With a crowded field including ESPN, NBCSN, Fox Sports 1, CBS Sports Network, and many league owned and sport-specific channels it's hard to imagine a time when the future of 24/7 cable sports was in doubt. Back in 1983, before it became the global behemoth it is now, ESPN was a struggling network. There was no ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, ESPN.com, or ESPN The Magazine nor were there any thoughts of ESPN The Ocho. Disney's ownership was a long ways away. Fox did not exist. NBC was only concerned about one network and CBS was out of cable.
ESPN was just four years old and it was trying to keep afloat with a schedule filled with Australian Rules Football, the NBA, the NCAA Tournament through the Sweet Sixteen, the USFL, some tennis and a bunch of niche sports like rodeo, judo and kickboxing that were barely registering in the ratings.
In addition, the number one cable sports network was USA Network. That's right, the network you now know for shows like "Suits," "Necessary Roughness," "Psych," and other dramas had the major sports contracts. In the early 1980's, USA had college basketball and football, MLB, NBA, NHL, the PGA Tour, Tuesday Night Fights, The Masters, The French Open and the US Open. USA wasn't all-sports, but it was the place to watch your favorite professional teams. That's ESPN's current inventory on a bad day (well, without the NHL, of course).
SuperStation TBS had the Atlanta Braves and major college football, plus CNN Sports Tonight was giving ESPN's SportsCenter a run for its money.
So knowing that its schedule wasn't always bringing eyeballs to the screen, ESPN decided to drop repeats of past events in the morning and contracted an outside producer to create an all-business news show, called "Business Times" which was co-anchored by William Hartley and a young Consuelo Mack, who now hosts WealthTrack on your local PBS station. The theory being that a business show would click with ESPN's largely male audience. "Business Times" debuted on March 1, 1983 and aired from 6- 8 a.m. ET. It survived for two years before giving way to "Nation's Business Today" which continued until 1991 when ESPN went back to all-sports with repeats of the 2 a.m. ET SportsCenter.
Earlier this year, ESPN's Front Row blog recognized Business Times' 30th anniversary.
Realizing that ESPN was having both ratings and financial trouble, the Richard Deitsch of the early 1980's, William Taaffe, wrote in Sports Illustrated that a 24 hour 7 day a week cable sports network was not sustainable and opined (with emphasis added):
"Beginning March 1, ESPN will air financial news from six to eight each weekday morning. Seems that 24-hour TV sports is an idea whose time has come and gone. Goodby 7 a.m. repeats of pro rodeo from Mesquite. Hello U.S. traders on the Zurich gold exchange."
"ESPN unexpectedly found itself fighting for sports broadcast rights with such other basic cable services as WTBS, the USA Network, even the Christian Broadcasting Network. Outsiders have crashed ESPN's party, and there's only so much cake to go around. A grievous blow for the network came in January 1982, when WTBS outbid it ($17 million to $7 million) for prime-time college football. Last April, USA got the NHL for $8 million after ESPN tendered $6.5 million. Also, last year ESPN's advertising revenues lagged 30% behind projections, while its rights costs were more than twice as much as they were in 1981."
I think Taaffe was being facetious about the Christian Broadcasting Network, but you can see how ESPN was struggling in its early years. It didn't find its footing until 1987 when it aired the America's Cup races live from Australia and obtained the NFL.
It's hard to believe there was a time when ESPN was actually treading water, but in 1983 it was hemorrhaging money and its owners, Getty and ABC were wondering if their investment was worth it. Well, we certainly know what happened. ESPN is a global giant worth tens of billions of dollars thanks to its all sports format and is seeing more and more competitors in the field of 24/7 sports rise around them. 30 years later, 24 hour sports TV certainly hasn't come and gone, it's at an all-time high.