BRISTOL, Conn. (WTNH) — The bet that paid dividends for Bristol – ESPN, the global sports network based here in Connecticut turns 41 this week. This year, ESPN has been serving sports fans amid a pandemic with no live sports and employees working from home.
How’d they do it?
Before we even get into how ESPN kept sports alive with no live sports, let’s take you back more than 40 years ago. Bristol came really close to turning ESPN away. Had they done so, this city would certainly be different.
“As much as they are global, they are also a hometown company and we are very fortunate to have them in Bristol.”
ESPN has seen four decades of growth. Come spring 2020, ten percent of workers were the only ones at this sprawling 120-acre campus on the Bristol-Southington line.
Mike Soltys, the VP of Communications at ESPN, has been here for it all – starting as an intern in 1980.
In 2001, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 halted sports for several weeks. But 2020 ushered in a deadly pandemic and stay at home order.
“The majority of our employees worked from home and we had the technology to set that up,” Soltys explains.
Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu says not having 4,000 employees reporting in helped contain Bristol’s COVID-19 outbreak.
She also recalls the economic development authority’s tie-breaking vote that allowed the network to build on its first parcel after several Connecticut towns said no, not wanting satellite dishes dotting the landscape.
Now Bristol is reaping the benefits. Collecting $10 million annually from ESPN in taxes.
“They are now our top tax payer. We have a great partnership with them,” Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, Mayor of Bristol.
Their grand list growth that spurted through the 1990s allowed then Mayor Frank Nicastro to have zero tax increases for over a decade.
The network furloughed employees in March. But none were laid off. Broadcasters were initially nervous about producing studio shows at home. Then several weeks into the pandemic – a curve-ball.
“That got to be a real challenge when there was almost no sports until mid-July,” Soltys says.
They had to get creative.
“Lots of stunts. We did Korean baseball, Australian rules football, just a lot of creativity to keep all our networks on the air.”
Campus is now up to 20 percent capacity. Sports are also back but being produced differently.
“Having announcers working from their Connecticut homes calling the games. When we have trucks on location they’ve got to be socially distant. So in many cases, we need double the trucks, double the technical facilities.”
One thing ESPN has learned throughout its 41 year history: in time of crisis sports proves, “To be a great distraction for people, a great opportunity to be entertained.”
And that same technology ESPN is using for announcers around the country is also inside the Governor’s residence. Governor Lamont reached out to ESPN early on in the pandemic and staffers came out to the Governor’s residence in Hartford and set him up to do remote interviews with media outlets across the country.