ESPN founder, DPU grad returns for Ubben Lecture

Thursday, September 21, 2017
Bill Rasmussen
Courtesy photo

Bill Rasmussen, a 1954 graduate of DePauw University, has been called “the George Washington of ESPN” (by longtime anchor Chris Berman) and “a guy whose idea gave birth to, arguably, the most successful media story of our time” (by Jim Miller, co-author of the best-selling book, “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN”).

Rasmussen will spend the week of the Monon Bell Classic at his alma mater in a visit that will be highlighted by an Ubben Lecture on Wednesday, Nov. 8.

The program will take place at 7:30 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium, located within the Green Center for the Performing Arts (605 S. College Ave.). Like all Ubben Lectures, the event is presented free of admission charge and is open to everyone.

An October 1979 issue of CableVision, published by ESPN, depicts Rasmussen on its cover.
Courtesy photo

Rasmussen will spend the week talking and working with students in DePauw’s Management Fellows and Media Fellows programs as well as Rector Scholars and will attend the 124th Monon Bell Classic on Saturday, Nov. 11, at Blackstock Stadium (Fun fact: Rasmussen was born in the fall of 1932; the same time the Monon Bell was introduced as the winner’s prize in the DePauw-Wabash rivalry).

Rasmussen came up with the idea for ESPN in June 1978 after losing his job as director of communications for the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. He had become fascinated with nascent satellite technology; as he sat in his car in a traffic jam with his son, Scott (a 1986 DePauw graduate), the idea of a 24-hour sports station was born.

ESPN began broadcasting on Sept. 7, 1979 -- 14 months after Rasmussen’s moment of inspiration -- debuting with an inaugural edition of SportsCenter, followed by a slow-pitch softball world series game between the Milwaukee Schlitz and the Kentucky Bourbons.

Thirty-eight years later, ESPN is ranked 32nd on Forbes’ list of the world’s most valuable brands with a brand value of $15.8 billion. The network originally reached 1.4 million customers; now it has approximately 90 million subscribers.

In addition to the flagship channel and its seven related channels in the United States, ESPN today broadcasts in more than 200 countries, operating regional channels in Australia, Brazil, Latin America and the United Kingdom, and owning a 20 percent interest in The Sports Network (TSN) as well as its five sister networks in Canada.

Rasmussen left ESPN in 1980, but his legend is cemented as an entrepreneur who forever changed the way the world watches sports and television. He’s been called “the father of cable sports” by USA Today, was recognized as one of “The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business,” and was named in 1994 by Sports Illustrated as one of 40 individuals who altered and elevated the world of sports in the second half of the 20th century.

“As founder of ESPN, I saw a company and an entire industry explode on the American television scene with breathtaking speed,” Rasmussen, who authored “Sports Junkies Rejoice! The Birth of ESPN,” has said.

At DePauw, he will recount the story of the sports network’s creation and also discuss its recent challenges -- including a dwindling subscriber base, the layoffs of 100 employees in the spring, in an environment of escalating prices for the rights to broadcast major sports.

A economics major and Rector Scholar at DePauw, Rasmussen earned an M.B.A. from Rutgers University and is a veteran of the United States Air Force. He has been a regular visitor to campus and returned in 2012 to present a 175th Anniversary Distinguished Alumni Lecture. Rasmussen was an executive-in-residence, meeting with students on campus (which he will do again this November), and sat down with “Inside Indiana Business” host Gerry Dick for an interview which aired on statewide television.

In July, Rasmussen was featured on the Audience Network’s Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss.

”I was a sophomore at DePauw (Class of 1982) when ESPN debuted; today’s students think of the network as an American institution like Apple or Coca-Cola,” offered Ken Owen, special adviser to the DPU president and coordinator of the Ubben Lecture Series.

“The fact that the concept for ESPN came from the brain of a guy who took classes at Asbury Hall and posed by the Boulder underscores a fact that is well known to people who love this college: DePauw produces people who change the world,” Owen added. “Bill is excited to come to campus for Monon Bell week, and I’m delighted that our students will have special opportunities to hear his stories and interact with him.”

Established in 1986 through the generous support of 1958 DePauw graduates Timothy H. and Sharon Williams Ubben, the Ubben Lecture Series was designed to “bring the world to Greencastle.” The series has now presented 108 events over the past 30 years, the most recent being a Sept. 4 visit by Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Other previous Ubben Lecturers have included Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Elie Wiesel, Jane Goodall, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Kimmel, Spike Lee, Mike Krzyzewski, Gen. Colin Powell, Andrew Luck, Barbara Bush, Todd Rundgren, Bob Woodward, Ken Burns, Ron Paul, Ross Perot, Karl Rove, Howard Dean, Harry Belafonte, Sam Donaldson, John Major, Ralph Nader, Carl Bernstein, Martin Luther King III, Willy Brandt, Dan Quayle ‘69, Jane Pauley, Bret Baier ‘92, Mitch Albom, Brian Mulroney, Peyton Manning, Jim Lovell, ice cream entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, George Will, Carl Rowan and many others.

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