How NFL draft helped put ESPN on the TV map

An excerpt from my latest Chicago Tribune column:

Plus some video from the 1981 draft in which Sam Rosen questions why the Giants would use the second pick on Lawrence Taylor. How did that work out?


Chris Berman has told the story so many times it now feels like he was there for the meeting.

Back in 1979, Chet Simmons, president of a new network called ESPN, made a proposal to Pete Rozelle to air live coverage of the NFL draft. While Rozelle might have been the most media-savvy commissioner in sports history, even he couldn’t comprehend why ESPN would bother covering an event where basically nothing happened from a visual standpoint.

“To Pete, it sounded like reading names from the phone book,” Berman said. “Everyone said, ‘Who’s going to watch?'”

Simmons, though, persisted and ESPN covered its first draft in 1980. It proved to be a pivotal moment not only for ESPN but also for the NFL.

ESPN’s primitive coverage laid the roots for what will be a three-day, high-tech extravaganza in Chicago this week. ESPN’s early association with the draft enabled the struggling network to gain an important foothold in the market. It also transformed the NFL from a six-month, game-driven league to a year-round obsession about who’s going to be taken No. 1.

“The draft helped put ESPN on the map,” said John Wildhack, who joined the network in 1980 and now is its executive vice president for production and programming. “It helped the NFL become more than just a fall sport.”


To underscore the low-tech nature of the event, while Rozelle was announcing George Rogers as the No. 1 pick in 1981, an assistant literally reached over and turned on his microphone. ESPN’s set consisted of a table in the ballroom with George Grande as the anchor and football writers Paul Zimmerman and Howard Balzer serving as the expert analysts. Mel Kiper Jr. had yet to be invented.

Early on, Berman was assigned to a popular New York restaurant to get fan reaction and talk to former players like Kyle Rote. He remembered the place going dark for 10 minutes because ESPN’s power supply was essentially an extension cord from the truck.

“It felt like we were doing it with two tin cans and a string,” Berman said.

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