Most helpful positive review
104 of 122 people found the following review helpful
Inside ESPN: The Oral History of the Mothership
on May 29, 2011
James Andrew Miller's--its obvious from the Introduction to the Acknowledgments to the writing itself that the sports-indifferent Tom Shales main contribution was lending his name to the project--THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN is an engaging, if overly long, look at what has made ESPN the media and cultural phenomena that it is. Using an oral history format, the narrative runs from ESPN's humble beginnings to its current status of world domination. According to Miller, there were nine steps in ESPN's history that fell perfectly for the company not only to survive, but to rise to the top of its field.
1) Original founders Bill and Scott Rasmussen's decision to buy a transpounder on RCA SATCOM I in 1978.
2) Getty Oil's investment of $15 million in May of 1979.
3) Creating a dual revenue stream in March 1983.
4) Coverage of the America's Cup Challenge in 1987.
5) Getting TV rights to NFL games in 1987.
6) The $400 million, 4-year MLB deal in 1989.
7) The mid-90s generated "THIS IS SPORTSCENTER" advertizing campaign.
8) The acquisition of a full season of NFL games in 1998.
9) The documentary series SPORTSCENTURY.
The main players behind the scenes receive as much attention as the talent on screen. The Rasmussens have the idea, and negotiate an incredibly unlikely start, but are almost immediately kicked out the door by Stu Evey, the moneyman from Getty, and Chet Simmons, the legendary NBC producer. By the mid-1980s, Evey and Simmons were replaced by Bill Grimes and Steve Bornstein. By the 2000s, the respected and congenial George Bodenheimer was teamed with talented, but utterly brash Mark Shapiro. What didn't change, however, was Bristol, the little Connecticut village that is as much a character as any. To say that the talent didn't like living in Bristol would be an understatement. Better to work all day than to have an off day in Bristol.
Miller, however, realizes that the best copy is always the talent. The main groupings are the professionals (Bob Ley, Robin Roberts, Charlie Steiner, Dan Patrick), the performers (Chris Berman, Craig Kilborn, Stephen A. Smith) and the out-of-control but immensely talented (Keith Olbermann). Smart, quick and insufferable, Olbermann's five years provide material enough for a separate volume. Miller writes, "Have Keith Theodore Olbermann spend a few seasons working at your TV network and see how you feel. Sort of like Kansas after a twister." On a level below Olbermann in talent (in Miller's eyes), but on the same level of being a whinny pain in-the-you-know-what is Bill Simmons.
Those whom Miller exposes as being less than what they appear are Mike Tirico, Linda Cohn and Chris Berman. Tirico, rightly or wrongly, refused to give Tony Kornheiser any love in the MNF booth. Cohn's self-absorption tops Olbermann's. Berman is shown to be incapable of not being linked to the NFL, and also gave a cold shoulder to Kornheiser.
Those whom Miller loves are Kirk Herbstreit and College GameDay ("a show prized as if it were the Golden Fleece and Hope Diamond put together"), Robin Roberts ("an unmistakeable aura of authority, a true pro's unflappability"), and Michelle Beadle ("humble but fearless standout").
Miller's previous connections with WASHINGTON POST alum such as Kornheiser and John Walsh lead to very positive portrayals of their roles. The one glaring editing mistake of the book (apart from spelling Jim Nantz's name Jim Nance), however, is connected with a virtual repeat of the quotes on pages 607-608 and 676-677 dealing with Kornheiser's 3-year run on MNF. It is apparent that Miller takes the same Tirico clip and edits it two ways, and also uses the same John Skipper piece with slightly different editing. For such a professional job throughout, seeing the repetition stuck out like a sore thumb.
Surprisingly, some of the more profound statements are found from Rick Reilly, who was beaten to a pulp in Malcolm MacCambridge's history of SI. Reilly points out that ESPN.COM exponentially spreads his column in a way that SI never could. He also recognizes the difference between those who learned the trade with fences (a 800 word column limit) versus those who learned on the internet (Simmons) without fences and battle to retain every word.
Dan Patrick is also surprising. Given the light-heartedness of his radio show, he doesn't come off as a family man, but that is the main reason he left ESPN. He wanted more time with his family, sometime that he had abandoned under the regime of Mark Shapiro. When ESPN didn't relent from their demands, he came to the conclusion that ESPN cared mainly about the profit, and not the talent.
And, that is the thread that runs through the story of ESPN as a whole. Business comes first. It comes first over the content. It comes first over the talent. It comes first over family. With that paradigm in place, the dream goal of the 1980s was realized in the 2000s--making ESPN a way of life. Welcome to the Mothership.