By Harvey Hoffman

On Sept. 7, 1979, 42 years ago today, Lee Leonard introduced ESPN to sports fans as the network simultaneously debuted its first SportsCenter telecast.

Click to watch.

ESPN and founder Bill Rasmussen signed an agreement with the NCAA on March 1, 1980, for exclusive rights to televise select events.

ESPN was not quite 3 months old when the late Red Smith, a New York Times sports columnist as well known in his day as Tony Kornheiser or Michael Wilbon now, took stock.

Smith quoted an unidentified man, presumably himself, as saying it was “the ghastliest threat to the social fabric of America since the invention of the automobile.”

ESPN marked the 40th anniversary of its launch Saturday and, while one might accuse Smith of exaggeration, he wasn’t that far off.

There’s no question ESPN has been a catalyst for widespread change.

The soon-to-be-behemoth was a few months away from becoming the 24/7/365 operation the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network promised with its launch on Sept. 7, 1979, when host Lee Leonard told viewers they were “standing on the edge of tomorrow” and might well believe they’ve “gone to sports heaven.”

Years would pass before it shook its reputation as home to tractor pulls, darts, Irish hurling, slow-pitch softball, Australian rules football, go-kart racing, skeet shooting and karate.

But virtually from the start, it began altering and accelerating upheaval of not just sports media but sports itself.

What follows are but a few of the changes it factored into over its first four decades:

1. It rewrote schedules.

ESPN encouraged schools and conference conferences to play games on non-traditional days and at unorthodox times with the promise of exposure and/or money. Midweek college football games? Basketball tipoffs at odd hours? ESPN needed programming and offered exposure.

2. It rewrote routines.

Launched before the internet and mobile phones put scores, highlights and even faraway games at fans’ fingertips, “SportsCenter” liberated fans from having to catch the sports segment on local newscasts or wait for the morning paper, whether they watched before bed or woke up to it in the morning.

3. All the games are on TV.

People born after the launches of ESPN and its rivals don’t know of a time when relatively few games were available on television, especially featuring non-local teams. ESPN helped spur that change.

4. Highlight hustle.

ESPN upped the ante on highlight-worthy plays. Jocks now were trying to impress their peers around the country via “SportCenter,” where home runs, spectacular dunks, touchdown bombs and long-distance shots were the coin of the realm.

“ESPN has changed the way sports are now played — absolutely,” ESPN anchor Steve Levy told the Los Angeles Times 20 years ago. “I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Look at baseball. So much emphasis in the highlights on power pitching. You see all the big strikeouts. You don’t often see the 81-mph curveball that falls off the table.”

Twenty years ago!

5. Bowl madness.

Wonder why there’s a Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, an Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl Bowl, a Servpro First Responder Bowl or any number of second- and third-tier postseason college football games?

6. Round-the-clock TV.

It’s almost inconceivable today, but TV outlets used to shut down in the wee hours, then play the national anthem when they resumed programming before dawn. ESPN was on the front edge of channels, such as CNN (which launched in 1980), to offer content around the clock. In time, everyone would.

7. Niche programming.

First there was ESPN with its singular focus. Then came others such as CNN and MTV. They established a template for national cable networks that weren’t content presenting a little bit of everything the way broadcast networks did and still do.

8. Bracketmania.

One of two smart programming moves in ESPN’s first year was to secure early-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament games in the spring of 1980, exploiting the surge in tournament interest from the famous Magic Johnson-Larry Bird championship matchup a year earlier.

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