The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: ESPN Co-Founder Bill Rasmussen — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss (#569)

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Bill Rasmussen from my 2017 TV show Fear{less}. The “less” is in parentheses because the objective is to teach you to fear less, not to be fearless.

Fear{less} features in-depth, long-form conversations with top performers, focusing on how they’ve overcome fears and made hard decisions, embracing discomfort and thinking big.

It was produced by Wild West Productions, and I worked with them to make both the video and audio available to you for free, my dear listeners. You can find the video of this episode on YouTube.com/TimFerriss, and eventually you’ll be able to see all episodes for free at YouTube.com/TimFerriss.

Spearheaded by actor/producer and past podcast guest Vince Vaughn, Wild West Productions has produced a string of hit movies including The Internship, Couples Retreat, Four Christmases, and The Break-Up.

In 2020, Wild West produced the comedy The Opening Act, starring Jimmy O. Yang and Cedric The Entertainer. In addition to Fear{less}, their television credits include Undeniable with Joe Buck, ESPN’s 30 for 30 episode about the ’85 Bears, and the Netflix animated show F is for Family.

Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

#569: ESPN Co-Founder Bill Rasmussen — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss

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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.

Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to deconstruct world-class performers to tease out the routines, habits, et cetera, that you can apply to your own life. You’ll get plenty of all of that in this special episode, which features an interview from my 2017 TV show, Fear{less}. The less is in parentheses because the objective is to teach you to fear less, not to be fearless. Fear{less} features in-depth long-form conversations with top performers, focusing on how they’ve overcome fears and made hard decisions, embracing discomfort, and thinking big along the way. It was produced by Wild West Productions. And I worked with them to make both the video and audio available to you for free my dear listeners. So thank you Wild West. You can find the video of this episode, which is gorgeous, I think they did an incredible job, on youtube.com/timferriss. Remember two Rs, two Ss, youtube.com/timferriss. And eventually you’ll be able to see all of the episodes for free at youtube.com/timferriss.

So you can swing over there and see what is currently up. Before we get started just a little bit more on Wild West. Spearheaded by actor, producer and past podcast guest, Vince Vaughn, Wild West has produced a string of hit movies, including The Internship, Couples Retreat, Four Christmases and The Breakup. In 2020, Wild West produced the comedy, The Opening Act starring Jimmy O. Yang and Cedric the Entertainer. In addition to Fear{less}, their television credits include, Undeniable with Joe Buck. ESPN’s 30 for 30 episode about the 85 bears and the Netflix animated show, F Is for Family. Wild West has also produced the documentaries, Give Us This Day, Game Changers, subtitle Dreams of BlizzCon, and Wild West Comedy Show. And now without further ado, please enjoy this wide ranging conversation from Fear{less}.

***

Tim Ferriss: I’m Tim Ferriss, author, entrepreneur, angel investor, and now TV host. I’ve spent my entire adult life asking questions, then scouring the globe to find the answers. On this show I’ll share the secrets of pioneers who faced their own fears. We’ll dig into the hard times, big mistakes, tough decisions, and how they got through it all. The goal isn’t to be fearless. The goal is to learn to fear less. Welcome to Fear{less}. I’m your host, Tim Ferriss. And on this stage, we will be deconstructing world-class performers of all types to uncover the specific tactics and strategies they’ve used to overcome doubt, tackle hard decisions and ultimately succeed. By show of hands, how many people here wait for, say the morning paper to get their sports scores? It’s a big fat zero. How many of you can remember when television wasn’t available 24 hours a day? Anyone? All right, of my generation, or a little bit older, got a few hands.

And when I say Bristol, Connecticut, what do you think of? After meeting my guest tonight, you’ll associate it with one thing and that is sports. Against all odds, he set out to change the course of television and the status quo as we know it. And in the process, he created one of the most iconic and recognizable brands in the world. Please welcome the founder of ESPN, Bill Rasmussen. Watch your step. Bill, we have so much to talk about. I have so many questions for you.

Bill Rasmussen: I hope you don’t have dinner plans.

Tim Ferriss: Is that an invitation? I think that might be an invitation, but before we get to all the questions I’d love to ask, we have a video that I want to roll and then I’d love for you to describe for people what it actually is.

Bill Rasmussen: Okay.

Tim Ferriss: So let’s take a look.

[Video plays.]

Lee Leonard [from video]: Yea, verily, a sampler of wonders. Hi, I’m Lee Leonard welcoming you to Bristol, Connecticut, 110 miles from New York City. Why Bristol? Because here in Bristol is where all the sports action is as of right now. Now here’s another innovation on ESPN, and it’s going to be a big part of our future. The SportsCenter with George Grande. He’ll have the latest on what’s happening all around. George?

George Grande [from video]: Thanks, Lee, and welcome everyone to the ESPN SportsCenter. From this very desk in the coming weeks and months, we’ll be filling you in on the pulse of sporting activity, not only around the country, but around the world as well. If it takes an interview, we’ll do it. If it takes play by play, we’ll do it. If it takes commentary, we’ll do that too. That’s the way we’ll function from the ESPN SportsCenter. And we’ll be filling you in on further updates as the broadcast progresses.

[Video ends.]

Tim Ferriss: So we’re going to delve into, of course, the path that led you to that point. But what was the video that we just saw?

Bill Rasmussen: That was opening night. And the first words that were not there were about, if you’re a fan.

Tim Ferriss: We do have that.

Bill Rasmussen: I can give it to you verbatim if you want it?

Tim Ferriss: Let’s hear it verbatim. Yeah, let’s go.

Bill Rasmussen: Are you ready?

Tim Ferriss: I’m ready. I’m ready.

Bill Rasmussen: Because we were pretty involved that night, as you might imagine. 

“If you’re a fan, what you’ll see in the next minute, hours, and days to follow may convince you you’ve gone to sports Heaven. Beyond that blue horizon is a limitless world of sports, and right now you’re standing on the edge of tomorrow, sports 24 hours a day, seven days a week from ESPN, the total sports cable network.” 

