Bill Rasmussen conceived the concept of ESPN in late May 1978, after he was fired from his job with the World Hockey Association's New England Whalers. One of the first steps in Bill and his son Scott's (who had also been let go by the Whalers) process was finding land to build the channel's broadcasting facilities. The Rasmussens first rented office space in Plainville, Connecticut. However, the plan to base ESPN there was put on hold because of a local ordinance prohibiting buildings from bearing rooftop satellite dishes. Available land area was quickly found in Bristol, Connecticut (where the channel remains headquartered to this day), with funding to buy the property provided by Getty Oil, which purchased 85% of the company from Bill Rasmussen on February 22, 1979, in an attempt to diversify the company's holdings. This helped the credibility of the fledgling company, however there were still many doubters to the viability of their sports channel concept. Another event that helped build ESPN's credibility was securing an advertising agreement with Anheuser-Busch in the spring of 1979; the company invested $1 million to be the "exclusive beer advertised on the network."
ESPN's first logo from 1979 to 1985
ESPN launched on September 7, 1979, beginning with the first telecast of what would become the channel's flagship program, SportsCenter. Taped in front of a small live audience inside the Bristol studios, it was broadcast to 1.4 million cable subscribers throughout the United States.
ESPN's next big break came when the channel acquired the rights to broadcast coverage of the early rounds of the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament. It first aired the NCAA tournament in March 1980, creating the modern day television event known as "March Madness." The channel's tournament coverage also launched the broadcasting career of Dick Vitale, who at the time he joined ESPN, had just been fired as head coach of the Detroit Pistons.
In April of that year, ESPN created another made-for-TV spectacle, when it began televising the . It provided complete coverage of the event that allowed rookie players from the college ranks to begin their professional careers in front of a national television audience in ways they were not able to previously.
The next major stepping stone for ESPN came over the course of a couple of months in 1984. During this time period, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) purchased 100% of ESPN from the Rasmussens and Getty Oil. Under Getty ownership, the channel was unable to compete for the television rights to major sports events contracts as its majority corporate parent would not provide the funding, leading ESPN to lose out for broadcast deals with the National Hockey League (to USA Network) and (to TBS). For years, the , NBA and Major League Baseball refused to consider cable as a means of broadcasting some of their games. However, with the backing of ABC, ESPN's ability to compete for major sports contracts greatly increased, and gave it credibility within the sports broadcasting industry.
Later in 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could no longer monopolize the rights to negotiate the contracts for college football games, allowing each individual school to negotiate broadcast deals of their choice. ESPN took full advantage and began to broadcast a large number of NCAA football games, creating an opportunity for fans to be able to view multiple games each weekend (instead of just one), the same deal that the NCAA had previously negotiated with TBS. ESPN's breakthrough moment occurred in 1987, when it secured a contract with the NFL to broadcast eight games during that year's regular season – all of which aired on Sunday nights, marking the first broadcasts of Sunday NFL primetime games. ESPN's games would become the highest-rated NFL telecasts for the next 17 years (before losing the rights to NBC in 2006). The channel's decision to broadcast NFL games on Sunday evenings actually resulted in a decline in viewership for the daytime games shown on the major broadcast networks, marking the first time that ESPN had been a legitimate competitor to NBC and CBS, which had long dominated the sports television market.
In 1992, ESPN launched ESPN Radio, a national sports talk radio network providing analysis and commentary programs (including shows such as Mike and Mike in the Morning and The Herd) as well as audio play-by-play of sporting events (including some simulcasted with the ESPN television channel).
On October 10, 1993, ESPN2 – a secondary channel that originally was programmed with a separate lineup of niche sports popular with males 18–49 years old (with snowboarding and the World Series of Poker as its headliners) as well as serving as an overflow channel for ESPN – launched on cable systems reaching to 10 million subscribers. It became the fastest growing cable channel in the U.S. during the 1990s, eventually expanding its national reach to 75 million subscribers.
Ownership of ABC, and in effect control of ESPN, was acquired by Capital Cities Communications in 1985. ESPN's parent company renamed themselves as Capital Cities/ABC Inc. Capital Cities/ABC Inc. was then acquired by The Walt Disney Company in 1996 and was re-branded as Walt Disney Television.
On April 26, 2017, approximately 100 ESPN employees were notified that their positions with the sports network had been terminated, among them athletes-turned-analysts Trent Dilfer and Danny Kanell, and noted journalists like NFL beat reporter Ed Werder and Major League Baseball expert Jayson Stark. The layoffs came as ESPN continued to shed viewers, more than 10 million over a period of several years, while paying big money for the broadcast rights to such properties as the NFL, NBA and . Further cost-cutting measures taken include moving the studio operations of ESPNU to Bristol from Charlotte, North Carolina, reducing its longtime MLB studio show Baseball Tonight to Sundays as a lead-in to the primetime game and adding the MLB Network-produced Intentional Talk to ESPN2's daily lineup.
On April 12, 2018, ESPN began a supplemental over-the-top streaming service known as ESPN+.