ESPN invited me to attend a game against the Red Sox in the Legends suite at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night with spokesman Josh Krulewitz, the company’s founder Bill Rasmussen, and his associate Lynn Daniels.
It was about an hour until first pitch and the four of us were being whisked around the corridors of Yankee Stadium up to the press boxes to introduce Bill Rasmussen to the television announcers – Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone, and Jessica Mendoza – and radio broadcasters, Boog Sciambi and Chris Singleton. All of them were delighted to meet the man whose idea ultimately became the global institution where they earn their livelihoods.
“Thank you for founding ESPN,” Shulman told him, smiling, tongue-in-cheek. “I appreciate it a great deal.”
Rasmussen, as was documented in Jim Miller and Tom Shales’ oral history, was fired from a job with the Hartford Whalers, then in the WHA, in 1978. He and his son, Scott, initially hatched the idea as a channel to broadcast local collegiate and minor league sports in Connecticut. One thing led to another. They finagled themselves into an opportunity as early purchasers of an RCA satellite. On a trip down to the Jersey shore ostensibly to visit Bill’s daughter (Scott’s sister) for her birthday, the father and son jotted down notes that included airing sports 24/7, including the template for SportsCenter.
The venture was initially funded by credit cards, and money from family members. Land was purchased in Bristol. Eventually an investment bank got involved with some short-term bridge financing. From there, the Rasmussens were told “no” over and over until Bill was introduced to a Getty Oil executive named Stuart Evey, who had a lot of clout in the company, and basically pushed the idea through.
The Legends seats at Yankee Stadium are frequently referred to as “inside the moat.” They are the inner most sections that exist stretching around the infield; these were what a Yankees executive was haughtily talking about after the team stifled secondary market platforms because the season ticketholders there purportedly did not enjoy the presence of fans who “have never sat in a premium location.”
Our first (literal) taste of the seats was the accompanying buffet. “Decadent” doesn’t even begin to describe what this was. I’ve been lucky enough to sit in a luxury suite at a few different sporting events, including the Brewers owner’s box one time, and I’ve never experienced anything like this. The only reasonable comparison is what you’d find at a very high end spot in Vegas.
There was a carving station that included marinated London broil with beef jus and charred double cut pork chop with apple compote. A sandwich station had hand carved New York strip loin on a pretzel bun. The raw bar had Alaskan king crab legs, jumbo shrimp, cracked crab claws, and lobster. This doesn’t crack 20% of the offerings. Every dessert you can think of was also there, and the serving staff watched over you attentively enough to refill your drinks the second they were finished.
That this buffet is open through the 7th inning is one of the reasons those seats always look half-empty on TV. And, as ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz wryly observed, its existence may also ironically deter season ticketholders sometimes. If you’ve got a figure to watch, it requires an awful lot of willpower to eschew food when it’s that good, there’s that much of it, and it’s right in front of you.
But Wait There’s More!
There’s also an extensive menu of more traditional ballpark fare like hot dogs, hamburgers, and pretzels that you can order to your seats, gratis. You don’t even have to signal the vendors. They initiate every inning (also through the seventh). The whole game is a battle between one’s vanity and gluttony. For me, at least, it’s one that the former would never win.
In his time at the fledgling network, Bill Rasmussen personally negotiated with then-NCAA head Walter Byers to televise championship games that there weren’t already deals for, as well as the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament, which at that point came and went without much fanfare. Byers asked him if this meant they’d air Weber State versus Lamar Tech. Rasmussen answered affirmatively. The matchup happened in 1980. “I still think he fixed it, but that’s besides the point,” Rasmussen laughs.
Relatively quickly, though, it was clear that Bill and Scott Rasmussen did not mesh with the visions of the experienced TV executives who were tapped to run the network. They were ultimately marginalized, and exited a little over a year after the 1979 launch. When they sold their stake a few years later, the family received $3.9 million (and, per the oral history, “an obscure IRS tax law led the family to receive even larger sums in a second payout roughly two years later.”)
