Time to call together the AA Book Club for the first (and probably-but-hopefully-not last) time. For the last week or more, Those Guys Have All The Fun by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales has gripped the sports world like a Brett Favre retirement, Barry Bonds steroid case, and Tiger Woods affair all wrapped into one neat, 745 page package. Yes, everyone is correct in saying that the book is probably 100-200 pages too long. However, the size of the book, the story that it tells, and the stories inside the pages make Those Guys the authoritative book on ESPN… the Bible of Bristol, if you will.
As the authors make clear in the introduction, the book is not about the history of ESPN, but rather, it tells the story of ESPN. This was a crucial decision, because the first person storytelling format is an enjoyable and easy read and at least makes the massive length of the book more bearable. From crazy idea about a 24 hour sports channel launched by Bill and Scott Rasmussen in a northeastern traffic jam to a multi-billion dollar company led by George Bodenheimer, Those Guys chronicles each of ESPN’s critical steps on its rise to world dominance. In fact, Miller and Shales chronicle nine such seminal steps that brought ESPN to the top of the sports world. These steps are as obvious as garnering NFL and MLB rights to surprises like the 1987 America’s Cup coverage, This is SportsCenter ad campaign, or the initial dual revenue stream (selling advertising + cable fees).
The book is successful in telling the reader everything you would probably ever need or want to know about ESPN. I was born in 1986, so the realized part of my existence has always seen ESPN as the behemoth in sports television. The book was enlightening to a younger fella like myself in telling the story of how exactly ESPN survived and thrived in the world of early cable TV. In fact, most of our audience and the younger crowd may be disappointed to learn that the majority of the book focuses on the actual business of building a network and a brand… not sex & drugs, talent feuds, or other salacious details (although there is a mention of farting contests between Dan Patrick and Gary Miller, can’t believe that hasn’t gotten any serious questions yet)… however, it was these very details that I surprisingly found to be most interesting…
Those Guys Have All The Fun is centered around the personalities that built and shaped ESPN. Without characters like the Rasmussens, Stuart Evey, Chet Simmons, John Walsh, John Lack, Don Ohlmeyer, Ted Turner, Michael Eisner, Mark Shapiro, and George Bodenheimer, the book would suffer dramatically. Finding the compelling stories amidst 745 pages of corporate yarn would appear to be as easy as trying to find the next American tennis star. Nevertheless, it is these people, their personalities, their stories, and their conflict, that form the heart and soul of Those Guys.
Stuart Evey, the man that led Getty Oil to fund the earliest days of ESPN is an insane, drunk, rich insider that is one of the most compelling characters in the book. His triangular feud with ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen, and first ESPN President Chet Simmons makes you wonder how in the world the network got off the ground without imploding from the inside out.
There’s Ted Turner’s near beginning to end quest to bring down ESPN including preposterously bidding $17 million dollars to broadcast live Division II football games in the 80s leading to a huge loss. He then reappears to battle Disney’s Michael Eisner in a scene straight out of Family Guy.
Santa Claus lookalike John Walsh rolls into Bristol with an emphasis and a passion for journalism and news. His clashes with MTV creator John Lack and others as they turn SportsCenter into the preeminent sports TV franchise and launch ESPN2, ESPN the Magazine, and ESPN Radio are fascinating reading.
Sports broadcasting titan Don Ohlmeyer weaves in and out of the book like a powerful rival mafia boss. He appears periodically throughout as sometimes friend, sometimes enemy, but always someone to be feared and respected in the business.
Boy genius Mark Shapiro aggressively begins his career by screaming into Jim Rome’s ear on his ESPN2 show. Within a few years, he’s leading SportsCentury, rising through the executive structure, and taking the network to even bigger heights… and leaving a Shermanesque trail of destruction in the process. He leaves ESPN as quckly as he arrived to work for Dan Snyder and Six Flags.
George Bodenheimer emerges as the impossible hero of Those Guys that rises from mail room worker and driver to the President of ESPN, a company larger than the NFL and the NBA/NHL/MLB combined. Bodenheimer is the antithesis of Shapiro – well-liked by everybody in the book and someone that his employees would run through brick walls for in an instant.
It is these compelling characters not named Berman, Olbermann, Kornheiser, and Simmons that make Those Guys a success. The blogosphere and most fans will run to the stories about the explosive Monday Night Football booth, Bill Simmons taking on the world, Keith Olbermann being Keith Olbermann, and anything about drugs and sex… but it’s the largely untold stories from behind the scenes at ESPN that stand out. Of course, those stars of ESPN also take a starring role in Those Guys. Tony Kornheiser and Bill Simmons bring a refreshing honesty and openness to their lives at ESPN. It’s stunning to see how Simmons clashes with editors and execs and admits he was very close to leaving the network, but stayed because of his closeness to John Walsh and ESPN exec John Skipper. TK is unafraid to call out any or everyone in his comments. Chris Berman is as brash and boorish as his TV personality, admitting he doesn’t know Simmons and saying that Primetime made the NFL. ESPN mainstay Bob Ley is the Yoda of Bristol. Jack Edwards shows the patriotic, rebellious zeal of a modern day Paul Revere. Keith Olbermann is the brilliant, but troubled soul that ultimately self-destructs.
As the book ends, it presents the ever evolving nature of ESPN. When the company was founded by the Rasmussens, there was no way to envision ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN3.com, televising all the major sports leagues, launching the X Games, SportsCenter running live for hours, ESPN being worldwide, and the most successful and notable sports media company in the world. Those Guys comes full circle with the same excitement about the concept of a 24/7 sports channel in the present day that existed when the Rasmussens began the ESP Network. Because sports is always evolving and changing, ESPN will always be evolving and changing. In another 32 years, the company will look drastically different once again. Hopefully we’ll be treated to a sequel in 2045.
On the Gus Johnson scale, Those Guys Have All The Fun comes in at Game Winning Hail Mary excitement.