ESPN Pioneer Chet Simmons Dies, 81


Chester Simmons, president of ESPN when it launched in 1979, died March 25 in Atlanta of what the sports programmer said was natural causes. He was 81.

Chet Simmons began his sports career in 1957 with Sports Programs Inc., the predecessor of ABC Sports, where he helped develop the iconic Wide World of Sports. His resume also included entries as president of NBC Sports and serving as founding commissioner of the USFL.

Simmons received the Lifetime Achievement award at the 2005 Sports Emmys.

Chet Simmons

He is survived by Harriet, his wife of 53 years; 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.

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

Simmons joined ESPN as president and COO on July 31, 1979, just prior to the network's Sept. 7 launch. At the time, Simmons commented:  "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 CEO, leading the network through its infancy. Among his notable achievements: the birth of the network's flagship franchise SportsCenter on day one; television's first comprehensive coverage of the early rounds of the NCAA Men's Division 1 Basketball Championship; and the NFL Draft telecast, both in 1980. 

ESPN anchor Chris Berman, who was hired by Simmons one month after the network bowed, said: "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."

Added ESPN anchor Bob Ley, whom Simmons hired for SportsCenter the first week of the network's operation: "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 is credited with helping launch and/or develop the sports broadcasting 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, Dick Vitale, Cliff Drysdale, Tim Ryan and Jack Buck, among others.

His career also included stints as a media consultant to Madison Square Garden and the Marquis Group and adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina.

Before joining ESPN, Simmons worked at NBC for 15 years, holding a variety of leadership positions, culminating as president of sports in November 1977.  There, Simmons helped in the development and growth of NBC's SportsWorld, 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 portended the approach later taken by ESPN in presenting a wide array of athletic competitions.

Five years ago, Simmons received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 26th annual Sports Emmy Awards.