A look at the inner workings of ESPN

There’s a new book out you may have heard of, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, that, as the title implies, goes over the history of the little cable network that became the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Co-authored by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales (Miller did almost all the work as far as I can tell based on the book’s media blitz), the book’s basis is a series of interviews conducted with over 550 people in the ESPN universe.

These interviews aren’t just the basis of the book, they pretty much are the book, which is presented as an oral history in which you go from one person’s perspective to another. (Side note: Though the authors interviewed 550-plus people, fewer than 300 are quoted in the book). Miller/Shales used the same approach in their previous book on Saturday Night Live.

The focus here is on television. ESPN’s website and radio and magazine and other ventures are also mentioned but generally are given perfunctory treatment.

You get the thoughts and memories of almost every noteworthy ESPN personality, past and present. You also get a whole herd of network executives sharing their thoughts, as well, but that can be a bit confusing at times. Since there are so many of them and they are not household names, it’s hard to keep them straight in the book. (A piece of advise: Check the photo section in the middle of the book before reading the book so it’s easier to note some of the key executives).

By making the book an oral history, there is no obvious straightforward narrative, but Miller/Shales give it some coherence. The basic plot is how ESPN became big and how it attempted to become ever bigger and deal with its problems along the way.

The early part of the book was the highlight. It has the advantage of a clear narrative as ESPN tries to establish itself, transforming from an idea to an actual cable network, then a viable one, and finally a very successful one.

It’s incredible how small-scale it started. Company founder Bill Rasmussen was just looking for a local Connecticut sports station when he blundered into knowledge of a 24/7 national cable hook-up he could have.

There’s also a considerable amount of turnover in the early years. Most of the prominent characters in the first chapter (covering the 1978-79 start-up period) are gone by the build-up years of chapter two (1980-86), and many of those characters are gone by the breakthrough years in chapter three (1987-91).

Later on, there isn’t as clear a narrative thread. The book has eight chapters, and while it’s pretty clear what causes the break points for the first few chapters, the last few break points seemed pretty arbitrary. It does have the benefit of having more familiar characters, though.

Along the way, the book regales the reader with many enjoyable stories and fun moments. My personal favorite was the time John Walsh (the exec who turned SportsCenter from a lame highlights show into the network’s standard bearer show) first came to Bristol. ESPN sent an employee to pick up Walsh from the hotel he was staying at in Hartford. How would the employee recognize Walsh? No problem—Walsh is an albino with a beard, so he was told just to look for a 45-year-old version of Kris Kringle.

So the kid drives to the hotel and sees a sign proudly proclaiming, “Welcome National Association of Albinos.” When he finally finds Walsh, the bearded albino says, “In my whole life, I’ve only seen about ten people who looked anything like me, and now it’s a hotel full of me. People are coming up to me congratulating me on a speech I gave, and I don’t even know what the speech was about!”

While some stories deal with sex, the book doesn’t focus on the more salacious details of ESPN. Yeah, it tells a few sex stories and there is talk of bad behavior, but those stories generally appear to discuss an overall theme of ESPN culture rather than tell them for their own sake. For example, the book notes problems the company has had over the years, especially in the 1980s, with sexual harassment. Miller/Shales are more interested in the business aspects of ESPN.

One theme that pervades the book is the importance of the bottom line to the company. That’s not terribly surprising for a successful company, but it’s interesting seeing how it plays out. There’s a criticism one executive makes of Keith Olbermann that could just as easily be applied to ESPN as a whole. “I was enraged by Olbermann. Guys like that just piss me off, you know, because there’s no loyalty. It’s just me, me, me.” Olbermann could counter-charge the same is true about ESPN.

In fact, so could many others. No loyalty? One former athlete criticizes what ESPN management means when they ask you to be a team player. For him, being a team player means having the other guy’s back and working together. At ESPN, it’s very one-sided: Do what you’re told by the bosses, who won’t necessarily have your back.

Many leave as a result, not just Olbermann. Craig Kilborn was upset his workload was doubled without any increase in pay. After 14 years dealing with ESPN management, Charlie Steiner left because “I was worn out by then—by then and by them.”

Perhaps the most interesting case is Dan Patrick. After 15 years at ESPN, during which time he’d become one of the station’s biggest names, management got him to sign a contract that ensured he barely saw his family for five days a week because he spent so much time on the job. When he asked for a change in the contract to improve his quality of life, management point blank refused, which is why Patrick decided to leave. Looking back, Patrick reflects, “All I wanted was a little respect in the final days there; if we could have done something, I would have been a lifer.”