That’s better than tape, isn’t it?

Tim Ferriss: So this, I guess leads me to one of my very first questions. I’ve read that you were obsessed with sports as a kid.

Bill Rasmussen: I was, indeed.

Tim Ferriss: Now, did you have an impeccable memory for different aspects of sports? What type of obsession was it?

Bill Rasmussen: Well, it all started, this is a very appropriate time to be talking about this, but since the Cubs have finally won, are there any Cubs fans around? We have to have Cubs fans. My grandfather actually saw all six games of the 1906 World Series when the White Sox beat the Cubs, the only all-Chicago World Series ever. And he talked to me about baseball and the White Sox, because I was living on the South Side, from a very young age. And before I knew it, I had a glove in my hand and a ball in my hand. And by the time I was in the fifth grade I was playing in organized games and it just, I’ve always been obsessed with it.

And for some reason I have a memory for statistics, and we can talk about the Cubs or the White Sox or whatever name stick in my head from days when I was living in Chicago and the Cubs didn’t have Kris Bryant at third base, they had Stan Hack at third base. And they didn’t have Rizzo at first base, they had Phil Cavarretta at first base. But I mean, and it’s just always been there, I don’t know why.

Tim Ferriss: And do you remember your first baseball game that you saw on television, your first — 

Bill Rasmussen: On television?

Tim Ferriss: — media experience on television or otherwise?

Bill Rasmussen: It was 1947. The Yankees were playing the White Sox, and my father, I had played a game somewhere. My father said, “Let’s stop. I want to show you something.” Because one of the “local establishments” had a TV and it was 1947. Must have been WGN, probably, doing the game. The picture was about this big. And it was in a cabinet about as big as the dresser in your bedroom.

Tim Ferriss: So it’d be like, if you took your smartphone and just put it on your wall, that’s sort of, that’s basically what the TV looked like?

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah, that’s about it size wise.

Tim Ferriss: Tell me a little bit more about your father?

Bill Rasmussen: He was always encouraging. He encouraged all of us. We were all going to get a college education. I was the one in the entire family. He was the 11th of 11 children. I was the first one to get to graduate from college. And always a hundred percent supportive, but I’ll tell you he was a real task master. The deal was my two brothers and sister used to come with me. We’d pile in the car if I was playing game, because it was, “We’re all going to support Bill,” and that was great. And if I got a hit, we would all get a soft ice cream cone on the way home.

So I had a lot of real supporters on the side, on the sideline, my two brothers and sister. And if I didn’t get a hit, my father would drive the same route and he wouldn’t even take his foot off the gas, he’d drive right by. And my brothers and sister would just be all over, “What did you do? Why didn’t you? You should have run faster for this. You should have done that. Why did you swing and miss? Why did you strike?”

Tim Ferriss: How old were you at the time? This is just to kind of paint a picture for us.

Bill Rasmussen: I’m in the 14 or 15-year-old range, yes.

Tim Ferriss: 14. So that’s a very, maybe I’m just projecting here, but being a 14, 15, 16, I was a very, I didn’t and found my footing in the world that that type of pressure would be — not terrible, but just a real thing to consider. Did that affect how you played? Or did you say anything to yourself before you?

Bill Rasmussen: No, I just always wanted to get a hit. Everybody wants to get a hit. Everybody wants to bat a thousand, yet nobody can. It’s just the way it is. And some days you go four for four and some days you go 0 for four.

Tim Ferriss: And if we jumped to college, what did you think you were going to be?

Bill Rasmussen: You know, when we were in college, the only thing we all knew was we were going to go on active duty in the service. There was no thought about what was going to happen next. And that was literal. Our choices were, unlike many years later, we did have choices, four choices. Do you want to be called to active duty September 15th, November 15th, January 15th, or March 15th? That was it.

Tim Ferriss: Wow.

Bill Rasmussen: Turns out they didn’t really mean that, they just took you when they wanted. And my name came up in November and do you know how hard it is? You’ve graduated from college. You want to go do something, work gainfully somewhere. And they say, “Well, what about…” Saying, “Well, yeah, actually I have to go on active duty on November 15th.” No jobs. I mean, I graduated on June 6th and I ended up actually being a, I’m not even sure what you call it, but I was unloading trucks of produce at night at the local grocery store. That was all, you couldn’t get a job. But nobody minded, because that was what we had to do. That was during the Korean War of course.

Tim Ferriss: Now, if you hadn’t been in during war time, had you thought of, or was baseball even a prospect?

Bill Rasmussen: Oh, yeah. Oh, I was going to play third base for the White Sox. Man, look out, I was going to do it.

Tim Ferriss: But you don’t mean that as say, a third-grader saying, “Someday I’m going to be a professional baseball player.” You actually had the chops.

Bill Rasmussen: Oh, no, I was going to play, that’s all there was to it. I could run and field. And one summer we were playing a summer league and an unknown then and now, could have been a record was, I never got caught stealing the whole season. And so we were in the last game of the season. I thought, “If I steal one more, I didn’t have to run. I hadn’t been caught all season. If I get one, always want to get one more, that’s going to be pretty cool, end the game, end the season, nobody’s ever done that.” Man, I had second base stolen and I said, “I’ve done it.” I let up for one second.

Tim Ferriss: Wow.

Bill Rasmussen: Ball was there and I was gone, I was out. From that moment, and I can feel that moment right now, sitting here talking to you, Tim, I let myself down and I’ve never done that. I want to go all the way through the finish line every time. And I think of that lesson and I thought about that in business. I thought about that when I was in the Air Force and sitting here today, talking to you.

Tim Ferriss: Just keeping your eye on the ball.

Bill Rasmussen: Keep your eye on the ball. Keep focused. Never, never let up until you’re accomplished what you want to do.

Tim Ferriss: And that’s the difference, right? I mean, it’s that last two percent, which separates being — 

Bill Rasmussen: Maybe it’s the last two tenths, or two one hundreds, whatever it is.

