Founding ESPN Exec Chet Simmons Dies at 81

Network's First President Helped Create 'Sports Center,' Launch the Career of Many Celebrated Commentators

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LOS ANGELES ( -- Chester "Chet" Simmons, pioneering sports programmer and founding ESPN executive, died Thursday in Atlanta. He was 81.

Chester 'Chet' Simmons
Chester 'Chet' Simmons
Mr. Simmons served as president of ESPN during the company's launch in 1979 after creating Sports Programs Inc. in 1957, a company that eventually became ABC Sports.

Prior to ESPN, Mr. Simmons already had a rich 20-year history in sports programming, including 15 years at NBC, where he held a variety of positions that culminated in his becoming president of sports in November 1977. There he helped develop and build programs such as "SportsWorld," introduce now-ubiquitous broadcast features such as instant replay and secure NBC's contracts to broadcast the American Football League, National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, college basketball, the Rose and Orange Bowls and Wimbledon. He also played a key role in securing the network's coverage of the 1980 Olympics.

Mr. Simmons was also founding commissioner of the United States Football League, a competitor to the NFL that played for three seasons in the mid-1980s.

But perhaps his greatest legacy was establishing ESPN as the leading brand and media company in sports broadcasting today, becoming a multimedia empire that has spawned multiple cable networks, several major websites, a magazine, mobile apps and more licensed properties that make it one of the most-profitable brands in the Walt Disney Company portfolio.

Mr. Simmons is best remembered at ESPN for his role in the creation and development of "Sports Center," ESPN's longest-lasting and most successful on-air franchise and the leading sports-news telecast on all of TV. During his three-year tenure at ESPN, he helped influence or launch the careers of commentators such as 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, Jack Buck, Sharon Smith, Leandra Reilly and Rhonda Glenn.

"Chet did so much more than take a chance on us young people 30 years ago," said ESPN anchor Chris Berman, whom Mr. Simmons hired one month after ESPN's 1979 launch, in a statement. "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."

"Chet Simmons' leadership and vision in our first years were absolutely critical to ESPN's survival," said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports, in a statement. "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."

Mr. Simmons, who had been living in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, since 1986, is survived by his wife Harriet; children Pam, Jed, Pete and Nikki; daughter-in-law Jana Simmons; sons-in-law Randy Miller and Micah Goldstein; and grandchildren Ella, Zach, Claudia, Streeter, Ben, Zander, Jack, Reid and Tyler.

A scholarship fund will be established in his name at the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences.

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