Dah dah dah, dah dah dah. That sound is as recognizable as any, unless you’ve been living under a rock for 30 years. The sound helps define the iconic brand of ESPN, just like the noise when you open a Windows computer or turn on NBC. “Those Guys Have All the Fun” is the ultimate history of ESPN as a network and as a brand, and the authors, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, have left no stone unturned, including an interview with John Colby, the creator of that legendary sound. Colby didn’t know he had created something so timeless until Charley Steiner pulled him aside and said, “Holy shit, man, do you know what’s going on with this dah dah dah thing?” Miller and Shales present this otherwise remarkable birth as just another day in Bristol during the early years of ESPN.
The 745-page book is authoritative because it is an oral history, told with the absolute minimum commentary by the authors. Nearly the entire book is comprised of interviews with all of the major and minor players in ESPN history. If you choose to read this, prepare to be impressed with the level of skill it takes as an author/interviewer to take 500 interviews, splice them up, and assemble them into an informative and entirely readable volume.
This book is not simply a story of sports. Sure, if you are a sports fan, you’ll love the behind the scenes details of the ESPYs, the cameos of sports superstars as they drop in Bristol to film Sports Center commercials, and the retelling of great moments in sports as they were perceived by the crew and staff at ESPN. This is also a business history book. From go, the authors put us in the backseat as we eavesdrop on a conversation between Bill and Scott Rasmussen as the father-and-son duo dream up the concept for a 24-hour cable news channel. Miller and Shales treat this with no less importance than when Bill Gates started tinkering around in his garage. Just thirty years later, ESPN is the crown jewel in the Disney/ABC empire and a cultural touchstone that connects the world. The business decisions that turned out to be steps in their march toward “world dominance,” as the authors call it, are the foundation of this book, and they are as interesting as any highlight of a great sporting event.
Perhaps the only way to tell this story is through oral history, given the fact that the personalities are so key to the story. There is simply no better way to describe the influence of SportsCenter than through the words of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. Indeed, it’s heartening to learn that the phrase “This is SportsCenter” originated from Keith’s disobedience and his decision to mock network executives who were mad that Dan and Keith repeatedly referred to SportsCenter as “The Big Show.” And only the words of Charley Steiner could accurately describe what is going on behind the scenes as the team watched Carl Lewis butchering the national anthem: “when we go to it on the show, I’m feeling like the kid in the back of the class with the substitute teacher and trying to hold the laugh in…the boogers are flying out of my nose, the tears are coming out of my eyes, and then I say, ‘That was the version written by Francis Scott Off-Key.’” (Watch the clip here.)
The entrepreneurial culture that was instilled early on at ESPN is present throughout. The company still takes risks, still suffers when the on-air talent act inappropriately without comprehending how their actions can cause a stir, and still seems like a place where youthful vigor can pay off if presented at the right moment. Take Mark Shapiro, the whiz-kid producer who scored the top job for the “100 Years of Sports” project at age 26, by responding to an offer for the number-two job by saying “What do you mean, number two?” Seems that “moxie” is a requirement for working at ESPN.
The network still struggles with race and gender issues. Miller and Shales give appropriate and critical treatment to the challenges faced by minority and female employees. Bill Creasy, an ESPN executive is actually quoted saying this: “I’m a great believer in having a lot of women around you while you work…I know it’s quite sexist, but when you have a pretty girl around the office, it’s a little bit happier than having an ugly girl.” Sort of inappropriately funny, but not at all when you think about Erin Andrews having her privacy violated by a sick fan. While I’m not sure the ESPN we know today could have been borne of anything but a frat-house culture, the male-dominated culture led to real problems for those who worked there.
Several stories are relevant as business lessons no matter where you work. Former executive Bill Fitts is described as telling his team to throw away all written reports and notes because when they go to do something again in a year, it will force them to rethink and relearn. I think that’s actually great advice. George Bodenheimer, the future network president who talked his way into a mail room job, says near the end of the book that the “biggest tool I have for doing this job is that I am an optimist. I believe in this company’s ability to continue to grow by sticking to our mission of serving sports fans and looking for ways to do that better tomorrow than we do it today.” That’s just a ridiculously good leadership style worthy of any big-time CEO.
Be prepared for an enormous amount of fun in this book. Bob Ley, Bill Simmons, Tony Kornheiser, Chris Berman, and on and on and on—these are just remarkably funny and interesting people. There are literally hundreds of “cocktail party stories” to re-tell in this book, complete with clever observations, raunchy humor, and the cynicism you would expect in any modern newsroom. I laughed out loud several times while reading this, and I was also pleased that it reminded me of so many legendary sports moments. Case in point, the retelling of Berman’s decision to go silent for 22 minutes after Cal Ripken, Jr. broke the streak. Brilliant. The book is attentive to the high points of the network: Jimmy Valvano’s speech at the ESPYs and the thoughtful reporting around the Atlanta Olympics bombing; and the low points: LeBron’s “Decision” and Rush Limbaugh’s stint on NFL Primetime.
In the acknowledgments, the authors thank ESPN for changing course and agreeing to be part of the book. It would have been a terrible mistake had they opted-out. The book, despite its airing of plenty of dirty laundry, is also an homage to the influence of the network. If you are a brand manager at the network, it’s even more, it’s a giant wet kiss. You can’t read this book and not appreciate the importance of the network. In fact, you can’t read this book without wanting to spend a Saturday on the couch, watching Channel 1301 and wishing you worked in Bristol. Like the story of so many start-ups, the history is fascinating, and in this case, it’s only made more, well, awesome, by the fact that it revolves around sports.
Final note, a shout-out to my pals on Adena Trail, who requested that I read this book. Many thanks for steering me to it; I’m not sure I would otherwise have been willing to carry around for two weeks a book that is the size of a cinder block.
Thanks for reading.