Stuart Evey, who as an executive for Getty Oil recommended that the company invest in the start-up that became ESPN and then took an active role in its management for five years, died on Dec. 8 in Spokane, Wash. He was 84.
His daughter Christine Evey said the cause was complications of diabetes.
Mr. Evey, who oversaw Getty’s non-petroleum businesses, was asked in late 1978 to evaluate a plan for an all-sports network. In those early days of cable programming, there were few channels, let alone any that televised sports 24 hours a day, as Bill Rasmussen, a former hockey team executive, was proposing.
Seven other companies had rejected Mr. Rasmussen’s pitch, and he was running out of money.
“Bill came to my office very disgruntled because he knew, in his mind apparently, that there’s no way an oil company would ever be interested in what he had in mind,” Mr. Evey (pronounced EE-vee) told the authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales for the book “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” (2011).
Rather than spurn Mr. Rasmussen, Mr. Evey was intrigued. But there was not much dependable information about the nascent cable industry to analyze. Networks like CNN and MTV had not yet started. And television executives like Roone Arledge, who had revolutionized sports coverage at ABC, told Mr. Evey that an operation like ESPN had little chance of succeeding.
“Stu was skeptical, and he was constantly trying to figure out what might go wrong,” Mr. Rasmussen said in a telephone interview. “But he was a sports enthusiast, and it would be a feather in his cap if it turned out well.”
Mr. Evey persuaded the Getty board to invest $10 million in ESPN for an 85 percent stake, with Mr. Rasmussen and his family owning the rest. It was a critical investment. The network went on the air on Sept. 7, 1979, and eventually became the largest force in sports media.
But something more than a willingness to take a risk attracted Mr. Evey to the ESPN proposal.
By the time Getty invested in ESPN, Mr. Evey had been at the company for 20 years. He had built his career largely around that of George F. Getty II, one of the billionaire J.Paul Getty’s five sons. As George Getty’s administrative assistant and then his executive assistant, Mr. Evey was given a privileged view of the oil business and close-up exposure to his boss’s drinking and depression.
Because of his friendly relationship with George Getty, Mr. Evey became a protector, a kind of fixer; he thought of Mr. Getty as a brother who had “likely led me down the road to overindulgences that might have killed me if I hadn’t smartened up later in life,” he wrote in his memoir, “ESPN: Creating an Empire” (2004).
By 1972, Mr. Evey was officially vice president for Getty Oil’s diversified activities, which included commercial real estate, hotels, lumber mills, wine and farming. The job kept him close to George Getty.
“A lot of times when I was with him, he would say, ‘Stu, one of my great hopes is to develop an operating company that doesn’t have my father’s name on it,’ ” Mr. Evey said in a lecture at Washington and Lee University in 2010.
Mr. Getty died of an overdose of alcohol, diet pills and barbiturates in 1973 in what was ruled a probable suicide, but Mr. Evey believed that owning ESPN would have satisfied his ambition to break away from his father.
“It was far removed from the core business of Getty,” he said.
Stuart Wayne Evey was born on Feb. 26, 1933, in Havre, Mont., and lived in nearby Chinook as a child. His father, Clare, was a railroad dispatcher and administrator; his mother, Evelyn, was a homemaker. The family later moved to Washington State.
Mr. Evey graduated from high school in Spokane and studied business at the University of Washington. He served in the Army honor guard in Berlin.
He joined Tidewater Oil, which was controlled by J. Paul Getty, as a management trainee in 1958 and remained with the company after it relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where it eventually merged into Getty Oil.
Mr. Evey worked in several capacities at Getty, but ESPN was his most high-profile project.
“I was laughed at in the company, in a kind of kidding way,” he was quoted as saying in “Those Guys Have All the Fun.” “They called it ‘Evey Sports Programming Network,’ not ESPN. My whole business reputation was on the line.”
As ESPN’s chairman, Mr. Evey hired Chet Simmons from NBC to be the network’s first president; helped make rights deals with the N.C.A.A. and the United States Football League; sold a 10 percent stake in the network to ABC in 1982 (at a point where Getty’s investment in ESPN had reached $55 million); and quixotically, if briefly, pursued the rights to televise the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
“He was not at all easy to get along with,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “We were three people going in different directions: Stu, Chet and me. Stu got Chet to come on board with the guarantee that I wouldn’t interfere, which led to my demise.”
Mr. Rasmussen left in 1980, and Mr. Simmons, in 1982, moved to another start-up, the ultimately short-lived United States Football League, as its first commissioner.
Two years later, Mr. Evey was out after Texaco acquired Getty for $10 billion and sold its stake in ESPN to ABC for $188 million.
Mr. Evey said he was stung by the abruptness of his departure from ESPN — which also concluded his 26 years at Getty.
“The thing was, it was really beginning to shine,” he said of the network in an interview with KHQ-TV in Spokane in 2007. “I was hurt about that. Here’s the one thing I shepherded through that people said couldn’t happen.”
ESPN was not his only television venture for Getty. In 1980, he was involved in a Getty partnership with several Hollywood studios in Premiere, a proposed pay-TV network that was planning to compete against HBO, Showtime and the Movie Channel.
But Premiere never started. The Justice Department opposed the venture, and a federal judge issued an injunction, saying that the government was likely to prove that it would violate antitrust laws.
In the decades since, Mr. Evey served as a management consultant and as a director on corporate boards.
In addition to his daughter Christine, Mr. Evey is survived by his wife, the former Mary Dailey; another daughter, Susan Glamuzina; and three grandchildren. His first marriage, to Shirley Kinne, ended in divorce. She died in 2006.
Mr. Evey remained proud of his part as a founder of ESPN.
“There’s absolutely no way Getty would have gone into ESPN without me. None,” he said in “Those Guys Have All the Fun.”
He added: “I was given the opportunity to take the risk for past performance, perhaps, but also for personal relationships. I did this primarily because I thought George Getty would’ve liked it.”