BRISTOL — Forty years ago this month “the ESPN light went on.”
Bill Rasmussen, founder of ESPN, described the anniversary in a recent series of tweets. He reminisced on where the idea for ESPN came from, to which sports he wanted to cover, to even what the ESPN building would look like. He finished by summing up the ESPN journey as a venture “from ‘It’ll never work!’ to Worldwide leader in sports.”
As the “worldwide leader in sports,” ESPN has built itself up into the largest employer and taxpayer in Bristol.
In 2017, the company topped the city’s grand list for the 10th year in a row, with a total net assessment of $218.2 million. In contrast, Eversource was the city’s second highest taxpayer with a total net assessment of $61.3 million.
“ When ESPN bought property in Bristol for $18,000 to begin its new sports reporting concept it was such a small operation land-wise,” said Bob Montgomery, city historian.
“ Now, decades later, it has become a complex/campus which people want to visit from all around the globe,” Montgomery said. “Who would have thought it would replace the former New Departure company in sitting atop the tax payroll for Bristol? We are proud in having ESPN here and with what they have done to survive and grow for nearly 40 years now. ESPN is a feather in Bristol’s cap as well as a feather in the wide world of sports.”
Over the years ESPN Inc. has gone through a series of corporate mergers and is now owned by The Walt Disney Company and Hearst Communications.
The idea for the company started in 1978 with a modest proposal by Rasmussen, who had been fired as public relations manager for the old New England Whalers, his son Scott, and Aetna insurance agent Ed Eagan.
They envisioned a monthly cable television program covering Connecticut sports.
On a recent tour of the campus for reporters at ESPN’s football media day, Dave Nagle, who has worked in the public relations department for 32 years, described how it went.
Rasmussen father and son were stuck in traffic on Interstate-84 in Waterbury when they began discussing satellite technology, which was new at the time.
“ They said ‘If we get one of these transponders, what do we do with it?’ Scott said ‘Play football all day for all I care,’ and here we are,” Nagle said. “It’s as simple as that, just show sports.”
“ Bill Rasmussen bought less than an acre, sight unseen, from the town, in a swampy little industrial park. A couple of weeks later when the RCA satellite folks came to visit they said ‘Oh you picked a great spot!’” Nagle said.
According to the satellite experts, nearby South Mountain was high enough to block interference from telecommunications signals from New York and Boston, but not quite high enough to block signals from Bristol.
Not long after the fledgling company got started, Nagle said, “Bill got offered a lot of money when The Wall Street Journal did a story about how satellite technology was the future. He got all these phenomenal offers for his transponder, which he had already rented, and he could have sold out right there and retired, but fortunately he didn’t. He realized ‘If they’re after it this fast I must be onto something.’”
The company officially launched Sept. 7, 1979, with the first broadcast of its signature show SportsCenter.
Gradually ESPN bought up more land and expanded along Route 229, creating a distinctive cluster of satellite dishes visible to drivers passing by. “That’s the first thing I remember seeing when driving up Route 229 for the first time in ’86,” Nagle said.
“ When I first got here ESPN was just a TV channel, with 500 employees,” he said. “Then ESPN 2 came along in ’93, then came the radio and the magazine and the dot-com, for a while restaurants, and all the other brand extensions — any way we could reach sports fans. And of course we’re not just in the U.S. but around the world.”
Now the main campus is one contiguous piece of land about 120 acres, and nearly 2 million square feet of office space, according to Nagle.
“ We can’t expand up, the ground won’t support it, so there won’t be an ESPN tower here. That’s why we have kept growing horizontally,” he said.
Nagle showed reporters on the media day tour such highlights of the main campus as the state-of-the-art Studios X and Xa, where SportsCenter is produced, and the screening room, “where people are paid to watch sports.” That sounds like a great job but they have to watch carefully and make note of every detail of a game or match for a highlights package, he added.
A relatively new addition is the social media room, where employees monitor multiple platforms to keep on top of what’s trending and popular, he said.
Then there’s the fun stuff, like the Lego mural, composed of 207,360 plastic blocks, depicting ESPN broadcasters Rece Davis, Jay Williams, Seth Greenberg, and Jay Bilas. It was inspired by a photo of the four taken during the company’s college basketball Tournament Challenge Marathon in 2017.
The many catch phrases popularized by SportsCenter personalities over the years have been immortalized on a big black and red wall, with “Boo-Yah,” made famous by the late Stuart Scott, given pride of place. Scott’s daughters were on hand when a plaque honoring the phrase was unveiled in 2015.
Also highlighted is the “Bristol Car Wash,” supposedly coined by Bob Ley to describe when an athlete or celebrity visits the Bristol campus and makes appearances on the many shows and platforms produced there.
A decade ago the satellite dishes were moved away from the road to a hillside just over the town line in Southington.
One large dish remains in front, facing the road, as a kind of company logo.
The Welcome Center, built four years ago for visitors, is also on the Southington side.
About 4,000 ESPN employees work in Bristol, about 1,000 of whom are housed a mile up the road at the North Campus, first leased in 2002.
The North Campus houses the company’s extensive video library, among other departments, Nagle said.
“ For two years now we are the only occupant there, and that building alone is 400,000 square feet.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or scorica@bristol press.com.