Tim Ferriss: How did that translate to after college? I mean, you have a very long resume. You did a lot of different jobs, but how did say translate to whether it’s the Air Force or the business world?

Bill Rasmussen: Well, when I started, I got out of the Air Force in November 1956 and went to work for Westinghouse right after the first of the year.

Tim Ferriss: And was it at Westinghouse that you started to learn about advertising, television, things like that?

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah. Yep. It was. And I was working in the advertising department. And one of the things, to answer your preceding question was, the sales department would go out and the sales manager would have all of these, this was a national company. Obviously they were all, I don’t know, they had say 12 or 14 districts across the country or regions. And they would go out and set up this great program, get all of the materials printed, get all the corrugated displays printed, get everything ready. And the problem was that this program would be introduced and it’d be 14 weeks later before they got the material for the program. So I went to the advertising manager and I said, “I have a great idea.” I said, “We’ve got to improve this.” And are you familiar with carbon interleaved forms? Does that ever ring, does that even — 

Tim Ferriss: Carbon interleaf forms? Are these like triplicates that leave an impression? I’m just guessing here.

Bill Rasmussen: That’s exactly what it was, all right. And so I said, “Let’s make one and we’ll color code them.” One for this, they had the large lamp division, the automotive division, the photo division, and so on. So different colors for each one. So if you’re a guy who’s selling photo lamps, you send in the right color, we’ve got three copies and we’ll — still didn’t improve things. So I said, “Tell you what, I’ll quit and start a business and we’ll do that.” And the business was Ad-Aid Inc., started in 1959. It lasted, it may still be there. But I know 50 years later it was still functioning in Kearny, New Jersey.

Tim Ferriss: So you identified the need within a business while you were still getting paid?

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: And then offered to solve it by starting your own business?

Bill Rasmussen: By quitting and starting my own.

Tim Ferriss: So you already had a customer before you even started in your business?

Bill Rasmussen: We did, and we made a, you talked about making decisions about business. Of course, we stepped up and we had Westinghouse and we said, “Well, we’ll see what else we can do.” And we went down the street to own small business here, small business here, small. Decided that wasn’t a way to go, because small businesses are more of a pain in the neck to take care of and try to collect your money. Really tough. Whereas Westinghouse, the end of the month check arrived automatically. So we decided we would stop talking to the little businesses. And we went to, well, we went to General Electric. We went to S&H Green Stamps, which was a big company at the time, General Foods, all the big companies. And they said, “Great idea.” You know what? Never had a default after that. So we learned another lesson: do business with people who are good business people.

Tim Ferriss: And actually have the funds and the budget.

Bill Rasmussen: And to make it work.

Tim Ferriss: This became a gigantic operation. I mean, it seems like it was an immediate hit. And how did you segue then from this to broadcasting?

Bill Rasmussen: This was pretty repetitive. Every day you go in and you have a big order and you fill it and they pay you and so on. And I was getting old. I was approaching 30. I didn’t want my life to go by without something. Well, when I found out I couldn’t play baseball, I decided that I could become a broadcaster. Now I had no radio experience, obviously because all I’d been is in the Air Force and Westinghouse. And I’m not sure if you’ve seen a magazine called Broadcasting, and they used to run little two line ads, like little one ads. There was one for sportscaster in Westerly, Rhode Island. And I can remember, just as we’re sitting here now, walking in, “Hi, how are you?” And so on. “Did you bring your tape?” “Oh, didn’t bring a tape?” “No.” “Well, what station you worked for?” “Never worked for a radio station.” He said, “Well, you wrote, you answered this thing for sportscaster.” He said, “Why do you think you can be a sportscaster?”

I said, “Because I know I can do it.” He said, “You’re kidding me. You don’t have a tape. You’ve never done it, but you know you can do it?” I said, “Yep.” He said, “You know what? Based on this approach, I’m putting a news station on the air in Amherst, Massachusetts. And if you’ll help me put it on the air, you’re my sportscaster.”

Tim Ferriss: So hold on, let me pause for a second. So the force of will sort of chutzpah, right? That just willed that into existence. There’s got to be a little bit more to it. Did you just stare him down, or was it, you let the silence do the work? I mean, what else was it?

Bill Rasmussen: Well, no, I just told my story and I guess it was just the silence and he pondered, not very long. And what I didn’t realize is this station was going on the air. This is now October. He said, “I’ll start you January 1st.” Because they were going to have to do field strength, testing of the signal, and so on.

Tim Ferriss: The signal, right.

Bill Rasmussen: What I didn’t realize, it was Amherst, Massachusetts. In January the snow was about hip deep. And you had to go out into the farm fields and hold up this little, “Can you hear me now?” One of those kind of things. And so we did that and we went on the air on April 1st.

Tim Ferriss: So wait, did you have to do that?

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah, that was my, that’s what I — 

Tim Ferriss: That was part of the gig?

Bill Rasmussen: That was part of the gig, yeah. So I had to go do that. And we went on the air April 1st and then I, University of Massachusetts was located, still is in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was a small school of about 10,000 students.

Tim Ferriss: I almost went to Amherst. I was, I mean, great school.

Bill Rasmussen: So I said, “Why don’t we do UMass football?” He didn’t care. He wasn’t a sports fan. He said, “I hired you as a sports guy.” So I went up and I introduced myself, the athletic director, “Hi.” Warren McGuirk was his name. “Hi, I’m Bill Rasmussen, local radio station. We’d really like to talk to you about doing your football games.” He said, “You want to do the games? Go ahead.” I said, I didn’t say it to him. I said to myself, “What did he just say? Go ahead.” No requirement for discussion, no requirement for a contract. And especially no rights fee. So off we went and got the rights to do UMass football. But of course, I had never done a football game because I had never done any radio before I got there.

Tim Ferriss: So how’d that go? What was your first — 

Bill Rasmussen: First game.

Tim Ferriss: Your first game like?

