One thing that can be said about the hardcover version of Those Guys Have All the Fun is that it is a heck of a doorstop, clocking in at 750 pages or so. Like Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, it is attempting to cover an incredibly comprehensive topic – the history of ESPN. The author James Miller, had success with this format before in his oral history of Saturday Night Live, so he took he same method to ESPN. In a sense, Miller did not write the book so much as he edited numerous interviews with tons of people, on air, off, famous and less so, from all aspects of the industry. You can’t say the book was not comprehensive. However, when we are talking about comprehensive research and copious editing, we are still thinking textbook virtues – but is the book actually, you know … entertaining? As an ESPN fan (or at least, observer), the book certainly was something I was looking forward to reading, but as the history of ESPN progressed, the story got progressively less compelling. Murray’s editing choices here raise some question – and the latter half of the book ends up reading much like idolatry, without a ton of deep substance.
The best parts of the book actually come fairly early. At the outset, we read about the Rasmussens, a troubled family and Bill Rasmussen who was, for all intents and purposes, the founder of ESPN. His vision of course was fairly limited, wanting to use this new cable tv to broadcast Connecticut sports. However, when the dish salesman tells him that a satellite can transmit everywhere – one is reminded of Jed Clampett running into some Texas Tea. The entire early history is fascinating – how slapdash the production was – the large promises of Rasmussen without any real delivery mechanism. In a lot of ways in the early days, it was a miracle for the shows to get on the air. And then with early deals with the NCAA and NFL things started to happen.
Murray tracks these sorts of developments through things he describes as “steps in ESPN’s rise to world domination”, which is a little smarmy sounding as a thesis, though understandable. Murray does a good job tracking the changes in management and how different managers’ decisions at specific times were key. The Rasmussens were key at their time with a big idea, but they did not know what to do next. The next level involving identifying the dual revenue stream so crucial to cable was interesting, and how they were stuck in very bad deals and how to get out of them. The behind the scenes drama here is fascinating.
However as the book trucks along, the challenges become more about what is happening on the air as the on-air product gets more refined. Murray gets amazing access to all of the major anchors and personalities people know, and perspectives on everything, including dish on each other which seems rather not team-playery. Bob Ley, Robin Roberts come off as pros. Chris Berman – the most famous of them all – is portrayed as a deeply simple, rather dumb man. Indeed he is quoted at one point saying “I’m a simple guy. I don’t watch TV. I don’t go on the Internet. So I never watched Playmakers, but I knew if the league was pissed, I probably should be pissed.” about the NFL, the sort of bowing to a master that a Brown University (among the most establishment-skeptic university cultures around) alumni might vomit at. He becomes the organization’s biggest star, and his depiction as a lunkhead ends up matching quite nicely with the Ted Baxters of any newsroom. The book’s most complicated and three dimensional personalities are Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann. They have been inextricably linked with their tour together on Sportscenter – but in a lot of ways they represented the core battle in the organization, between personalities on air trying to grow in their profile, against a network that desperately wants to keep cost down (and by extension the fame of its participants). Dan Patrick was a team player clearly, and seems like the nicest guy you’d want to meet there – the sort of guy who had the back of the working schlubs. Olbermann by contrast, decidedly did not – the student who was smarter than the teachers and had trouble hiding it. The book’s portrayal of Olbermann’s stormy time, his issues with Bristol, CT and the disaster that was Sportsnight on ESPN2 were among the best sections. Sometimes it seemed like Murray was casting Olbermann as the villain – Keith seemed remarkably self aware about his tendencies. He and Dan are easy to “get” even if it was not fun to be their bosses.
The guys who come across worst in the book are pretty clearly Mike Tirico – both in terms of being something of a lothario on the Bristol Campus, and in his lack of generosity to Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football – and interestingly enough Bill Simmons. Simmons, long one of my favorite writers clearly, is also incapable of writing and editing – his writing has a lot of the long winded rants of Adam Carolla in them. (it makes sense they worked together) His quotes, in the later section of the book, show a guy who is either deeply insecure, or just a prick about his own work – and deeply suspicious about other people’s opinions. He observes that Olbermann is way “crazier than I am”, but it is hard to dispute that Simmons might be harder to work – though his 30 for 30 creation was excellent.
Ultimately though, the book peters out a bit after nearly 500 pages. After Olbermann’s departure and the systematic marginalization of Dan Patrick, the coverage of the Mark Shapiro years where PTI, Around the Horn and other shows are introduced becomes sort of dull. Partially this is because of the inherently inside baseball nature of such stuff, but also very little new is revealed compared to what we already knew. In a sense, it was stuff that has been covered – it’s too recent to be interesting TV. Even the coverage of the LeBron James TV show is flawed because ultimately, we know all the angles. What’s the point? While the latter half of the book is well researched, it is deadly dull. But for about 500 pages, Murray’s mission is a fascinating look at a TV network going from birth to wobbling up on its own two feet.