Along similar lines, another background theme in the book is how everyone is badly underpaid. Olbermann once crunched the numbers and determined he deserved an 887 percent raise on his ESPN salary, and when he left to join Fox Sports, they gave him a salary that was almost exactly 887 percent more than his old ESPN one. Patrick got completely hosed in an early contract negotiation.

It’s not just the on-air talent, either. The guy who composed the SportsCenter theme song—“Da da da! Da da da!”—receives no royalties. Several bosses mention in this book that they’re glad Bristol isn’t unionized. Even the execs are underpaid. Two of the former head honchos left to make more money elsewhere. Mark Shapiro, one of the most powerful execs in ESPN history (and the guy Steiner and Patrick single out for treating them poorly) left ESPN to take a job that paid him 25 times his ESPN salary.

Why is everyone so underpaid? As current head boss man George Bodenheimer notes, you could fill an entire room with all the applicants they get for internships alone. It’s supply and demand that allows them to underpay talent or define teamwork and loyalty in a very management-friendly way.

There’s also an interest in promoting ESPN the brand over individual talents on the shows. The very visibility and popularity of ESPN makes it almost impossible to avoid creating stars, but management would rather not have stars.

Chris Berman became a star when the company still was establishing itself, and that just led to a mantra of “We don’t want another Chris Berman.” One of the main tensions at ESPN over the last 15-20 years is how the company handles it when someone does become a star.

I don’t want to oversell the point here. The book isn’t just about, or even primarily about, business and ESPN. You get descriptions of all the main on-air personalities, the biggest moments in ESPN history, and the most important sports stories, as well. That ultimately is the central concern of the book.

Perhaps this is just the academic wanker in me, but I noticed the book largely flips the notion of oral history on its head. Traditionally, the point of oral history is to “give voice to the voiceless” and let the average person share their thoughts on a matter instead of just the high-ranking figures that normally get written about. That’s what you get if you read a Studs Terkel book, for example.

That’s not what you get in Those Guys. Virtually everyone quoted in the book is someone high-ranking or already noteworthy—on-air personalities, noteworthy athletes, and hot shot network execs. Want to know the attitudes and opinions of a cameraman or someone from the tape room, or some random employee from sector 7G? You won’t find it here.

It’s a shame, because they could add an extra element to the story. The book’s introduction notes 43 employees have been on the payroll from its first year through the end of the century, but the only ones quoted are Berman, Bob Ley and maybe one or two others.

Then again, this isn’t really intended to be a traditional oral history. If you read a book like “The Good War” by Studs Terkel, an oral history of World War II, you want to find out what the experience of the war was like and how it affected the common person. If you read a history of ESPN, you’re primarily interested in the finished product rather than what the experience of working for ESPN is like.

To that end, it makes the most sense to focus on the movers and the shakers, as this book does. It’s really more a history done in the style of oral history than a classic oral history.

Perhaps a better way of going about it is to compare Those Guys to Bill Carter’s pair of books on late night talk shows, “The Late Shift” and “The War for Late Night.” Like Miller/Shales, Carter’s books are based on his tremendous contacts in the TV industry that allows him access to, and interviews with, all the principles involved in his story. They are willing to talk to Carter because in his works Carter will act as court reporter and present their positions and viewpoints as best as he can. The same thing goes on with “Those Guys.”

The main difference in the books is that Carter writes up a traditional narrative based on his interviews, while Miller and Shales don’t. That difference is largely because the scope is much broader in this book. They’re looking at a 30-plus year network turned cultural phenomenon instead of one incident and had to interview a lot more people for it. The only way to present all the different sides to the story is to present it as an oral history.

Regardless, it was, on the whole, an extremely enjoyable book. The text of this book is 745 pages long, and by the time I got to the bottom of page 745, I wished I had more to read because it was so fun. That’s about as good a compliment as you can pay a book.

References & Resources
Nerdiness alert: I tallied the number of people quoted in the book. My count was 287. Some of the most prominent people not interviewed: Mike Golick, Mike Patrick, Paul Maguire, Steve Phillips, Harold Reynolds, Joe Morgan, Michael Irvin, Trey Wingo, and Bud Selig (though they get commissioners from the other three major sports). Oh, and since this is THT, I better note that Rob Neyer isn’t interviewed, either.

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Comments

  1. Matt S. said...

    Thanks for the review – seems like it’s worth checking out.

    Just tossing it out there why some “big” names weren’t quoted.

    Golic (no “k”) is a radio personality though in recent years the show has been added to ESPN2. If the book is truly based upon TV primarily, then that might be your reason.

    Phillips was fired for his personal life problems – probably signed some kind of confidentiality agreement, I’d guess.

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