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ESPN founder to speak at 3 events in city

He says sports fans express gratitude for network.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 10:53 am

Sports fans older than 30 tend to react with a common emotion when they encounter Bill Rasmussen, founder of ESPN: gratitude.

“More than anything, people say, ‘Thank you for ESPN. I can't imagine my life without it,'” Rasmussen said.

Sports fans younger than 30 are thankful, too, but they literally don't know life without the 24-hour, all-sports network. ESPN went on the air in 1979 after Rasmussen pushed ahead despite detractors who said it would never work.

Rasmussen was right. His detractors underestimated the unmatched drawing power of sports. Today, ESPN is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. It encompasses not only television, but every other type of media. ESPN has six networks domestically and 46 internationally.

Rasmussen, whose book “Sports Junkies Rejoice: The Birth of ESPN” is now out in paperback, will be in Fort Wayne today and Thursday talking about ESPN and encouraging others to follow their dreams and ambitions and refuse to give in to the doubters.

He's a living example of the power of entrepreneurship.

“Whether your dream is to play for the White Sox or open a business, it's about tenacity and it's about enthusiasm, and that's the culture that ESPN created,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen will speak to the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce at 5:30 tonight. He will deliver a keynote speech at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the 17th annual CEO Forum at the University of Saint Francis, and he'll speak to faculty, students and the public at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Indiana Tech.

Rasmussen's speech is titled “Sports, Patriotism and the American Dream.”

An Air Force veteran, Rasmussen is unflinching in his belief that possibilities are endless in the United States.

“There are opportunities in America that no one has anywhere else in the world,” he said. “I'm proud to be an American. Where else could you start ESPN? Where else could Bill Gates create Microsoft? …Country and patriotism get me going.”

Rasmussen said people love to tell him what they like and dislike about ESPN. Some people, Rasmussen joked, believe Chris Berman should be on air 24 hours a day. Fans have favorite on-air personalities and others they dislike. Rasmussen still gets suggestions that ESPN should cover other sports, such as rugby and lacrosse.

“When I originally wanted to start a 24-hour sports network, the knee-jerk reaction was, ‘Who watches 24 hours a day?'” Rasmussen said. “The fact is, people want to tune in anytime and see it.”

During the early days of ESPN, the network aired many so-called fringe sports because CBS, NBC and ABC controlled the contracts with the major pro sports. That changed over the years, obviously, as ESPN has rights to televise all major sports.

Rasmussen said it's hard to predict the future – when ESPN began, the world had yet to encounter the Internet, digital technology or Chad Ochocinco – but he said he believes ESPN will remain a main source for broadcasting the NFL and Major League Baseball.

“The NFL needs ESPN,” he said. “Major League Baseball needs ESPN. They're paid handsomely, for one thing. It's great for marketing the sports. I don't thing you'll see the pro sports leave ESPN.”

In other words, major sports can't live without ESPN. Kind of like the network's millions of viewers.