Bill Rasmussen: It was fun. It was the University of Massachusetts at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine. We didn’t have anybody else at the station. So I’ve been talking to their sports information people and the sports information director, a veteran who’d been there for some 20 years, said he would be my color guy. So all the way from Amherst to Orono, Maine, I was thinking, “Should I tell him I’ve never done a football game before? Worse yet, should I tell him I’ve never even seen a college football game live before?” I said, “Nah.”

Tim Ferriss: Extraneous. He’ll figure that out on his own.

Bill Rasmussen: Let’s just go for it. So that’s what we did. We just went in and started talking. Not a problem, never heard a word. Massachusetts won 14 to nothing. We drove all the way back and he never said a word about, “I didn’t know you hadn’t done this or did…” nothing. I never said anything and he never said — 

Tim Ferriss: Don’t ask, don’t tell. Experience.

Bill Rasmussen: He didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. We did the whole season, it was great. I mean, if you don’t try, you never get anywhere.

Tim Ferriss: No, I agree. You have to try. When I do something new, I like to try a lot of new things. I’m a novelty seeker and very frequently unqualified for whatever it is that I’m trying to do. A very good friend of mine said once, a very successful investor said, “If I always did what I was qualified to do, I’d be pushing a broom somewhere.” And I really believe that, at the same time, I get a little nervous maybe before doing something, especially publicly that I haven’t done before. Did you have any type of, what is your self-talk like if anything, and what does that warm-up look like? 

Bill Rasmussen: I just — it’s kind of like a movie in my head. I know it’s going to work. I’ve already seen it up here before it happens.

Tim Ferriss: You’re visualizing it work?

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah, you have to prepare. And I do that to this day if I’m going some to do something that requires specifics. I’ll know all those specifics, frontwards, backwards and all of those specifics around it before we get started. And as you mentioned earlier, for some reason I’ve been blessed with a really good memory.

Tim Ferriss: Well, it’s a powerful asset to have also. I mean, just as in terms of types of memory for your chosen field, it was a very nice, it was a very good one. And you have, I mean, you’ve winged it a fair amount, which I mean as a compliment, with preparation.

Bill Rasmussen: Not a fair amount, a lot.

Tim Ferriss: A lot. A lot. Okay. All right. I won’t hedge, think a lot of people who are watching might think, “Oh, my God, this guy is just exuding more confidence than I have seen in every extended member of my family combined.” So they might say, “Well, this guy has no weaknesses. He’s never had any self-doubt.” What is one of those things that wasn’t part of the highlight reel?

Bill Rasmussen: Well, getting fired is always kind of a traumatic moment.

Tim Ferriss: Is there a particular getting fired?

Bill Rasmussen: Well, the one that’s most particular to me was getting fired, I was with the New England Whalers, the World Hockey Association for four years in the mid-’70s. The World Hockey Association had been around for four years and they’d been in the playoffs, won the championship one year and won the playoffs. And in 1977, ’78, they missed the playoffs. And you know, when a team misses the playoffs after all that success, they have to have some changes. They fired everybody in the front office, me included. None of us had by the way, skated one stride for the team that lost all those games and missed the playoffs.

Tim Ferriss: That was that.

Bill Rasmussen: That was Memorial Day weekend. Following week, I was supposed to do a TV show to talk about the Whalers’ past and the Whalers’ future with a guy in Hartford. And I called him and said, “You probably don’t want to talk to me, because,” and he said, “Yeah, we’re going to do the show.” I said, “Nah, I don’t think so, because I was just fired.” He said, “Well, you’ve got to come down and talk to me. I don’t have anybody else to talk to me.” So he goes, “So come on down.” So I went down and saw him that first week in June, we began to talk about maybe doing some Connecticut basketball or maybe why not the whole state of Connecticut? Why not add Wesleyan and Yale and Fairfield and so on? And that was a really great idea. I mean, there was no Big East, so he said, “Okay.” So right away I said, “Okay, we’ve got to figure out how to hook them together.” I knew how to put a network together because telco I’d done it with radio in Massachusetts and with the Whalers and so on.

So I called SNETCo, Southern New England Telephone Company. And the guy’s name was Bill something. I remember that, and I can’t remember his name now. But I told him what I wanted to do. Connecticut had all of five cable systems operating, that’s all, five. I said I wanted to hook them all together so we could do a broadcast from one point to all of them at the same time. How much is it going to cost? Simple question. “Put them together, tell me how much it’s going to cost.” And he said, “Well, you’re getting the cart ahead of the horse here.” He said, “It’s going to take us some time to put together. And we have to go through and do an evaluation or something.” I said, “Well, how long is it?” I’m thinking it’s going to be — 48 hours I’ll have an answer. He said, “Well, it takes about 18 months to do this.”

I said, “It takes what?” He said, “18 months.” So I went back and said that this isn’t going to work, it’s going to take 18 months. He was officing at the Plainville, Connecticut branch of United Cable, was headquartered in Denver. And the general manager here is talking one day. And he said, “You know what?” He said, “I don’t know about that idea of yours hooking all the cables together,” he said, “but here’s something you might look into. RCA has got this thing called a satellite. Nobody seems to know much about it, but I’ve got the phone number for RCA American in New York, I’ll just give it to you. You call them and you figure it out.” So I said, “I’d like to speak with someone about RCA American about time on one of your satellites.”

“Oh, yes, sir. Wait a minute. I’ll get you somebody.” The guy came on, said, “Al Parinello, may I help you?” I said, “Yeah.” Just I briefly described what I want to do. And he said, “Where are you in Connecticut?” I thought, “Wow, this is pretty good.” Told him and he said, “I’ll be up there tomorrow morning.” Now we didn’t have an office. Where’s he going to come up to?

Tim Ferriss: So this is another one of those “What do you mean you don’t have a tape?” situations.

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah, so I just, so we went down and I talked to the vice president, gave me the number. He got me into it. So I said, “Can we use your conference room?” Very nicely appointed conference room. They spent a lot of money putting it together. And he said, “We have a company policy, I have to charge you for it.” And I thought, “Oh, boy.” He said, “Will 20 bucks be too much?” So I gave him a $20 bill and we had the conference room and he came up and he explained everything. And at the end of his whole presentation he said, “There’s one thing that we used to offer, but we don’t anymore. Because nobody has ever been interested in 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. And it’s a five-year contract, $34,167 a month.”

