NEW YORK - MAY 26: President of ESPN and ABC Sports George Bodenheimer speaks to the audience after receiving the 2011 Intrepid Salute Award on May 26, 2011 at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Today, we are talking about "Those Guys Have All The Fun" by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. Book review time! It's a book review! Who doesn't love homework??????
I recently purchased and devoured their book on ESPN. It is a collective of about 500 interviews with many of the key people in ESPN history. They also have a book on Saturday Night Live, which is similarly constructed.
While reading all 745 pages of the book, I kept thinking to myself to focus on grand themes or overarching concepts easily regaled in a book review. The simple truth is that the history of ESPN cannot be summed up in any simple truths. There is no way to easily describe this entire book for you, dear reader. It is 745 pages of colloquial conversations. Some of the speakers are silky-smooth talkers hired specifically for their ability to spin a yarn. You never know if they have an ulterior motive and are always trying to read the tea leaves in their diplomatic vagaries. Others are prized more for their physical ability and aren't quite as diplomatic or self-serving. Either way, it's a surprisingly fast read for 745 pages.
If I could try to sum up the book in an easy to read overview, it'd probably look something like this:
1. They work hard at ESPN. There were many times when it looked like ESPN would never make it. They initially got all their big money from Getty Oil and there were a lot of people there who didn't particularly think it was a great investment. International playboy Stuart Evey kept the money flowing despite voluminous losses. Now, ESPN is apparently worth more than the NFL itself. This didn't happen because of providence (although luck always help). It happened because of flat out insane levels of hard work. Early mornings. Late nights. Sacrificing family life. Essentially living at ESPN HQ.
This is not unlike the athletic phenom or musical prodigy who makes it look so easy and natural, belying their 12 hours a day of practice. For people of my generation, ESPN is a given, a rock, something you can always count on to provide, at the very least, background noise. That comes from a real human sacrifice in the life experience of the employees. Dan Patrick even points to it as his reason for leaving a few years ago. He wanted to se his family more and wasn't able to work out a deal to his liking.
Seeing the human element was revealing for me. Whenever I read a book or listen to a podcast about the entertainment industry, I am always surprised at how brutally inhumane that industry can be. Although sports is not always firmly within the entertainment industry, the E in ESPN certainly stands for something there. This is especially true given that up until recently there was nothing going on in Bristol save for ESPN. Working at ESPN was your life.
2. Besides working hard, they also play very hard at ESPN. And I don't mean just the fact that one of the more consistent themes is sexual harassment. It is not just about ESPN announcer Mike Tirico attempting to sexually assault a woman through a car window 20+ years ago or Sean Salisbury sending photos of his genitalia to others on his phone. Put aside their rather abysmal record on women for a moment here. The book paints the real rise of ESPN coming from Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. Those two and the wickedly smart ad campaign wrapped around them are what helped ESPN push into Must See TV. I mean it doesn't hurt that they got football, baseball, basketball, NASCAR, hockey, poker, Magic: The Gathering and lord knows what other sports I've never heard of. Also, soccer.
But any TV channel can show sports. ESPN really fashioned a way to show sports in a much more interesting and modern way. Mostly, in a fun way. When the people on TV are having fun, you will have fun. One of the suits in the book (I had trouble keeping them all straight) states something along the lines of "A real good announcing crew makes you want to be sitting next to them in the booth or on your couch chatting with them throughout the game."
I am currently writing this while watching the New York Yankees crush the Oakland A's with with the announcers on mute. I generally never listen to the announcers, because I tend to know what is going on already. So, if the annoucners can do more than just provide info and make it a fun experience, then that is something you want to key in on. They also do that with their studio shows. I grew up on NFL Primetime. I absolutely loved that. They were passionate about NFL highlights. It instilled a love for NFL highlights and Berman-y nicknames in me. I now look back on 16 year old me in a rather judgmental way, but it worked, didn't it?
They've made College Gameday the best pre-game show ever by including the best part of collegiate sports: the pure spirit. I mean chances are if you are reading this, you absolutely, positive, completelly and totally love college sports. Diehard college sports fans are different (and in my view better) than diehard fans of any other sport league. You can't get that with a studio show!
Whether its the 1980s or the 2000s, ESPN always focused on making it fun and relevant to its watchers/readers and that does come through in the book.
