, 1979.
ESPN’s first live event
Following that first 30-minute SportsCenter broadcast, ESPN televised its first live game, Game 1 of the American Professional Slowpitch Softball League World Series.
The best-of-nine series pitted the Milwaukee Schlitz against the Kentucky Bourbons. West Bend (Wis.) Country Club supervisor Rick Welterman was a big part of that game — and the network’s history.
He was 21 years old at the time and a pitcher for the Schlitz. When he threw the first pitch of that game 40 years ago, he became the first athlete to ever perform live on ESPN, setting the stage for such sports luminaries Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, LeBron James, and Mike Trout to follow suit in the ensuing decades.
The broadcasters for that historic softball game were play-by-play announcer Joe Boyle and former major leaguer Johnny Blanchard. Kentucky won that first game, but Milwaukee went on to win the series.
A rare find unearthed
The tape of that first game had gone missing shortly after the initial broadcast, but its location is now known. When ESPN tasked producer Simon Baumgart with doing a story about the game for an E:60 broadcast, he set out to find footage from the game.
He heard rumblings that John Korinek Jr., a tavern owner who also owned a team in the softball league, had the tape. Baumgart finally got in touch with Korinek, who confirmed that the tape was in the basement of his Wisconsin home, allowing ESPN to showcase footage from the game during its 40th-anniversary celebration.
ESPN by the numbers today
When it first launched in 1979, cable television was in its infancy and ESPN wasn’t even available nationwide. How times have changed. What was a small operation has turned into an international behemoth that is part of the Walt Disney Company. Here are some numbers that show how much ESPN has grown over its 40 years:
- 9: The number of domestic cable networks ESPN currently owns, including the recently launched ACC Network
- 6,500: The number of employees worldwide (4,000 of them are located at ESPN Plaza in Bristol)
- 23,542: The number of live events ESPN networks broadcast in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2018
- 64,056: The total number of hours of live studio and event programming on ESPN networks in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2018
- 115 million: The number of viewers ESPN says SportsCenter can average in a month