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An oral history of how a PR man, an oil company slickster, and a lot of sports nuts created ESPN
Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPNBy James Andrew Miller and Tom ShalesLittle, Brown; 784pp; $27.99
In 1980, as he entered the embittered-crank years of his dotage, Howard Cosell lamented that ours had become a "sick, sports-obsessed country." The founders of ESPN, then a wobbly year-old enterprise, must have heard this comment and thought, "From your mouth to God's ears, buddy." For in those days, the concept of a 24-hour sports channel, far from making perfect sense, seemed radical: an idea that could only have been dreamed up by ... well, a sick, sports-obsessed mind.
That mind belonged to Bill Rasmussen, a hustler who had been living on the fringes of sports-world respectability. In 1978 he was fired from his job as a PR man for the New England Whalers, a World Hockey Assn. team located in the small-market town of Hartford, Conn. Picking up the pieces of his career, Bill, along with a son in his early twenties, Scott, decided to go entrepreneurial: What if they started a cable channel devoted entirely to Connecticut sports?
As we learn in James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales's rollicking oral history of ESPN, Those Guys Have All the Fun, it was only upon meeting with a representative from RCA's satellite division that the Rasmussens realized they would be able to beam their signal across the whole U.S. of A., making national sports programming a viable option. "Bill and Scott were looking at each other," recalls that RCA rep, Al Parinello, in the book, "and they might have been getting sexually excited, I'm not sure. But I can tell that they were very, very excited."
This naughty, weren't-we-wacky tone, redolent of tales retold over beers at the 30th reunion of a particularly self-satisfied band of fraternity brothers, runs rampant in Those Guys Have All the Fun. There is also considerable deployment of the words "balls" and "ballsy," usually by men describing their own actions.
Modesty is not a prevailing trait among Miller and Shales's 500-plus interviewees. Nevertheless, Those Guys is, for much of its ample length, an engaging read—its intrigue often enhanced by the very egotism of its principals. That old adage about success having a thousand fathers? So true. Bill Rasmussen may have provided the initial spark, but he was quickly shunted aside into a figurehead role, and page after page is consumed by the testimony of various executives, old sports-TV hands, and on-air personalities claiming that they were the ones that led the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network from its scrappy origins to its current status as the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
While there's plenty of juicy stuff throughout for readers looking for gossip about their favorite SportsCenter anchors (even the kind, imperturbable charter anchor Bob Ley uses a cuss word in discussing the loathed Keith Olbermann's departure from the network, saying it triggered "unrestrained [bleeping] joy"), the narrative is most appealing in the early going, which crackles with the excitement of an empire being built and a sensibility being born. Miller and Shales cross-cut deftly among their inter- viewees to convey something close to the real-time exhilaration these people felt when ESPN secured the broadcast rights to early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, or turned the America's Cup yacht race into compelling TV, or did the deals—then unheard of in the business—to make cable operators pay on a per-subscriber basis to carry the network.
It's also fun to time-travel back into the quaint days when start-ups were the domain not of slick venture capitalists and insouciant Harvard kids in hoodies but of middle-aged desperados and old-line, blue-chip moneymen. ESPN was kept afloat in its formative years by Getty Oil, and among the book's greatest behind-the-scenes characters is Stuart Evey, the Getty executive who served as the liaison between the network's petro-overlords and its day-to-day managers. A vestige even then of the Mad Men era ("He was the kind of manager that could only survive in a fairly unprofessional corporate environment," one colleague observes), Evey was a swingin', high-functioning alcoholic—miraculously still alive and now sober—who exasperated his charges with his meddling, boozing, and tomcatting. To his credit, though, he kept the Getty cash flowing in.
The most fascinating character in the book, though, is the sleepy central Connecticut town of Bristol, where, by dint of the original Rasmussen connection, ESPN put down roots. On one hand, Bristol's Nowheresville status was a boon, allowing the network to develop in a vacuum, away from the judgments of the media know-it-alls of New York. On the other hand, Bristol's isolation was a detriment to the social lives of the network's employees, its younger ones especially. Several figures vent their grievances on this front; the longtime SportsCenter stalwart Gary Miller flat-out disses the town as a "wasteland," while the former network chairman, Steve Bornstein (now head of the NFL Network), partly attributes ESPN's recurring sexual harassment issues to the "frat house" atmosphere that the company's isolation engendered.
Today, professional athletes consider it a mark of arrival to be invited to the Bristol campus to star in one of those goofball-vérité "This is SportsCenter" ads, and ESPN hums on indomitably, a jewel of the Walt Disney (DIS) empire, with multiple channels, a magazine, a radio network, the NFL's Monday Night Football package, and the best Web presence in sports. Yet the book bogs down as ESPN's success snowballs. Those Guys Have All the Fun has the same problem as another epic tome of our time, Keith Richards's Life. Once the dizzying climb to the top is achieved, a degree of insignificant-anecdote fatigue sets in. Just as no one really cares about Keef's latter-day memories of filming Pirates of the Caribbean, no one, but no one, really needs to know the insider details of the bidding war between CBS and ESPN for the services of sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein.
This injudicious lack of pruning aside, there are still plenty of mini-plots worth cherry-picking from the book's second half. There's new light shed, for example, on the messy 2003 experiment of adding Rush Limbaugh to the Sunday NFL Countdown team. And the authors don't shy away from addressing the lingering issue of institutional misogyny and malfeasance, or at least the perception of it as perpetuated by blogs like Deadspin and by the sex scandals involving baseball analyst Steve Phillips and football commentator Sean Salisbury.
In their previous mega-thick oral history, Live from New York, Miller and Shales included a quote from Tina Fey about how settled an institution Saturday Night Live has become in its middle age. "The Seventies and the 21st century are just so different," Fey says. "There's no drugs and there's no sex at the show now. I would have been terrified if I was back here in the old days." The later pages of Those Guys Have All the Fun offer no such picture of chastity, unity, contentment, or reconciliation. The frat-boy antics continue, the ego clashes persist, and there are tiffs going on that we innocent sports fans have no idea about (Chris Berman vs. Tony Kornheiser? Bill Simmons vs. Mike Tirico?).
ESPN, even in its dominance, remains a volatile place: the product not of one visionary but rather an alchemical mix of luck, timing, shoe leather, talent, and the insatiable appetite of this sick, sports-obsessed country.