This is a lot of money, especially 30+ years ago, but there also would’ve been a couple more zeroes at the end there if Bill Rasmussen had held on until ESPN became a juggernaut. Nevertheless, he’s far from bitter about it, and derives more than plenty intrinsic enjoyment just by virtue of the Mothership having been his idea. “He’s the entrepreneur who loves to start things and watch them grow and flourish, but doesn’t have to remain involved,” says Lynn Daniels, who essentially serves as Rasmussen’s Swiss Army knife in his present ventures, with responsibilities ranging from logistical support to helping him customize speaking engagements to managing his website to facilitating correspondences.
As John Ourand noted, Rasmussen and ESPN “made amends” in 1999 when then-president George Bodenheimer reached out to the founder for the network’s 20th anniversary; today, Rasmussen has a great relationship with many of the network’s executives. As is evidenced by the existence of this piece, he’s an ambassador for the brand.
At 83 years old, Rasmussen still has a sharp mind, and he moves pretty well. He does about 10-15 speaking engagements annually, and he’s still ideating. For the past year or so, he’s been trying to get a venture called FEVR (Fans Engage Vote Respond) off the ground; the nascent company’s goal is to help teams – or sponsorship brands – drive engagement with fans at stadiums or in arenas during the myriad downtime between play.
This could take the form of some sort of sweepstakes on a jumbotron or over the PA. For example, fans could be enticed to participate in a survey with the chance of winning a free trip to Aruba. As Rasmussen explained it, brands lack reliable metrics for how much exposure they’re truly getting in advertising, whether it be in media or sporting venues. Direct responsiveness would eliminate guesswork.
The Yankees-Red Sox game itself lacked juice. The Yankees lineup that day featured one hitter – Starlin Castro, who would leave the game after slightly injuring himself on a baserunning blunder – batting above .275. Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright threw a complete game, as the Yankees got just three hits. They were never a threat.
The stadium was nowhere near capacity. Entire upper deck sections were unoccupied. The most compelling moments on the field either involved opposition – David Ortiz murdered two baseballs to the delight of about 30% of the crowd and chagrin of the remainder – or the grounds crew dancing to YMCA. One random interesting thing that happened was meeting Laurence Leavy.
Leavy, a workers compensation and personal injury law firm proprietor better known to the masses as Marlins Man, went to 149 MLB games last year. The reason he didn’t get to 162 was that he attended NBA and NHL playoff games, and the Triple Crown. He gets to Yankee Stadium a decent bit. Observing him for much of the game from a section over, he must have been approached for photos a couple dozen times; while this would seemingly be grating he was pretty gracious about it, and always would make sure to wait until a play stoppage or contort the group in a way that didn’t obstruct other fans.
This was the first time that both Rasmussen and I had been to the new Yankee Stadium. The Yankees, as you’re aware, opted against going the route that the Cubs, Red Sox, and Packers have gone in renovating their classic cathedrals with modern amenities. The results of that are mixed. On one hand, the stadium really is pristine and gorgeous; Rasmussen used the words “teflon” and “glitter and glamor” to describe it.
However, are those the characteristics you look for in a sporting venue? The Yankees, who had already gutted and revamped their existing stadium once in the mid-70’s, had a stadium where it felt like the walls and hallways and fences Knew Things; the ghosts were non-transferable, and the new stadium feels like a mitt that isn’t yet broken in.
While Rasmussen said that it doesn’t have the same “feel and character” that the old stadium – which he first attended in 1953 – did, the Yankees were hardly alone; he noted that the White Sox eschewed the old “perfectly symmetrical” Comiskey Park for the cookie cutter (now) US Cellular Field.
A similar parallel could be made for what the Detroit Tigers have done.
“This is going to sound blasphemous to anybody who’s a Yankees fan,” Rasmussen said. “But I like what they did at Fenway. They retained the Green Monster. They still hang the numbers the same way. They put the modern things up above it.”
None of this is to say that this wasn’t a wonderful evening at Yankee Stadium; it was. The Yankees built the venue that reflected their sensibilities as a luxury brand. The tradeoff there is that, in the ballpark’s best seats, the ball game is not in and of itself the primary attraction.