Chris Berman: Acquiring NFL Rights Showed ESPN 'We Did It'
"People did laugh at us," recalls ESPN President George Bodenheimer. "We were a joke in 1979 and 1980."
But no one is laughing now, and for Chris Berman, who has been the most recognizable public face of ESPN during its three-decade history, the moment when the network had truly arrived came when it secured a contract to show live NFL games in 1987.
"For us, getting the NFL in 1987 was kind of walking on the moon -- that was, 'We're here now. We did it,' Berman says. "That was the confirmation of everything we were hoping for."
Berman now says he thinks the 24/7 sports presence of ESPN has been as valuable to the NFL as getting the prestige of the NFL was to ESPN. Berman cited ESPN's live coverage of the NFL draft, which he describes as "the hardest thing I do," as an example of something where the network has helped the league realize its fans were passionate enough to follow the sport all year round.
"In 30 years I've expected to see some kind of ceiling, that sooner or later we're going to see some kind of ceiling of sports fandom," Berman said. "But we haven't. I keep waiting, but we haven't. "
Berman noted that the draft does so well on ESPN -- and now NFL Network as well -- that the league decided to expand its coverage to three days starting next year.
"Roger Goodell asked me what I thought about it," Berman said. "At first I thought, 'You have to be kidding me,' but I understand why they want to try it."
Still, Berman sounds like there's a small part of him that pines for the pre-1987 days when ESPN was like a small, exclusive club welcoming fans of the sports you couldn't get anywhere else.
"I even announced darts -- that's not the NFL," Berman says. "Australian football we should have on more because it's awesome. We had the CFL with Warren Moon. That was great."