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Review: “Those Guys Have All the Fun, Inside the World of ESPN”

For many sports fans, it may be hard to imagine a time without ESPN. It’s even harder to imagine there was a time when people would hear a proposal for a 24 hour sports network and say “That will never work.” Fortunately, some influential people in the right places were willing to bet otherwise.

“Those Guys have all the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” reads as an oral history ESPN. It is the story of the network as told by the employees (both current and former), athletes, competitors, and other influential people. It tracks the network’s growth from it’s beginnings as a simple idea by a father and son team, to it’s lofty perch as the self proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” If you are hoping for a TMZ-style documentary that deals with dirt and assorted bad behavior you’ll probably be disappointed. Although, some of that stuff is in the book, it really takes a back seat to the business deals, news events, and the personalities.

The authors, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, let the characters tell the story with occasional narrative to set the background. The executives, which include every ESPN President, are as much a part of the book as the on air talent. Weaved throughout the book, are a set of nine steps the authors identify as crucial to “ESPN’s world domination.” These are key components that were pivotal, and in some cases essential, to the survival and success of ESPN.

Bristol, Connecticut and it’s decidedly remote location is also a common theme throughout the book. You’ll come to find out not only why ESPN planted it’s seeds in Bristol, but how that location helped form the company culture.

Of the company’s many on-air personalities, perhaps no one is more discussed than Keith Olbermann. It’s clear that Olbermann still evokes a reaction in everyone who worked with him. Not everyone liked him, but virtually everyone testifies to his brilliance. Much is made of the controversial decision to move Olbermann from his wildly popular spot as co-host of the 11PM SportsCenter with Dan Patrick, to ESPN’s new channel ESPN2. Olbermann, who believed the move was pure folly, (as did virtually every viewer of the 11PM SportsCenter) launched ESPN2’s programming by saying into the camera “Welcome to the end of my career.”

Somewhere around 550 people were interviewed by Miller and Shales. Tony Kornheiser, Chris Berman, and Bill Simmons are also among the more heavily profiled of the on-air personalities. There are also those former employees who are no longer with us, such as Jim Valvano. Particularly powerful and heart-wrenching is the description of “Jimmy V’s” legendary speech during the first edition of the ESPY Awards. What the world saw on live TV was merely half the story. The authors document the behind the scenes drama in which friends and colleagues doubted that Valvano would even have the strength to make it to the award show, or even walk across the stage. Not only did he take the stage, Valvano delivered a speech which ultimately became one of the most indelible moments in ESPN’s broadcast history. Dick Vitale is quoted in the book as saying, “How he was able to get up there and how he was able to deliver that speech is beyond me.”

The behind the scenes stories are often wonderful, but sadly feel too few and far between. You will also find moments when an interesting subject is broached only to be quickly tossed aside without going into any depth. Stories jump sharply at times from one topic to a seemingly unrelated topic with no warning or segue. This can make the narrative hard to follow at times, especially when those telling the story aren’t familiar on-air personalities, but rather executives, producers, or other unfamiliar employees. Being an oral history, there are naturally differing viewpoints of a single event. Frequently you will get a viewpoint from one employee, only to have it followed by a varying viewpoint from someone else.

You also have the major news stories both in the world of sports and those that transcended the genre. The OJ Trial, to Tyson-Douglas fight, Pete Rose gambling, and the San Francisco earthquake are among the stories profiled and helped raise the profile of ESPN.

You will enjoy this book if…
  • If you have watched and enjoyed ESPN from it’s inception (or shortly thereafter) and are familiar with most of the on-air talent and programming throughout the years
  • if you find subjects like negotiating TV contracts with major sports leagues and acquiring satellite transponders interesting (or, at least, they don’t bore you).
  • if you are interested in ESPN’s history, even if you don’t recall the early days of the network
You will be disappointed with this book if…
  • If you are completely uninterested in the business end of ESPN, and TV production, and only want to read about the on air personalities.
  • if you are looking for a lot of tabloid-style “dirt.”
  • if you haven’t watched ESPN long enough to remember Patrick and Olbermann on SportsCenter, or better yet, you’ve never heard Chris Berman drop nicknames like Jose “Can You See” Cruz and John “Tonight Let it Be” Lowenstein.
The Bottom Line

You may not find it to be the end-all-be-all book of ESPN. There undoubtedly will be subjects that you wish were more fully developed, and others that you’ll feel got more attention than deserved. As I began reading this book, the 750+ pages seemed rather daunting. When I finished, I found myself wanting more. The book isn’t for everyone, but for the insatiable sports geek like myself who grew up on ESPN, and can remember watching Australian Rules Football, the CFL, and even Yacht racing, this book is will be a delight.

Purchase

The book retails for a whopping $28, so if you are planning on picking up a copy, do yourself a favor and buy Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN from Amazon or one of the other online retailers where you can pick it up at nearly half-price.

If you have an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch you can download Those Guys Have All the Fun iBook from iTunes or the App Store.

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