Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Those Guys Have All the Fun" by James Andrew Miller & Tom Shales

Just finished reading Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. It did drag on at times in it's 750 odd pages, but was a worthwhile read for anyone interested in sports… and particularly sports journalism.

Here’s what stuck with me from it…

Style of the Book

It was written as an oral history with segments of interviews done with people in the business or related in some way to ESPN (both within and outside the company). Some 500+ interviews by Shales and Miller went into this effort and there’s frequently interspersed text from the authors linking together the interview segments. At first I thought the book would lack in narrative flow, but I’d say it worked fairly well as an approach.

That said, I did have jump out to me one interview segment given in two different places in the book (ESPN exec John Skipper about personality Tony Kornheiser on page 677 as well as 610). Maybe this was done intentionally rather than being a mistake in construction then overlooked in the editing process, but I found it pretty jarring as a reader.

ESPN Business Early On

It was pretty interesting reading how the idea for ESPN began with the intention of showing local Connecticut sports, but then the realization that it cost no more to send a signal nationally. Shortly after this was made what turned out to be the brilliant decision to buy a satellite transponder for broadcasts when it was still relatively inexpensive as cable was a new thing. These early years were pretty fast and loose (with Stuart Evey as the Getty Oil money guy helping lead the party charge), but the business took hold… in large part due to the dual revenue stream of both advertising dollars and cable operators paying to run the channel.

Content on the ESPN Networks

It came across in the book that the deals with various sports properties drove the company forward (with the NFL being by far the most important partner), but also there was significant mention of key non-game broadcast content provided via various platforms (with the non-TV platforms obviously being more recent).

ESPN the Magazine was created to slap back at Sports Illustrated and their CNNSI sports network and (while I personally find the graphic-intensive delivery to be annoying) established a new way to reach the audience. Additionally, programs such as SportsCentury (produced by wunderkind and future exec Mark Shapiro) established ESPN as a credible news outlet and source for documentary filmmaking. Non-game content discussed at length in the book were successful programs like Pardon the Interruption with Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser and College Gameday.

Perhaps successful from a ratings perspective, but not critical view was the LeBron James spectacle “The Decision”... which showed the ongoing tightrope that ESPN had and continues to have to walk between journalism/reporting and game broadcasting/league partner.

Journalists at ESPN

In the beginning, ESPN put a focus on showing a professional production on screen and worked to have solid on-air talent. Among early hires were current notables like Chris Berman and Bob Ley. As time went on, there continued to be very interesting stories around the anchors and broadcasters, with Keith Olbermann and his acerbic brilliance often in conflict with management.

The closer to present-day stories about the writers for ESPN might have been the most compelling part of the book for me (with the following people featured)…

Buster Olney – excellent baseball writer and someone who puts incredibly long hours into the job.

Bill Simmons – created his Boston Sports Guy blog in 2001 and got noticed with a scathing review of that year’s ESPY Awards. Writes an enormous number of words and comes across as a bit of an ESPN outsider… and who runs the ESPN writing website Grantland.

Dan Patrick – one of the early stars at ESPN… left fairly recently and now does a weekly column for Sports Illustrated.

Rick Reilly – a former Sports Illustrated star writer (one of the only ones in the sports writing world)… came not long ago to ESPN and it’s various platforms (including of course, The Magazine).

Wright Thompson – excellent young writer for the ESPN website and it’s E:60 investigative journalism. Also does great content for Grantland.


The book could have I think been a bit shorter, but there was definitely solid content on an interesting and powerful (and with only around 6,000 employees worldwide) company.