3. Of course, sometimes the authors can focus too much on certain things. The book is 745 pages long. Apparently, it was at 1000ish and they had to cut hundreds out. They could have probably cut most of the Tirico-Kornheiser thing out and been OK. That relates to the purchase of MNF by ESPN and creation of an announcing crew with Mike Tirico and Tony Kornheiser. I think that culture overrates Monday Night Football and, in specific, the Monday Night Football announcing crew. It was, apparently, great at some point before my birth and since then everybody had been trying to "fix" it. There was Dennis Miller. There was Al and John. The section on ESPN obtaining Monday Night Football is interesting and intense. Former ESPN head honcho is now negotiating for the NFL and negotiates ESPN into a corner by obtaining deals for all the other NFL games with other networks, including dealing with ubiqutous NBC executive Dick Ebersol. (I should note that Dick Ebersol shows up recently in a lot of books I am reading. In the SNL book, he runs SNL during its leaner years. In the book on Leno v. Conan, he is there battling with Conan. Here, he shows up as a competitor to ESPN and blasts ESPN openly and repeatedly.)
ESPN is left with overpaying for Monday Night Football, probably by hundreds of millions of dollars. They are desperate to make it the best it can be. The book spends a lot of time on how they tried to revolutionize the booth by bringing in a non-football guy in Kornheiser. Tirico did this. Kornheiser did that. Tirico says this! Kornheiser says that! They even have Bill Simmons (who comes off incredibly entitled and unprofessional in this book) discussing it. Bill Simmons had nothing to do with anything! I just didn't care after a while about how they were changing the game of announcing. They abandoned it after a few years anyway, so how good could their revolution have been????
4. Another criticism was that it is difficult to follow all the suits. Now, obviously, the story of ESPN involves a lot of off-air talent. Over 30 years, a lot of executives have come and gone, many of which making impressive contributions to the growth of ESPN. I read Shales and Miller's previous book on Saturday Night Live and the amount of off-air talent there is minimal. Besides Dick Ebersol, it's like Lorne Michaels (and he's essentially on-air by this point). So, with that book (which was only about 500 pages long, although I read it twice), you have this relationship with every person talking. You either like them or hate them or vaguely remember them or something. Either way, you know of them. Not the case with this book.
Here, there are so many people that are so integral to the growth of ESPN that you couldn't pick out of a line up of one person. It is not the authors' fault here, because they can't tell the story without speaking with or about all the suits. This is particularly problematic in the first 100 or so pages when they are talking about ESPN in the late 70s and early to mid 80s. Steve Berman and Bob Ley are pretty much the only guys you know a lot about. Most of the interviews are with or about suits instrumental to the infancy of ESPN. Most of the discussion is about developing revenue streams or negotiating carraige agreements with local cable companies. The discussion is about whether the Getty Board, which had ownership over ESPN at that time, would continue to fund ESPN despite the losses. There are discussions about trying to get rid of the Rasmussens, a father and son team that initially came up with the idea for ESPN. The discussions are about percentage of sales of the company to capital companies and stuff like that. From a business perspective, it is very interesting, I am sure. From a sports fans perspective, it seems much dryer. Nowhere near as thrilling as the SNL book where the first 100 pages plunge you into the initial, legendary cast of hilarous characters, each one more likely to be bloated and on drugs than the last.
5. However, once you get into the late 80s and early 90s, you start to see more front of the store discussion. Although there are still discussions of negotiating deals and succession plans for executives, it is also about Keith Olbermann fighting with higher ups or the processes over the creation of any number of easily relevant ESPN properties. Discussions of the management of the ESPYs, ESPN's awards show. Or the creation of the X Games, ESPN's Olympics for Extreme Sports. Or the rise of Pardon The Interruption, ESPN's most popular day-time talk show. Or the Detroit-Indiana NBA brawl, when fans and players literally brawled on the court and in the stands. And any other memorable TV experiences are much more interesting than whether or not John Walsh or Scotty Connal can instill a journalistic atmosphere around ESPN.