Okay, and so he went off and my son, Scott and I started talking about that overnight. And we called him the next morning. And it was really a funny conversation the next morning. So I didn’t know the difference between satellite, transponder, and all that jargon. So I just called and I said to him, “Al, we’ll take one of those.” He said, “One of what?”

Tim Ferriss: “That thing you were talking about.”

Bill Rasmussen: You know, but you did just about what I did, because at my desk I went, “One of those things, that transponder, that satellite thing we were talking about.” He said, “You mean a transponder?” “Yeah, that’s what I mean.” And that started it. So he said, “You’ve got it. We’ll paper it over, obviously.” So, that was all we needed. We went down into Hartford, the capital of Connecticut, incorporated ESPN on Bastille Day, July 14th, 1978, off we went.

Tim Ferriss: So we’ve talked a lot about satellites, transponders, everything in between. “I’ll take one of those.” So I thought it would be fun to bring up a video that explains how some of this works.

[Video plays.]

Bill Rasmussen [from video]: Years ago, tales of Jules Verne and Buck Rogers were made of dreams and wild bits of imagination. Today, modern technology has taken those dreams and that imagination and turned it into a reality that allows us to bring a television picture into your home via satellite. The picture you’re watching right now has been taken by a camera, sent through some sophisticated equipment to this earth transmitting station, which in turn feeds a satellite located 22,300 miles above the equator, just south of Hawaii. Our cameraman takes a picture at a football stadium, for example. That picture is fed into our ESPN remote truck, out of the remote truck to an Earth transmitting station, up to the satellite over the equator, back down to an earth receiving station over a cable in your hometown, into your television set in your living room.

[Video ends.]

Tim Ferriss: So technology at its best. So everybody got it? That was like virtual reality back in the day. All right.

Bill Rasmussen: One take, too, by the way. That was the only take because it was 6:30 and we were going on the air in 30 minutes. They said, “Don’t mess it up.”

Tim Ferriss: Don’t mess it up. So ESPN, what was the original incarnation? You said you incorporated it, when you incorporated it, what in your mind was ESPN and how did you choose the name?

Bill Rasmussen: We knew we were going to do 24-hour sports at that point, we had made that decision. And a colleague, he was a partner in an advertising firm. One of their clients was the Connecticut Natural Gas company who was running a promo for an energy saving program, recognize letters, ESP. To do animation in those days was very, very expensive. And we had no money. We started this whole thing with a $9,000 credit card cash advance. So, you have to husband your dollars. They had this great graphic and there was something circling the globe and here was clouds and all this motion. And they had done it and said, “E.S.P., E.S.P.,” going around. And so he called and he said, “I think you guys have a great idea. I’d like to come to work for you.” And I said, “We couldn’t hire anybody.”

And I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, that Connecticut Natural Gas thing, if you can bring that graphic minus the, no audio, just bring that graphic and we can put our own words to it, you’re hired.” He called me next morning. He said, “When do I start?” I nearly fell over. I couldn’t believe he’d pull it off. He got permission from Connecticut Natural Gas to take the stuff that they had paid for, the graphic, the visual, and brought it to us. And so we had the ESP, well, that wasn’t going to work. We thought we would be the SP, and sports programming network, but somebody already had a satellite programming network, so we couldn’t use it. So he had the E on the front end and we figured we could add the N on the back end. And we’ll see that the original version of ESPN was the E.S.P. Network. And it was a kooky-looking logo, I have to tell you.

Tim Ferriss: And it sounds a lot like registering, these days, a website with domains. You’re like, “Well, that one’s taken, this one’s taken.” Well add a letter here, subtract one here, add another one there.

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah. So now it’s time to move ahead, and we’re looking for funds.

Tim Ferriss: You got a nice chunk of change. We can talk about, I think it was 9,000, 30,000 from family and friends, correct me if I’m wrong?

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah, that’s right.

Tim Ferriss: And then Getty.

Bill Rasmussen: There was an interim step in there.

Tim Ferriss: There’s an interim step. What happened?

Bill Rasmussen: We had some appointments with some very, very big and powerful companies. The Pittsburgh Plate Glass people, the Campbell Soup Foundation. I mean, there were big companies and was Taft Broadcasting. Do you remember that? They went out of business. I don’t know at what point, along the way. Anyway, we went out there. I visited with them. I actually met with the board and the chairman hosted me. We had a delightful lunch. We talked a little bit. And then he walked me to the front door and out into the parking lot for my rental car. And he said, “We really appreciate your coming.” And he figuratively, patting me on the head and saying, “You’re delightful, young man, thank you for coming today. But I have to tell you that your idea simply will not work. Oh, and one other thing,” he said, “there will be no cable television three years from today.” Taft Broadcasting went out of business. I just don’t remember when. Cable television’s live and well.

Tim Ferriss: How did you feel when he said that to you and dismissed you in the parking lot?

Bill Rasmussen: I thought he made a mistake. He was a nice man. I wasn’t going to say anything nasty to him. I had no negative reaction to him. I just knew he was wrong. I just thought he made a mistake. He had a great opportunity and they might still be around today if he had made the right decision. That sounds cocky; I didn’t mean it that way. But that was the sixth company we’d been to. And then we ended up coming out to Getty Oil, met with the vice president and explained the whole thing. And he was very skeptical and so on. But what I didn’t know is that he was a gentleman who really liked the idea, because it was putting him close to television. And he lived in Hollywood and all this kind of stuff.

And many, many years later, this finance manager told me, he said, “You don’t know this, but his office was on the 18th floor. And he called me when you left his office and he said — I swear, before the elevator got to the bottom floor, he had called me and said, ‘George, we’re going into the television business.'” Because he wanted to be in the television business.

