'Harmony Gold USA licensed the series for an English-language release in North America in the late 1980s. In the voice dubbing of the series, Harmony Gold renamed almost all of the characters, including the protagonist Goku, who was renamed "Zero." This dub consisting of 5 episodes and one movie (an 80-minute feature featuring footage of movies 1 and 3 edited together) was cancelled shortly after being test marketed in several US cities and was never broadcast to the general public, thus earning the fan-coined term "The Lost Dub."
In 1995, Funimation acquired the license for the distribution of Dragon Ball in the United States. They contracted Josanne B. Lovick Productions and voice actors from Ocean Productions to create an English version for the anime and first movie in Vancouver, Canada. The dubbed episodes were edited for content, and contained different music. Thirteen episodes aired in first-run syndication during the fall of 1995 before Funimation canceled the project due to low ratings.'
So before 2001 Dragonball got no proper broadcast. That's nearly 20 years.
Fansubs started in the early 80s. And funny you mention Internet. Early Anime-fanclubs distributed through copying VHS-tapes. Nothing with Internet.
And some more:
'Throughout this period it was considered socially acceptable to screen anime for an audience without consent as few companies had American offices, and of the few that did, the answer was invariably "no". Japanese companies made it apparent that they knew fans in the United States engaged in unauthorized distribution and screening, however knew that fans were not profiting. Japanese companies asked fans to help them publicize, for instance Toei Animation asked the C/FO to aid them with some marketing research at San Diego Comic-Con. Starting in 1978 Japanese companies tried to set up US branches, however with the exception of one movie, The Sea Prince and the Fire Child licensed to RSA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, realized they were not going to succeed in the US market and the last anime company branch closed in 1982.'
Once again America =/ world
I'm 30 now and when I was 10 Dragon Ball (dubbed) and Sailor Moon (dubbed) were pretty much all kids my age used to watch. DragonBall was huge around the world and it was most certainly not thanks to fansubs. It was the dubbed versions that most kids were exposed to.
Sorry, I'm german. In germany Dragonball was aired first 1999, thirteen years after japanese release:
Maybe you get it wrong because you're young (you're profile says you are ten years younger than me), but I can assure you that most Anime weren't available here in germany until around 2000. I remember that Akira was nearly the first serious Anime-production that got an release in europe. Three years later. It was because it was shown on the Berlinale. But still it was a unicorn back then, Anime was pretty unusual to be shown in germany and I assume in most of europe. That changed very slowly.
You may have seen a dubbed Dragonball in TV at a young age - but at that time the series was already more than ten years old. In all that time in the 80s the fansub-scene already existed by exchanging video-tapes - no internet needed.