At the ripe old age of 32, ESPN is in its prime.
The self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports has become just that, airing in 200 countries and raking in billions of dollars while carrying games featuring all of the major American sports leagues. Between its six US cable networks, thriving website, bi-weekly magazine and sprawling radio network, ESPN employs 6,500 people, including 3,800 at its 116-acre Connecticut campus.
In Those Guys Have All the Fun, co-authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales track the network’s meteoric rise. Though ESPN’s success now seems like a foregone conclusion, no one in TV thought so in 1979. Founders Bill and Scott Rasmussen first planned to launch a channel devoted to Connecticut sports, but the happenstance good fortune of landing cheap satellite time convinced them instead to make it a national network. All of four reporters attended the press conference announcing ESPN’s arrival.
Today, however, what once was a hapless $9,000 start-up in a dead-end town (Bristol, Conn.) has morphed into a Disney-owned media property worth more than the major leagues of baseball, hockey, and basketball combined.
“Those Guys Have All the Fun” is built on hundreds of interviews with executives, staffers and other insiders in an oral history format linked by intermittent narrative threads from Miller and Shales. At 763 pages, this book is, like its subject, bloated but bound to succeed.
The alternating voices can be a boon, as when several people contradict and deflate former Disney executive Michael Eisner for his hindsight-is-20/20 pronouncements. At other times, the authors force the reader to slog through several people all saying the same thing with minimal additional insight. No doubt the authors felt indebted to try to use as much of the material they gathered as possible, but it slows the story.
And yet “Those Guys Have All the Fun” must be reckoned with. Despite numerous frustrations with some of the interviews (Venus Williams, Peyton Manning, and Danica Patrick are among the athletes quoted who have absolutely nothing of interest to say) and some of the section topics, this reader tackled it handily, driven by a combination of nostalgia and curiosity. Plenty of sports fans, I suspect, will share the sentiment, eager to pull back the curtain on an entity that has eaten up so much of their leisure time dissecting inevitably meaningless news (the fate of a 9th round draft pick who will never see an NFL field) and other insignificant affairs (any NBA game involving the Los Angeles Clippers, to cite but one example).
Any American sports fan can hum the “SportsCenter” theme, a theme that Miller and Shales say ESPN uses without paying licensing fees to its composer. Familiar faces and voices from the ESPN roster offer wildly varying accounts of life in a world of never-ending scores and highlights. These reflections include the obligatory self-importance, bloviating, internecine feuding, and ego-stroking inherent in most media endeavors.
Chris Berman, the network’s longest-running recognizable figure, emerges in these pages as arrogant but diligent. Alum Keith Olbermann is, as ever, difficult, contrarian and cutting with bosses and co-workers alike, but extremely popular with viewers. Future talk-show host Craig Kilborn comes across as the one guy who may have had it all figured out, using ESPN as much as it used him. Tony Kornheiser appears here as shrill, thin-skinned, and mean-spirited, while Dan Patrick manages to be smooth and down-to-earth all at once. Bill Simmons, ESPN’s online star, pokes fun at the monolith ESPN has become and wonders aloud about leaving, while giving short shrift to the clout and influence he would be sacrificing.
Other venerable well-known ESPN hosts heard in these pages include Bob Ley, the network’s steadiest journalist; Stuart Scott, who brought hip-hop flavor to “SportsCenter”; and glass-ceiling pioneers Gayle Gardner and Linda Cohn. More recent recruits and emerging stars (Hannah Storm and the Los Angeles duo of Neil Everett and Stan Verrett) weigh in with a mix of platitudes and insights.
One of the most intriguing characters is a man little known beyond Bristol: John Walsh, the oracular presence behind “SportsCenter,” the network’s signature daily highlights and news show. As countless interviews make clear, Walsh’s influence on what is seen on ESPN and its various offspring networks can not be overestimated.
When someone from the start-up sports network called Vitale and inquired about his interest, the exchange was memorable.
“He says, ‘I’m with a new network called ESPN,’ and I swear I said something to the effect like, ‘That sounds like a disease. What is ESPN?’” Vitale is still at ESPN today, known everywhere for his over-the-top enthusiasm and a quirky jargon invented by him and adopted by millions of viewers.
Embarrassments include familiar but nonetheless sobering accounts of the network’s internal jock culture, plagued by numerous episodes of sexual harassment. “Monday Night Football” announcer Mike Tirico, is among those cited for bad behavior.