Tim Ferriss: Was this a chicken and the egg issue? Were you basically saying, “With Getty families totally behind us, we’ve got this nailed down. So you should really give us the programming,” and then sort of — 

Bill Rasmussen: Oh, no, it wasn’t just those two. It was, you’ve seen the jugglers that can throw five of them in the air at the same time?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Bill Rasmussen: If here’s, and this literally happened. If we were talking to Getty, we were doing very well with RCA and the satellite, although we hadn’t signed a contract yet.

Tim Ferriss: But they were contractually obligated to do it, because they put the paper down, right?

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Nice, good move.

Bill Rasmussen: We are making a lot of progress with the cable operators, we have. Well, how many, they never asked how many we had signed early on, but we were making a lot of progress with them. And program with the NCAA, it’s natural for the NCAA. Now, if we’re talking to the NCAA, they say, “Well, how are you going to finance this?” “Oh, we’re talking to Getty Oil. They are 100 percent behind this. As a matter of fact, their finance manager’s coming in the next meeting so we can explain all of it.” And it just went like that. And of course, when we were talking to the cable operators, it was, “We’ve got the financing with Getty. We’ve got the programming with the NCAA, and all we need is you to let your subscribers know, and they will be fans of ours and customers of yours and increase your…”

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So, the programming though, I mean, that’s the life blood — 

Bill Rasmussen: That was the key.

Tim Ferriss: — in a lot of ways. I mean, you need the capital, but you also need the programming. So this is a good point to talk about something we have here that I’m not going to open up and we’re going to get to.

Bill Rasmussen: Oh, you have a broken arm if you open that one.

Tim Ferriss: Ah, yeah. I can’t open this. This is a shrink-wrapped copy of the original ESPN pitch deck to NCAA. A, why is this shrink-wrapped? And then B, can you describe — 

Bill Rasmussen: If you hand it to me, I’ll show you what we did.

Tim Ferriss: All right.

Bill Rasmussen: This is really easy. We had a very creative printer and he was very much on our side, helping us get things done. And I don’t know if you can see what this says. He said, “I’m going to design this for you because you don’t know what you’re doing.” And I said, “Okay.” And I said, “Well, we’ve got to get these copies out to the NCAA.” And he said, “No, no, no, I’m not. You cannot do that.” He printed six copies, shrink-wrapped all of them. And I said, “Why are we shrink-wrapping them?” He said, “Because if you put an open book in front of somebody in a meeting, they will begin to flip through it before you finish saying what you have to say.”

Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s very smart.

Bill Rasmussen: “If you put a shrink-wrapped book in front of them, they’ll be looking right and left. Until somebody else starts to open it, they won’t touch theirs. And you get to finish your story and then you cue them and say, ‘Now, open your presentation.’ And then we walk through it.”

Tim Ferriss: That’s very smart.

Bill Rasmussen: And I’ve used this as an example, I can’t tell you how many times. And it’s a very, very effective tool. It’s amazing.

Tim Ferriss: I’ve seen so many pitches. I mean, in my other life, I do a lot of investing in early tech mostly. And I’ve seen so many dozens of pitches fail because what happens is exactly what you said. People start flipping ahead.

Bill Rasmussen: They lose focus. They’re not hearing you.

Tim Ferriss: They’re distracted and they’re not listening at all to what the person is saying. And before that person can get two sentences in, they’ve already found an objection and it’s game over.

Bill Rasmussen: Yep.

Tim Ferriss: So what then, tell us more about the pitch meeting with the NCAA? So what were other keys of the pitch?

Bill Rasmussen: Well, at first, the first meeting was in October when we presented this book, so I said, “Well, I’ll have to talk to Walter about this.” But he said, “The best thing you can do is keep working through the TV committee.” So we went to a TV committee meeting in October. We went to another one in December. We went to another one in January and I’m getting tired of going to TV meetings. We don’t seem to, I’ve never seen Walter Byers at this point. I still haven’t seen him. On January 25th we were at the Kansas City Marriott Airport doing yet another TV committee meeting. And the back door of the meeting room opens and it’s Walter Byers. He comes in, sits down right in the middle of a sentence. Didn’t say, “Excuse me,” didn’t say — and he did this, he just comes in and sits down.

Tim Ferriss: “Hail, Caesar!” Hilarious.

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah. Where he is, he’s there. So I kept talking, I mean, literally I kept talking and he stood up and he said, “How do I…” right in the middle of — no introduction. I mean, everybody knew who he was. He said, “How do I know that you’re not just on a fishing expedition and you’re just looking to use our name to go out and raise some money?” And to this minute, sitting here talking to you, Tim, I don’t know why I said it, or where it came from, but I said, “You give us the name of your bank, and on July 1st we’ll deposit 50 percent of whatever amount we come to an agreement.” Sat back down, two guys next to me, J.B. Doherty from K.S. Sweet and George Conner, the financial guy from Getty, turned about as white as this table.

And worse than that, Walter gets up, walks out the back door and slams the door and leaves. I was sure it was all over, [inaudible] adjourned the meeting, Tom Hansen came up and said, “Walter wondered if you could stay over another night and come out to the office and meet with us?” And that started, that was January 25th. By March 1st, we had a written contract signed.

Tim Ferriss: So let’s talk a little bit about the launch itself. So you get these pieces of the puzzle arranged. You manage to juggle successfully, and you have these incredible commitments. And by the way, I want to just underscore something for folks. It seems like, and please feel free to jump in, but you can get really, really far in life, further than you would expect just by asking why not. I’ve noticed you brought that up a couple times. Why not? Where’s it going to happen? And the launch though, I really want to dig into. So between signing all of these folks, getting all these commitments and your first air date, how much time elapsed?

Bill Rasmussen: We signed the NCAA on March one, we hired Chet Simmons from NBC. He came on board July 31st. We were signing subscribers, cable subscribers, multiple system operators, all through that period. Chet came on board on July 31st. And we said, “We’re going out on the air September 7th.” And he said, “No, we’re not, because the building hadn’t even topped — they hadn’t even finished the walls of the building to the point where they could put the tree on top and say, ‘Well, this is as high as we’re going.'” And Chet was convinced we couldn’t go on. But the contractor said, “We’ll have it ready for you.” And they did. That’s kind of a picture of what it looked like.

