An inside look at ESPN and egos game for a good time
For much of the network’s 1990s heyday, the crucial requisites to landing an on-air position at ESPN seemed not so much a charismatic manner or a rich knowledge of sports, but having a go-to catch phrase ready for any occasion. One could be en fuego, like popular former “SportsCenter’’ anchor Dan Patrick, or cooler than the other side of the pillow, like Stuart Scott, and fame approaching that of the athletes you covered could be yours. And if you were really big-time, well, you might get that coveted Applebee’s endorsement.
Even ESPN itself has a recognizable slogan: The Worldwide Leader in Sports. There is an undeniable hint of hubris there — influential ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons hit the mark when, in making a programming pitch to his bosses, he noted that “ESPN loves celebrating ourselves.’’ But considering that the multimedia behemoth televises 65 sports in 16 languages in 200 countries, the statement is also true, self-proclaimed or not.
Upon completing James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’s “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,’’ a rollicking oral history of the network, chances are the reader will be left with a lingering thought: These guys had to be among the worldwide leaders in other categories. Debauchery, for instance. Egotism, for sure.
As much as ESPN loves celebrating itself, it’s no surprise that its personnel love talking about themselves too, and it’s the candor of the more than 550 people interviewed — in the oral-history format that parallels the authors’ 2002 gem “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live’’ — that makes the book a breezy read despite its daunting length.
Not that all of the nearly 800 pages of this book are essential. It stalls on dull minutiae about transponders and satellites and the technical and internal structure of ESPN, and it’s fair to presume that much was not lost in the 350 pages Miller says were cut from the early drafts. “These Guys Have All The Fun’’ is really a melding of two stories: A business saga, beginning with the tale of how founder Bill Rasmussen, with little more than a $9,000 cash advance on a credit card and a wisp of an idea that a 24-hour sports network could catch on, launched ESPN in Bristol, Conn., in 1979.
And then there is the stuff that will sell the book. It’s in retracing the network’s path from a start-up showing Australian Rules football and other quirky time-fillers to its current massive success (ESPN is worth more money than the NFL) that “Those Guys Have All the Fun’’ shifts toward a ribald recounting of interoffice rivalries and romances. Miller has been ubiquitous in promotion, and the juicier new tidbits, such as the fearsome petulance of Keith Olbermann, were leaked to blogs before the book was released. Overall the material is engaging, though many swatches of this turf, such as the almost unbelievably crude history of sexual harassment at the network — you’ll never see “Monday Night Football’’ announcer Mike Tirico the same way — has been covered, albeit less thoroughly, in newspapers, magazines, and by Michael Freeman’s 2001 book “ESPN: The Uncensored History.’’
It should be noted that there are people worth admiring on the Bristol campus. Anchors Bob Ley, Charley Steiner, and Robin Roberts are invariably described by colleagues as grounded and kind. But Patrick, who left the network in 2007, was the beacon, personifying “a kind of integrity that can’t be faked.’’ He was to ESPN what Will Ferrell was in the authors’ recounting of “Saturday Night Live’’ ’s history: A supreme talent whose greatest feat may be remaining a grounded, decent person. That such characteristics are scarce at ESPN should come as no surprise. Worldwide leaders don’t often get there by being humble.