Many of the circumstances and feuds explored in the book belie its title. Examples abound of the network underpaying executives, broadcasters, and staffers alike, while also striving to avoid the merest hint of celebrity even when it’s obvious. (Think Patrick and Olbermann’s “Big Show” heyday in the early 1990s).
Missteps and critical drubbings, not always one and the same, also can be found here. A disastrous venture into ESPN-brand cell phones provides juicy fodder. The authors relate a memorable exchange between Apple chief Steve Jobs and ESPN’s Bodenheimer at a Disney shareholder meeting. Upon introduction, Jobs tells Bodenheimer the venture is the dumbest thing he can imagine. The future iPhone inventor proves prophetic, as ESPN and Disney went on to lose $135 million on the venture.
Mark Shapiro embodies much that is good and bad about ESPN. His 12-year tenure comes in for close inspection, with mixed verdicts.
Shapiro was in his mid-30s when he left ESPN in 2005. By that time, he had launched the popular and profitable “Pardon the Interruption” hosted by the sparring Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon; shepherded the well-received “SportsCentury” documentary series; and bet the programming house on poker coverage and won big.
At the same time, Shapiro infuriated the NFL with a prime-time drama chronicling the misbehavior of professional football players; erred with the expensive and disastrous launch of a morning show called “Cold Pizza;” and lost the rights to NASCAR races.
Shapiro also ran everyone ragged. He presided over weekly 5-hour staff meetings, where eating was prohibited, along with individual bathroom breaks. Those guys may not have had much fun, after all.
These chronicles and anecdotes make for enjoyable reading and the authors must be credited with a thorough exploration of ESPN’s various eras and transformations.
Still, Miller and Shales fall far short of a perfect game. On too many occasions, “Those Guys Have All the Fun” detours to superfluous side roads, choppy editing, and puzzling monologues. Exhibit A: three uninterrupted pages of radio host Colin Cowherd discussing his media philosophy, an extended non sequitur jammed into a section ostensibly about The ESPYs, the network’s awards show.
Criticizing the duration of Cowherd’s quote and its misplaced slot overlooks a larger question: What need is there for an extended rumination on The ESPYs? It’s more than a stretch when Miller and Shales write sentences like this: “One of the key turning points for the ESPYs occurred in 2000, when the setting was moved to Las Vegas …” Um, sure it was. What sports fan doesn’t savor that moment?
Such problems pop up through much of the book’s second half. Thus the reader is granted insights such as why political columnist George F. Will voted for Jackie Robinson as the best athlete in the “SportsCentury” series. With a knowing nod to the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, the reader can only say, “So it goes.”
In a book this lengthy, it is to be expected some typos and errors would slip through the editing cracks. Still, it is distracting to see the surname of one of the best-known sportscasters of this generation misspelled over and over (CBS’s Jim Nantz is, in this book, Jim Nance). A similar tic miscasts Texas Longhorns head football coach Mack Brown, whose first name becomes Mac on more than one reference. Deadspin.com founder Will Leitch, a well-known figure in sports blogging, is, instead, Will Leach.
Some strong insights emerge from recent years. Among them: ESPN executive John Skipper’s love of soccer leading to an overhaul of World Cup coverage and the indefensible decision to ignore NFL star Ben Roethlisberger being accused of sexual assault. College football sideline reporter Erin Andrews and several colleagues offer candid assessments of her being stalked and filmed through hotel-room peepholes, a harrowing episode that became an online nightmare for Andrews and the network.
There is also an interesting section on the highly rated but equally loathed LeBron James interview special to announce his free-agency decision. None of the principals emerge with much dignity intact, a sign of how ESPN’s extensive investments in the various sports leagues often leave it functioning as little more than an industry cheerleader.
Which goes to show that while life at ESPN is hardly just fun and games, it is all but impossible to ignore. After hundreds of pages and perspectives, leave it to comedian Jimmy Kimmel, whose show once employed ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons, to put it all in perspective.
“The truth of the matter is, ESPN is great,” Kimmel says. “It’s just when you make the mistake like I did of thinking you can do something edgy on that network and you can’t. You just can’t. It’s McDonald’s.”
And, yes, “SportsCenter” is serving millions and millions even as you read these words.
Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.