Tim Ferriss: Now that looks like the same tie that we saw in that video earlier? Was that the same day? No.

Bill Rasmussen: Well, yeah, we finished the building about 6:30. No, that wasn’t the same day, but it probably was the same tie.

Tim Ferriss: So we have a photo of you guys in the control room behind the scenes.

Bill Rasmussen: You could see how positive we all were.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So what is the conversation happening in this room when you guys are doing this first broadcast?

Bill Rasmussen: That particular moment, there wasn’t a word being said.

Tim Ferriss: But in general, I mean, were there, what was, paint a picture for us about that day?

Bill Rasmussen: Picture at 6:30 at night, we’re going on the air at seven. We hadn’t recorded some of these things by that time. So there was a little bit of angst building among people. And we still had the contractor outside cleaning windows, because we had all glass windows so people could see into the control room and here and there. And speaking of the master control room next to the studio to run the show, it didn’t work. ESPN actually went on the air from a remote truck out behind the building. We were on the air with ESPN for about a month from the remote truck out back, which is kind of funny, but that’s the way it was.

Tim Ferriss: What were some of the, with ESPN, some of the best and worst decisions that you made?

Bill Rasmussen: I think the best decision was SportsCenter. I mean, you have to understand the context of the day, ABC, NBC, and CBS, they commanded 93 percent of the audience at 6:30, America — 

Tim Ferriss: 93 percent.

Bill Rasmussen: 93 percent. America tuned in to the evening news. And we said we were going to put SportsCenter on at 6:30. What do you think the first reaction was from everybody outside of our enthusiastic little bunch?

Tim Ferriss: DOA, can’t be done.

Bill Rasmussen: “You’re crazy. You’re crazy. They have 93 percent.” I said, “But the other seven percent will watch us.” “What do you mean the other seven?” “Well, maybe they’re sports fans.” Fast forward many, many years. And I don’t know what it is today, but I know it’s under 15 percent watch the big three networks. And of course there are a lot more channels and so on. I know there are many nights that SportsCenter has, and depending on what’s happening in the sports world, they produce some pretty big numbers.

Tim Ferriss: So you have a lot of hours to fill, 24 hours, it’s a lot of hours. And so you had to, in some cases, really slot in a wide spectrum of different sports. So I thought it would be fun to take a look at just a handful of those sports.

[Video montage plays.]

Commentator 1 [from video]: From Penn State University, ESPN brings you the NCAA champion fencing.

Commentator 2 [from video]: So we go into event number three of the day, Bruno the Saber, and this one’s kind of a throwback to the old movies of the squash buckling pirates and the Three Musketeers.

Commentator 3 [from video]: Next division, three cross country championships, enjoy.

Commentator 4 [from video]: NCAA championship cross country on ESPN. Today from the Durand Eastman Golf Course in Rochester, New York, it’s the division three championship.

[Video ends.]

Tim Ferriss: And you had some very esoteric — 

Bill Rasmussen: I was going to use the word esoteric. It’s hard to believe we turned in, all right? We had a group from New York City come to us and ask us what rights fee we would pay them to televise their New York City rooftop platform tennis league.

Tim Ferriss: So you were receiving the pitch in this case?

Bill Rasmussen: Yes. And we said, “Don’t think so.” We had a lot of people presented serious proposals, but that one was probably the farthest out. And that was not in left field, that was in deep left field and farther, it was gone.

Tim Ferriss: Perhaps this is a good place to ask just for people who are wondering, when did you leave ESPN?

Bill Rasmussen: It was sold.

Tim Ferriss: Okay.

Bill Rasmussen: So I can tell you exactly when I left.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Bill Rasmussen: It was 2:05 p.m., Friday afternoon, June 25th, 1984.

Tim Ferriss: Bill Rasmussen, ladies and gentlemen!

Bill Rasmussen: And the reason they had — that’s a big check. So from Memorial Day, 1978 to June 25th, 1984 was my active tenure with ESPN.

Tim Ferriss: Do you ever regret having left? Do you wish you could have stayed longer?

Bill Rasmussen: Not for a second. And I think of all of the things that have happened, the creation of literally hundreds of thousands of jobs for freelance people, for network people, for all the teams have their own networks now and basically ESPN spawned all of that. And that I’m really proud of that, I’m pleased.

Tim Ferriss: If somebody wanted to get good at negotiating or just pitching like this, do you have any particular recommendations for them? I know I have a few books that had a huge impact on me, I’ll share what those are, but do you have any recommendations?

Bill Rasmussen: I think one, you have to know as much as you can possibly know about your subject. The other thing is, I don’t have to know all the details about your business. What are your goals and what’s your general business? I don’t have to know all the details about my business. Where do we want to go and where do we want to take it? I’m not an engineer. I’m not a mathematician. I’m not an accountant. I’m none of those things. But I kind of have an idea to put the idea together and have a general knowledge of some statistics that make some sense.

Tim Ferriss: Well, you have a really good combination of a number of things. And I remember at one point reading an article by a gentleman named Marc Andreessen. So Marc Andreessen is a billionaire. He was co-author of the Mosaic Web browser, so the first really popular graphic Web browser. And he noted that most CEOs are kind of in the top 20 percent in two or three fields, they’re very rarely the Michael Jordan of just one thing, you have to have a few overlapping skills. And the good news is it’s a lot easier. It’s a lot easier to plan that and engineer that in your life than it is to try to aim to be that one Michael Jordan.

So the books I was going to mention for you guys, if you’re interested, I found very helpful, Getting Past No, a little more realistic than Getting To Yes in my opinion, and then Secrets of Power Negotiating. I would get the audio if you can, because you can tell with the cadence of Bill’s voice in the delivery, there’s a lot of nuance. Let’s see if we can pull up some audience questions. This is from Lex. “How does it feel to have captured the attention of so many people and their boyfriends and bring them together through sports?”

