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The ESPN Book Review: “Those Guys Have All The Fun”

Those Guys Have All The Fun gives readers an inside look at the personalities at ESPN

The anticipation surrounding the oral history of the embattled “four letter network” and self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports,” ESPN, entitled Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN was comparable to that of a summer blockbuster movie release. The rumored aggregate amount of information - coming directly from those who were at the conglomerate during it’s infancy, rise to eminence, and even now – coupled with scribe James Andrew Miller’s already impressive research and subsequent work on the Saturday Night Live book exacerbated the hype. By the time of it’s release, the fanfare of  Those Guys pushed the hope for it’s success to a summitt of expectation that could not be reached for it’s core audience.

Miller’s access is unparalleled, and the style of the tome adheres to the authenticity readers are ultimately looking for. Miller interviews a prolific amount of subjects to retrieve his desired material, and deploys quotes onto the pages of Those Guys where he feels appropriate.

The book reads like a play. The only instances Miller interjects into the narrative is to push along the story to a contempourous issue, person, or subject.  He is there to create segue-ways where necessary, so in other words, the book is all words from ESPNers.

(Side Note: I’m confused as to why so many aristocrats, either formerly employed by ESPN or currently still enthralled in its operation, felt the need to be candid about their experiences. I expostulated, with myself, that many executives and on-air talent felt a great deal of compunction in regards to the content Miller had gathered. My feeling is the thought process was, “Crap!? I may need to defend myself. What if so-and-so talked about that time where I acted like an ass?”)

After garnering and conducting the plethora of interviews, early on it’s apparent, Miller arranges his firt-hand accounts to find out the answer to his superseding theme: How did ESPN rise to rule the sports world?

And that’s fine. No quarrels here. But the book was billed on much more than that and, at the end of the day, fails to deliver on those levels.

“I’m Not a Businessman. I’m A BUSINESS, MAN!!!”

The book’s first 250 pages mostly involve how the idea for an all-sports network was conceived and implored. Basically, Those Guys is a large lesson in on-again-off-again good business practices.

A couple takeaways:

  • The uncertainty of whether an all-sports network being pragmatic is high comedy today.
  • ESPN, first known as ESP, was purchased by Getty Oil under the supervision of Stu Evey. Evey is a star early, and not in the good way. Dude drank like he was a cast member of Animal House BEFORE MEETINGS.

The rest of the book reverts back to business constantly. Whether it’s TV production deals, appointing executives, or figuring out other onerous financial situations — business becomes the forefront of the book’s content. For me this is fine, because I come from a business background, but Miller’s inclusion of Roger Werner’s epiphany on how to create a dual revenue stream via subscription fees undoubtedly is a conduit of readers losing interest.

I did enjoy certain executives being elevated, and their stories. Current president, George Bodenheimer, started the company as a driver and mail room staff member. That’s crazy. Other directors were known for implementing their programming ideologies on the company. Seemingly every director of programming had pros and cons. For example John Walsh is credited for making SportsCenter the product it is revered to be today. On the other hand, in many instances, Walsh obfuscated other productions such as The ESPY’s and ESPN the Magazine. Meanwhile, wunderkid Mark Shapiro created the lauded Sporscentury documentary series in the late ’90s, which led to a promotion. His tenure stressed original programming like PTI, Around the Horn, and other more controversial shows like, PlayMakers.

Other interesting tidbits included ESPN’s botching of the MNF TV deal. At the time, ESPN held the rights to the Sunday night package. ABC, like ESPN owned by parent company Disney, relinquished the venerated MNF package. ESPN could have swooped in, and bought rights to both contracts.

An interesting side story was former executive, Steve Bornstein, being on the other side of negotiations with the NFL on the deal, after being unceremoniously exiled from ESPN. He strong-armed his former employees, and ESPN in-turn waivered. Soon, ESPN found itself not only losing their Sunday night football package to NBC, but also paying double for MNF and receiving ZERO PLAYOFF GAMES.

Shapiro’s lack of people-skill hurt in this deal, and was detrimental in losing the legendary booth of Al Michaels/John Madden. Replacing that duo has been a perpetual issue for the company.

On Air Talent

Chris Berman and Bob Ley (known as ”The General” in Bristol) come off like the Beatles. They were the first rock-stars of ESPN, and they know it. Ley is like Paul McCartney, gregarious yet frank. On the other side of the spectrum, Berman is like Lennon. He clearly lost perspective of his role in sports medium over the years. I can’t say he romanticized the significance of his stay – that would be an understatement. Let’s put it this way, at one point, Berman goes as far as to say that his NFL highlight show, Primetime, “Made football famous.” Yikes.

If the Lee/Berman contingent are the Beatles, then Keith Olbermann comes across as arrogant and frustrating as Oasis. He had a couple of hits, helped give SportsCenter the residence in pop-culture lure it has today, but his demeanor is disgusting and he comes off like an ass. He calls himself a team player, but then says things like, “The reason I tend to disagree with management so much is that I’m generally right.” In the same token, Olbermann’s clarivoyant work on SportsCenter is documented well. And his peers marvel at his ability to host and write the show. One gets the sentiment that if a referendum was instituted Olbermann would be named, “Best host.”

The sexy content promised in the hype is delivered. There are stories of debauchery. The issue is that Miller’s audience is likely to have known of the aforementioned transgressions before the tome’s release.

People reading Those Guys could have already told you about Mike Tirico’s sexual conduct issues, and the fact that Keith Olberman is both brilliant but a pompous a-hole at the same time. And although the first-hand accounts are refreshing, one could just as easily go through Deadspin archives to find out information related to Sean Salisbury’s penis incident.

The interviews did give us some strong talent-on-talent backstabbing. Tony Kornheiser and Chris Berman don’t get along, because Berman thinks TK trashed him on the Internet. Bill Simmons belittles the company for punishing him but not Boston local sports radio station, WEEI, after Simmons attacked Glenn Ordway on Twitter. Again, all stuff easily found on the Internet.

The one aspect of the interviews which is – for of a lack better word – cool, is reliving the funny instances you forget over the years from the eyes of the production teams and talent that helped shape those very moments. Whether it is Suzy Kolber regurgitating the “Joe Namath: I want to kiss you” episode or the “Ron Artest Brawl,” the book provides a behind-the-scenes forum for sports fans never achieved before.

Final Thoughts: Is This Book for Me?

As I already mentioned, Those Guys does educate readers as to how ESPN became what it is today. The back-stories, minuscule decisions that would later become paragon, and evolution involving ESPN is capitulating. It’s compelling and interesting, however, that content falls under the category of business, and not necessarily drama.

The debauchery is overplayed, and not necessarily satiating. It’s no more scandolous than an episode of Jersey Shore. Furthermore, I already knew most of the information pertinent to the juicy content. Then again, this stuff is right in my wheelhouse. This stuff is like porn to me. I frequent sites like The Big Lead and Deadspin multiple times in a day. So maybe the transgressions are more novel to Jon Doe.

I think a more important theme or lesson involving Those Guys is how prevalent this side of the sports world is. One could argue - somewhere along the way - the interviewers, reporters, analysts, and anchors became just as fascinating as the subjects they are covering.

About Ryan Hadfield

Ryan Hadfield is the author of the weekly Sports Media Musings column at Sports Of Boston. Hadfield is known as one of the top sports media critics in Boston. He also contributes to Boston Sports Media Watch. In November 2011, Hadfield helped launch the new SoB Point Taken blog featuring his podcasts & musings on sports, media and culture. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

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