Sports broadcasting and cable pioneer, Chester R. Simmons, who served as president of ESPN at the company’s 1979 launch, died of natural causes, March 25, in Atlanta. He was 81.
As a founding father of sports television, Simmons started in 1957 with Sports Programs, Inc., which soon evolved into ABC Sports, where he was instrumental in the development of Wide World of Sports. He became President of NBC Sports and later of ESPN, and was founding Commissioner of the USFL.
Simmons had been living in Savannah and Atlanta, since 1986. He is survived by his wife Harriet of 53 years; his 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.
Simmons left an indelible mark on both the early days of broadcast sports television and the formative years of sports on cable. During his career, he was an important contributor to the development of every major sport on the network level. In 2005, Simmons received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 26th annual Sports Emmy Awards.
"Chet Simmons' leadership and vision in our first years were absolutely critical to ESPN's survival," said George Bodenheimer, president, ESPN and ABC Sports. "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."
Added ESPN anchor Chris Berman, hired by Simmons approximately one month after the network launched: “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.”
ESPN anchor Bob Ley, whom Simmons hired for SportsCenter the first week of the network’s operation, added: “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. “