The much ballyhooed ESPN Book, “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” has been out for two weeks, and to no surprise, landed atop the New York Times Bestseller list for nonfiction. The writers, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, spent the better part of two years interviewing dozens of current and former ESPN employees. The access they received and the candor they elicited from their interview subjects was unprecedented. In doing so, Miller and Shales trace the company’s history from its roots as an idea by Bill Rasmussen and his son Scott, mentioned on a drive from Connecticut to the Jersey Shore in the summer of 1978, to the monolith it has become.
Miller and Shales, who also wrote the oral account of Saturday Night Live, have structured this tome in a similar fashion to the SNL retrospective. The interviews and the quotes drive the narrative. Any reporting and interjections outside the context of quoted material appears in italics and helps to establish the next batch of interviews. The reported inserts serve a similar purpose Steinbeck’s interclary chapters in “The Grapes of Wrath.” The only difference — beyond the obvious that “The Grapes of Wrath” is fiction and the ESPN Book is nonfiction — is that unlike the interclary chapters, which are third-person omniscient accounts of similar situations that foreshadow what will happen to the Joads, Miller and Shales’ reporting does not pull the reader away from their interview subjects and personalities framing the storyline. This style made for a quick read. I wore out the touch screen on my iPad (via the Kindle app), ripping through the book in four days.
The blogosphere naturally pounced on the salacious accounts in the book, specifically descriptions of co-workers having sex in stairwells and utility closets, the raucousness of the holiday parties, the history of sexual harassment, and incidents of lewd conduct involving Gary Miller (arrested for allegedly urinating on a police officer in Cleveland) and Dana Jacobson (drinking vodka straight from the bottle at the “Mike and Mike” roast and making fun of Notre Dame’s Touchdown Jesus). But the book, as an oral history, is about much more than that.
If you think you will read this book and get a repeat of “The Big Show,” or get behind the scenes of SportsCenter, you’ll be disappointed. Yes, there is plenty of time spent on Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, what they did to elevate SportsCenter, and what the show has become since their respective departures. But this book is all about ESPN as a business venture, and how the people involved created a business model, a brand, cultivated a workplace culture, and framed how we as fans consume live sporting events and get our sports news. It’s about the leadership of Chet Simmons, then Roger Werner, then Steve Bornstein, George Bodenheimer, and the joint efforts of John Walsh, Mark Shapiro, and John Skipper.
The highlights are the details of the beginnings of the relationship when Getty Oil owned the company; how George Bodenheimer, the current CEO, rose to his position from being a driver when the company started. It was his idea of a dual revenue stream (cable companies paying them a share for subscriptions, plus advertising), that laid the foundation for the cash machine ESPN is today; the influence of Don Ohlmeyer, who has made more money from the company than any individual; and the inner workings of the last round of NFL negotiations, which brought Monday Night Football off of ABC and over to ESPN, and took the Sunday Night package to NBC. Charley Steiner, Bob Ley, Robin Roberts, George Grande, Gayle Gardner, Linda Cohn, John Saunders, and Jeremy Schaap all present themselves as the professionals they are. Chris Berman is, well, Chris Berman.
Among the lowlights are the rampant misspellings. Now, having contributed to, and co-edited books, I know this happens. I have a glaring typo in the first paragraph of my essay in the Baseball Prospectus 2007 annual that to this day kills me. Jim Miller even said on his appearance on Bill Simmons’ podcast last week that he was upset at the number of times he misspelled Jim Nantz’s name. (It appears about five or six times as “Nance”.) Beyond that, Stan Verrett, who anchors the late SportsCenter from LA, had his name misspelled. So did a few athletes, including former Denver Broncos defensive lineman Trevor Pryce. (It was spelled “Price”.) Also, not enough time was spent on ESPN.com’s effect on the Internet and how other sports websites do their daily bidding. Dozens of pages are devoted to ESPN Magazine—its creation, editorial philosophy, etc. ESPN.com’s little nook reveal that Steve Bornstein, who at the time was running the company, had one of the first-ever aol addresses, the purchases of Infoseek and Starwave helped build the infrastructure for the website, Bill Simmons hates being edited and Rick Reilly was not, in fact, traded for Dan Patrick. Too much time is spent on the Erin Andrews peephole incident, and nothing of the reaction she received when she went on Dancing with the Stars, wearing outfits that lead dudes to creep and peep in the first place. Too much time is also spent on Rush Limbaugh, and the three-man booth of Monday Night Football that involved Tony Kornheiser, Mike Tirico and first, Joe Theismann, then Ron Jaworski, and now Kornheiser’s replacement, Jon Gruden. Bottom line, with MNF the games sucked. At least they mentioned that trying to make chicken salad out of you-know-what was impossible given their schedule. Way too much time is spent on the ESPYs.
There are elements to the book for me that are personal. I interned on “Up Close” in 1999 when Gary Miller hosted the show, and my first job after graduating college was at ABC Sports as an assistant editor for their college football web operation. With those experiences etched in my brain, I had more than a passing interest in the book. It was odd to read direct quotes from people I know and worked with for a time in both instances. To learn that ESPN had planned to dissolve ABC Sports going back to the days when CapCities owned them both — as early as 1993 — was alarming. To learn that it was an inevitability following the Disney purchase, and as early as Super Bowl XXXIII, saddened me. I knew the plan and saw it happen beginning in the Summer of 2001. I saw industry veterans agonize over taking a buyout or fighting for their jobs. I saw my own boss decide which members of our eight-person team were going to stay and which were going to go in order to meet his headcount requirement. Had I known all this was in the offing when I interviewed for my job there, my entire career path may have been altered.
Similarly, the accounts from ABC folks, or ESPN people who were assigned to ABC, detailing how they were viewed as second-class citizens by the powers that be in Bristol stung a similar way. I remember in November 2001 interviewing for a beat position at ESPN.com. I had a feeling going into the interview that based on my experience at the time, I was a longshot, but I wanted the chance to interview with the editor-in-chief of ESPN.com — at the time, this was Neal Scarbrough, who ran ESPN the Magazine and has since had stops at AOL Sports, Wasserman Media and Comcast — and believed I had forged strong relationships with my Bristol-based colleagues to where I at least merited a look. As good as my interview was, and as much as I do believe they liked me, it wasn’t to be. Despite my being single at the time and willing to move to Bristol, I had the three letters attached to my resume that basically ruled me out. There were no other openings in Bristol, despite several months of inquiry. In February of ’02, I started at YES, where a host of other ABC refugees, including my former boss, landed.
Reading this book, I determined there is a wide subset of people who it is written for: ESPN employees and alumni, industry types, bloggers, media members, people interested in public relations and sports business, and sports video production. The diehard sports fan or casual viewer of ESPN likely will not care about 70 percent of the book’s content.
Keep that in mind if you’re thinking of spending $15 on it.