Leader at ESPN Launch, ABC Sports, NBC Sports, First USFL Commissioner
Sports broadcasting and cable pioneer, Chester R. Simmons, who served as president of ESPN at the company’s 1979 launch, died of natural causes today in Atlanta. He was 81.
As a founding father of sports television, 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.
Simmons had been living in Savannah and Atlanta, Ga., since 1986. He is survived by his wife Harriet of 53 years; his four children Pam, Jed, Pete and Nikki; his daughter-in-law Jana Simmons; his sons-in-law Randy Miller and Micah Goldstein; and nine grandchildren Ella, Zach, Claudia, Streeter, Ben, Zander, Jack, Reid, and Tyler.
Simmons left an indelible mark on both the early days of broadcast sports television and the formative years of sports on cable. During his career, he was an important contributor to the development of every major sport on the network level. In 2005, Simmons received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 26th annual Sports Emmy Awards.
“Chet Simmons’ leadership and vision in our first years were absolutely critical to ESPN’s survival,” said George Bodenheimer, president, ESPN and ABC Sports. “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.”
Added ESPN anchor Chris Berman, hired by Simmons approximately one month after the network launched: “Chet did so much more than take a chance on us young people 30 years ago. He took a chance on ESPN. What you see today would have never been possible without him. We’ll miss him as a mentor and as a friend. All of us will be forever indebted to Chet Simmons.”
ESPN anchor Bob Ley, whom Simmons hired for SportsCenter the first week of the network’s operation, added: “I will forever treasure the trust that Chet placed in all of us at the beginning in 1979. He brought this young network immediate expertise and credibility. His legacy is seen in his family and his grandchildren, and professionally in the foundation he laid so well and profoundly with those of us who now celebrate his life. “
Simmons influenced or launched the commentating careers of Jim Simpson, Merlin Olsen, Greg and Bryant Gumbel, Dick Enberg, Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek, Joe Gargiola, Sandy Koufax, Vin Scully, Donna de Varona, George Grande, Tom Mees, Dick Vitale, Cliff Drysdale, Tim Ryan, and Jack Buck; Sharon Smith, Leandra Reilly and Rhonda Glenn in the early years of ESPN; and many more.
Simmons joined ESPN as president and chief operating officer 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 chief executive officer 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.
He was an unabashed and unfailing advocate of the ESPN mission, never missing an opportunity to take on cynics and critics. When faced with the inevitable question, “Who will watch sports 24 hours a day?” Simmons turned the query on its head, understanding the key wasn’t ‘round-the-clock viewers, but ‘round-the-clock accessibility. For the young, hard-working ESPN staffers, he served as a pillar of strength for the fledgling, small outfit.
In 1982, Simmons left the company and joined the USFL as the league’s founding Commissioner, serving until January 1985. In subsequent years Simmons served as a media consultant to Madison Square Garden and the Marquis Group; as an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina; and as a member of the Savannah Sports Council and Film Commission.
Before ESPN, Simmons worked at NBC for 15 years, holding a variety of leadership positions, culminating as president of sports in November 1977. He had served as vice president of sports from March 1977 to November 1977, vice president of sports operations from March of 1973 to 1977, and director of sports from 1964 to1973. At NBC, Simmons helped in the development and growth of NBC’s SportsWorld. He was also involved in the creation of “instant replay” and had a major hand in attaining NBC’s major sports properties, including the American Football League, National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, college basketball, the Rose and Orange Bowls, and Wimbledon. Simmons was also instrumental in securing the coverage of the 1980 Olympics.
While at ABC from 1957 to 1964 when he held the title vice president and general manager of sports programs, his involvement in the development of Wide World of Sports would portend his unconventional yet winning approach years later at ESPN of providing a broad spectrum of sports and enhancing the technical quality of each event. In that way, he understood that sports meant more than the major, well-known leagues and events. He respected the fans of each.
Simmons was born on July 11, 1928, in New York City, and was raised in Ossining, N.Y., and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in broadcasting from the University of Alabama, and did graduate work in radio and television at Boston University. He served in the Coast Guard after leaving B.U. In 2006, he was inducted into the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences Hall of Fame. In addition to following the Crimson Tide, he was a true Dodger fan, starting with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, and later became an ardent New York Yankees fan.
Funeral arrangements are being finalized with the Gamble Funeral Service, Inc., in Savannah (www.gamblefuneralservice.com). A scholarship fund will be established in his name at the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences.