The founders of Classic Sports Network used Muhammad Ali’s drawing power to get meetings with cable companies.getty images
Brian Bedol had an unexpected reaction last week when he heard the news that Disney will shut down ESPN Classic and the channel’s on-demand service at the end of the year.
“It was surprisingly emotional,” he said.
That wasn’t because of the decision to have the channel, which Bedol launched in 1995 as Classic Sports Network, go dark. After all, ESPN Classic is in just 2 million homes, well down from its peak of 65 million homes in 2007.
It was because hearing of the channel’s demise brought up nearly three decades worth of nostalgia for Bedol. He launched it alongside Steve Greenberg and Gil Friesen, with the three men developing a business plan around the channel in 1993 and pitching it as a way for viewers to have a Hall of Fame in their living room.
The channel’s plan would be to not charge cable operators for two years before ramping up to a cost of 10 cents per subscriber per month. The problem was that Classic Sports Network couldn’t persuade cable operators to even take a meeting with them.
The group created an advisory board with some of the most famous American athletes at the time: Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Joe Namath, Mary Lou Retton, Gale Sayers, Ted Williams and others. The plan was to offer the athletes a small piece of equity in the channel in exchange for their cooperation in launching it.
The idea for an advisory board started paying dividends in 1994 at a national cable industry convention in New Orleans. Bedol paid Ali $5,000 to take pictures and sign autographs at Classic Sports Network’s tiny booth tucked in a corner of the show floor.
Typically at these events, someone takes a Polaroid picture of a conference goer with the celebrity. Network executives came up with a different plan for Ali – instead of a Polaroid, the network would use a 35mm camera, develop the pictures and have Ali sign them. Then the network sales team would deliver the pictures.
“We were basically saying if you want this picture of you with Ali autographed, the only way you can get it is to have a meeting with us,” Bedol said.
About 15 minutes after Ali’s arrival, a crush of people — up to 400, Bedol said — converged on the network’s tiny exhibit. After two hours, the line still had about 200 people in it, so Bedol started apologizing to people and telling them that they couldn’t meet Ali.
Ali has fun with founders Steve Greenberg (left), Gil Friesen and Brian Bedol.Courtesy of Brian Bedol
The legendary boxer saw what Bedol was doing and called the executive over. “They’re here to see me,” Ali told him. “They are not here to see you.”
“He stayed there until after the convention closed.” said Bedol. “He signed autographs until 6 p.m. for every maintenance person and every electrician in the place.”
That night, Bedol took a group of 10, including Ali and some cable operators, to dinner at Emeril’s. When Bedol went to pay the check, he was told that Ali already had picked it up.
“I leaned over to him and said, ‘What are you doing?’” Bedol recalled. “Ali said, ‘God has been good to me. I can be good to others.’”
When the group got up to leave, the entire restaurant stood up and erupted in cheers for the boxer.
Bedol’s story doesn’t end there.
The group went back to their hotel. Bedol, Greenberg and Ali were in an elevator together. When it came to Bedol’s floor and he started to get out, Ali stopped him. “Come upstairs with me,” Ali said.
They went to Ali’s suite and watched him arrange chairs into a circle. He proceeded to hand each person a Bible and they took turns reading passages. Ali talked about places where the Bible and the Koran were similar and different.
“We sat there for the next two hours doing this with him,” Bedol recalled. “At about 2 a.m., Ali stood up, walked out, and he was gone.”
Bedol convinced Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to attend the national cable convention the following year in Dallas. And his group talked big-name sports stars in to have autograph sessions in markets where they were trying to get carriage.
He recalled getting Baseball Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry to hold autograph signings with Comcast workers at a local car dealership in South Carolina.
“We paid him a case of beer,” he said.
That kind of athletic star power helped Classic Sports Network complete deals with cable operators and, in 1997, sell to ESPN for $175 million.
“It legitimized us,” Bedol said. “When we were able to show up with the top stars like Ali, Magic and Bird, it obviously made a big difference.”
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his weekly newsletter.