The man who was President of ESPN at its launch in 1979, Chester Simmons, died in Atlanta on Thursday (3/25). He was 81.
As a founding father of sports television, ESPN said Simmons started in 1957 with Sports Programs Inc., which soon evolved into ABC Sports, where he was instrumental in the development of Wide World of Sports. He became President of NBC Sports and later of ESPN, and was founding Commissioner of the USFL.
“Chet Simmons’ leadership and vision in our first years were absolutely critical to ESPN’s survival, He was the only industry President to have pioneered both sports broadcasting in the late ’50s and cable television in the late ’70s. His legacy lives on in ESPN’s culture, stellar employees and commentators, and innovative programming. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Harriet, and his children,” said George Bodenheimer, President, ESPN and ABC Sports.
Simmons joined ESPN as President and COO on July 31, 1979, just prior to the network’s launch September 7. Back then Simmons said: “There’s no question that cable television sports is at the same stage right now that network sports was 15 or 20 years ago, I’ve lived through the evolution of sports on television, and what lies ahead for cable television is incalculable at this point. I was there during the inception of ABC Sports and the rebirth of NBC Sports, and I see many similarities between those beginnings and the beginning of ESPN and 24-hours-a-day televised sports.”
The following May he was promoted to President and CEO and led the network through its infancy. Among his most notable achievements were the birth and direction of SportsCenter on day one of ESPN, which three decades later continues to define the sports television news genre; television’s first comprehensive coverage of the early rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament; and the NFL Draft telecast (both in 1980). Simmons was a diversity advocate, placing women and people of color in key positions on air and behind the scenes, said the obituary from ESPN.
Before ESPN, Simmons worked at NBC for 15 years, holding a variety of leadership positions, culminating as president of sports in November 1977. He’d previously been at ABC from 1957 to 1964.