Bill Rasmussen: Well, it wasn’t always that way. In our early days, some of the men in the audience got so enamored with the ESPN that we were on the air barely a year and we were named in a divorce action. A lady in Texas included us because her husband was paying more attention to ESPN than he was to her. And when they arrived in Bristol, our general counsel and our whole legal department, was only one person. So our general counsel went, “Oh, my, we’re dead. What’s going to happen?” And our PR lady said, “We want to spell her name right.” And she put out a press release. And that turned out to be the first of many times, ESPN has been frequently named in divorce suits for alienation of whatever. I don’t get it, but — 

Tim Ferriss: Addictive entertainment, addictive entertainment. Aside from family members, when you hear are the word successful, who is the first person who comes to mind?

Bill Rasmussen: Successful. Success is described in so many different ways. When I think back to my father, surviving the Depression, getting four kids through college, coming through World War II. That was a success.

Tim Ferriss: What is success to you?

Bill Rasmussen: Getting a good night’s sleep, I guess.

Tim Ferriss: So this — 

Bill Rasmussen: Seriously, when you get older, you’ll find out — 

Tim Ferriss: No, no, no. I do take it seriously because I’ve always had onset insomnia. A, and by the way, Jodie Foster, I think has said, “Success is sleeping well; it’s a good indicator of what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.”

Bill Rasmussen: Well, and you have so much more energy the next day to do more things.

Tim Ferriss: Do you feel like a success?

Bill Rasmussen: Not really. I’m just a guy from the south side of Chicago. I’ve been blessed to be involved in a lot of really good things that turned out well, but I don’t walk down the street in my ESPN jacket across the deck or anything of the kind.

Tim Ferriss: If you had to give a high-profile talk, 20-minute talk on something that is not something you’re known for — like ESPN — what might you be talking about?

Bill Rasmussen: I’m an avid reader and I’m a serious advocate and a serious student of American history, all the way back to the Civil War, but particularly in World War II. And just because I lived through it. I mean, I lived through the military part of it. I was in, the high schools in Chicago were all military. They all had ROTC units. We had the various and sundry parades were all, and it just — especially living in the World War II period, you got such a sense of country and patriot.

Tim Ferriss: If somebody wanted to immerse themselves in that, if you had friend, student, doesn’t really matter, someone who really wanted to immerse themselves in that history, what books would you recommend they start with? Or any places to start?

Bill Rasmussen: The first one I would, and I’m now reading it for the second time. And it’s a little book, it’s 789 pages, you have to immerse. I mean, you have to really get into it. It’s called December 1941. And if you read that book, you’ll find out so much about politics, war, America, and the resiliency of this country. It’s just, it’s an amazing, amazing book.

Tim Ferriss: What are your current challenges, or if you had to pick one of your current challenges, problems that you’re facing?

Bill Rasmussen: We’re starting a new business, it’s called Hometown Networks. And what we’re going to do is, I have been an advisor to a company that has come up with an incredible, I don’t know how they do this stuff. It’s one single 4k camera, one microphone and a little black box. You can produce any baseball game, football game, hockey game, whatever you want, soccer game. And he wants to do it for high schools all across America or secondary schools or town recreational areas and so on. I think it’s a great idea. So I’ve agreed to help him.

Tim Ferriss: So if I were to ask you, then what’s next for Bill Rasmussen, that would be a big component of it, sounds like?

Bill Rasmussen: Yeah, that’s what I’m doing now, because I, first of all, you talk about 4-Hour Workweek(s). Well, you’re pushing the envelope there.

Tim Ferriss: Getting aggressive, getting extreme. Well — 

Bill Rasmussen: No, but I really, I don’t want to work at it full and I don’t work full — I don’t work full time in the sense that people think of going to work. Work up here, because you’re thinking about things. But I think it’s a great opportunity for not only youngsters playing, but for parents, for grandparents, for relatives, anyone, streaming goes anywhere in the world now. If I have a kid playing in Florida and you’re living in California and you say, “What’s Sam up to today?” Tune in tonight, you can find him, you’ll watch him. Make sure that all those people who are going to benefit from this learn all about it. And that’s what we’re doing.

Tim Ferriss: All about it. So I only have two questions left. If there’s anything you would like to say as parting comments, recommendations, suggestion, thoughts for people who are going out on their own adventures, careers, maybe they’re just getting started?

Bill Rasmussen: So I think it’s really simple. In my view, when I look at a new business, it doesn’t get very complicated. It’s a short business statement. Hopefully mission statement, hopefully no more than six words. And then follow the facts, five facts. Need financing, advertising, content, technology and customer, subscribers customers. As we used in ESPN, I think it’s the same thing works to this very day. You keep it that simple. you’ll win.

Tim Ferriss: One of the patterns that seems has come up a number of times here is worth mentioning is that it seems like for the most important decisions, for doing the big things, the timing’s never really good. The timing’s never perfect. There’s always something not ready. There’s always someone who’s walking out the door. There’s always a partner who’s leaving. There’s always something. So if you wait until the timing is perfect or when it feels really good, you’re never going to be ready.

Bill Rasmussen: You’re never going to be ready. You have to move when you’re ready to go. And everybody else has to catch up or walk alongside you, one or the other. Or as Ted Turner says, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” He’s right to the point.

Tim Ferriss: So you guys are both to the point and you like six words a lot. I don’t know if this will end up being six words, but if you had a gigantic billboard and you can put anything on it. And of course, what I’m asking is really, if you could get a short message out to a huge audience, what would you put on that billboard?

Bill Rasmussen: ABC, NBC.

Tim Ferriss: ABC, NBC.

Bill Rasmussen: So yeah, back to six words again.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Bill Rasmussen: And back to the two networks I work for, “Always be curious, never be complacent.”

Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s a good one. I like that. ABC, NBC. Bill Rasmussen, everybody, he’s not done.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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