ESPN’s History Isn’t All Flatulence Contests, Mooning: Review

The cover jacket of "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the world of ESPN" by authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. Source: Hachette Book Group via Bloomberg

Everything about television sports network ESPN is bigger than life.

There are the personalities that light up SportsCenter. The big attitude and grand showmanship. The titanic rivalries, the scandals, the intrigues. The fortunes risked and made. And now the oral history that has been so heavily promoted.

“Those Guys Have All the Fun,” by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, is bigger than life all right. At 763 pages, it’s twice the length of the new translation of “Madame Bovary” -- but not likely to remain on bookshelves nearly as long.

Advance tales of the juicy stuff in this volume have been burning up the Internet. Sex, drugs and play-by-play, you might say. Except there’s not much sex, very little drugs and far, far too much of the play-by-play of how ESPN went from being a network to a brand, from an idea to an ethos -- or from a buffet of televised sports to a conglomerate that even includes restaurants.

There are some intriguing nuggets in this too-high haystack, and most of them have to do with business rather than sports or even the business of sports. That’s because the story of ESPN is in part the story of money -- first Getty Oil Co. money, then Anheuser-Busch advertising money, finally big-time television money beginning when it was bought by ABC in 1984.

In short, it’s more about the entrepreneurial spirit than the spirited high jinks of the guys who have all the fun by going to games, or talking about games, for a living.

Michael Eisner

The passages about Walt Disney Co. chief executive Michael Eisner, for example, will draw substantial attention. Eisner says here that in the days before “The Lion King” hit the screen in 1994 he was searching for “an acquisition that would add a new dimension” to Disney.

He went after Capital Cities/ABC but says his eyes were really on the company’s ESPN unit.

“It was all about ESPN, and only ESPN,” he says. “The valuation that we at Disney made for the ABC network during our due diligence for the acquisition of all the CapCities/ABC assets was zero.”

Steve Bornstein, former chief executive of ESPN, says Eisner is full of malarkey, considering that ABC was the No. 1 network at the time and was “probably throwing off a billion dollars.”

“Michael Eisner will turn any circumstance into why he was a prescient genius,” Bornstein says.

If you pick up this volume looking for the dirt rather than the deals, you will happily learn about the flatulence competition, though of course this dreary derby went by a much cruder name, and find a gripping account of how Dan Patrick, one of the ESPN anchors, mooned his colleague Gary Miller on Interstate 84 in Connecticut.

No Gay Talese

This is, in short, not “The Kingdom and the Power,” the classic 1969 Gay Talese chronicle of the dramas inside the New York Times. It is, instead, comprehensive to a fault and compelling only if your entire life revolves around SportsCenter and you’re determined to learn the inside story about the Peeping Tom episode involving reporter Erin Andrews, and you know who you are.

As oral history, “Those Guys” will be a valuable resource to the fellows who decide to write a real book about ESPN, which besides being the go-to place for college basketball, Sunday night baseball and the World Series of Poker, is a legitimate cultural force in American life.

These pages are stuffed with interviews, some with an appealing back-and-forth rhythm, much like a tennis game. But it’s not a narrative, and the casual reader, or worse yet the casual ESPN grazer, will have virtually no idea what the book is about, to say nothing of what the fuss is about.

“Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” is published by Little, Brown (763 pages, $27.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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