ESPN, Inc.: 1987 in Review

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ESPN, Inc.: 1987 in Review


For ESPN, 1987 was a year unsurpassed in the network’s eight-year history, arguably the most successful and dramatic year ever for a cable television network.

Among the highlights were:

  • breathtaking late-night pictures from the Indian Ocean of the America’s Cup in January and February.  ESPN’s coverage brought the network and cable unprecedented public and critical acclaim.
  • the March acquisition of the NFL, which set ratings records for basic cable in December.
  • 51% penetration into American homes with television, making ESPN the first cable network to be seen in more than half of U.S. television homes.
  • a 33% increase in ESPN’s 24-hour ratings.

“From the success of the America’s Cup to the acquisition of the NFL, ESPN has gone where no one thought possible just a few years ago,” said J. William Grimes, ESPN president and chief executive officer.  “We’ve made great progress in further becoming an integral part of the American sports fan’s life.”

A summary of 1987’s key developments follows:


  • Live coverage of America’s Cup Finals achieves 3.4 rating, an audience of 1.4 million homes — seven times the usual audience for the late-night time slot.  Final race earns a 4.5 and peaked with a 27 share.


  • ESPN is awarded the NFL’s first cable television agreement — 13 games for each of three seasons.  “This is the most significant sports agreement in cable television history,” said Grimes.


  • Live coverage of 37 NHL playoff games, including the historic four overtime game between the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals.  The telecast lasted 6:30.


  • ESPN presents live coverage of the Indianapolis 500 Time Trials for the first time.


  • ESPN becomes the first cable network to achieve 50% penetration of the nation’s television homes, reaching 43.7 million households.
  • ESPN scrambles its telecast signal.


  • ESPN displays its versatility, breaking away from scheduled programming to show dramatic live coverage of the West Germany vs. USA Davis Cup tennis match.  The decisive Sunday match between Tim Mayotte and Boris Becker earns ESPN’s highest tennis rating ever — 2.6, an audience of 1.1 million homes.


  • The first NFL game on cable television — Chicago Bears at Miami Dolphins.  At the time, the game was the most-watched and highest-rated program in ESPN history — an audience of 4.9 million homes and 10.8 rating.


  • Affiliates representing 99% of ESPN subscribers sign for NFL.
  • Special edition of “Scholastic Sports America” covers athletics in the Soviet Union following the crew’s trip to Moscow.
  • “NFL PrimeTime” premieres, the hour-long recap with more highlights of each game than ever before, part of ESPN’s overall package of NFL programming including game telecasts, “NFL GameDay,” “NFL Monday” and NFL Films.


  • ESPN sells out NFL commercial time with a total of 34 national advertisers.


  • ESPN’s NFL regular-season premiere, New England at the New York Giants.


  • ESPN’s 1987 overall 24-hour ratings show 33% increase over 1986 (20% improvement in prime-time).
  • 1987 ends with ESPN remaining as America’s largest cable network, seen in 45.2 million homes nationwide (51% of American households with television), an increase of 15% over January.




Dave Nagle

It was 33 years at ESPN for me as of November 2019 (the only job I’ve ever had) after joining merely to help with the America’s Cup for three months at a robust $5.50 per hour. I like to say I simply kept showing up. I’ve worked on almost every sport, plus answered viewer calls and letters (people used to write!), given tours, written the company newsletter and once drove NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon to the local airport. My travels have been varied…I’ve been to Martinsville and Super Bowls; the America’s Cup (all 3) in San Diego and College GameDay in the sport’s meccas such as Eugene, Auburn, Lubbock, Stillwater and more; the NBA Finals and Indy 500; Wimbledon (16 times and counting) and the “other Bristol,” the one with a race track in Tennessee. These days, in addition to overseeing the Fan Relations, Archives and, my main areas are tennis, ratings, and corporate communications documents, including ESPN’s history and growth.
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