As you get into the 2000s, the book essentially jumps from ESPN moment to ESPN moment. I listened to ESPN sports writer Bill Simmons' podcast about this book. He had a similar thought. It is not as easy to put newer moments in context, the way they can with older moments. The book tends to run smoother earlier in the book when they can tie the moments together into "the rise of ESPN." Once ESPN rises, then it just sort of becomes "This moment occurred. Now, this moment occurred." Sometimes it can be disjointed and the enjoyment of that portion of the book relates to how much I genuinely care about the moment. ESPN college analyst Lou Holtz comparing University Of Michigan Coach Rich Rodriguez to Hitler? I'm in (and man is Dr. Holtz unapologetic). Somebody named Dana Jacobson getting drunk and swearing a lot at some luncheon? Eh, I don't really care. So, the latter part of the book seems uneven at parts.
The peak is probably the section about the 90s to me. Perhaps that is because I was watching a lot of ESPN at that time in my life, I do not know. But there were a lot of changes to the nature of sports programming then. Like I said the book lays out the argument that that time period was the key moment to the rise of ESPN and ESPN personalities. It's enough of on-air talent that I recognize to be an improvement over the 70s and 80s. It's less of "This seemingly important moment occurred and this seemingly important moment occurred" to be better than the stuff on the 2000s.
I kind of wish that the authors had provided their thoughts on the future of ESPN. In the Simmons' podcast, Jim Miller was interviewed and spoke about the future of SportsCenter. His thought process was that SportsCenter was revolutionary, because it gave you tons of highlights almost all day long. You didn't have to wait until 11:25 PM to see the highlights. And if you lived out of the vicinity of the team, you could finally see highlights for your team on SportsCenter, as compared to the local news. However, the future seems somewhat dimmer for SportsCenter. Nowadays, you can get your highlights almost immediately on your phone. My brother has the MLB package and can get highlights mere innings after they occur!
People still might watch SportsCenter if they have Olbermann or Patrick-style pairings. However, Miller stated that he doesn't believe the rotations provide that sort of "Must See TV" pairings as they have the same cookie-cutter people seemingly randomly placed in there from day to day. If you've already seen the highlights on the internet or your phone and you don't really care what the SportsCenter anchors think about things, then why even watch? It will be interesting to see if or how things change for ESPN going forward. That is not a part of the book, though.
In conclusion, this is an impressive book. It is just as gossipy as the SNL book and sometimes the gossip is ridiculously uninteresting to me. Others might like it. I don't think you have to be an ESPN addict to love this book, because enough background is given.
The bulk of the pages are an incredibly quick read (as quick as 745 pages can be) and give behind the scenes tales to many of my favorite announcers, studio people, or online writers. I wish I could talk more about all the little sections, but there are just too many. Erin Andrews peep hole video, where a popular on-air analyst was videotaped without her knowledge in her hotel room. Rush Limbaugh on NFL Countdown, where political analyst Rush Limbaugh spent 3 weeks on a popular NFL show before getting in hot water and being fired. The entire Stephan A. Smith saga, where an obnoxious man is made even more obnoxious and then fired! Just some of the many, many, many stories I wish I could go into. But then this review would be 745 pages!
I'll leave you with, as far as I can figure, the sole reference to Cal in the entire book. This section is about the Detroit-Indiana NBA brawl where Ron Artest went into the stands and it was just a big mess. John Saunders, who is apparently Canadian, got in trouble with ESPN higher ups for making comments on the studio show immediately after the fight, blasting the fans. I will now write word for word his words (including the repeated misspellings of Todd Bozeman's name) on the effect of fans' words and athletes:
"I was hosting College Gameday one time and Todd Boseman, the coach at Cal at the time, reached around and took a punch or a swing at a fan during a game, and the producer in my ear said," This just came over the wire, we gotta do this story, Todd Boseman threw a punch." And I said, "Does it say in the wire story why he threw a punch?" And he said, "No." Then I asked, "Does it say in the wire story what the fan behind the bench said to Boseman?" and the producer said, "No, it doesn't," and I said, "Then I'm not going to do the story. Because I guarantee you that the fan used the N word. That's the only thing I can think of that would cause a black coach to turn around and take a swing at a fan." The producer was trying to be adamant: "You gotta do this." I said, "Unless you're going to come down here, pull me out of the cchair, sit in the chair yourself, and do the story, those words are not coming out of my mouth." About an hour later, the wire came over again, and it turned out that was exactly the case. The fan had called him a nigger, and that's what had turned him, and so then I went with the story."