Having been an ESPN employee for six years (2000-2006), I was always fascinated with people's desire to know the company's inner workings. I always got asked, What was it like? Who was the biggest jerk? What was the craziest thing that happened?
That's one of the reasons why the new book by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales (ESPN: Those Guys Have All The fun, Inside The World of ESPN) will be a bestseller.
While the publicity for the book, whose official release date next Tuesday, has thus far been about the salacious details — Chris Berman doesn't know who Bill Simmons is, Keith Olbermann freely describes his tense relationship — the genius of the book are the little surprises that come at least once every 10 pages.
That's because the authors somehow got ESPN's blessing and got former and current employees to open up about their experiences.
That's not easy to do.
I didn't know about Keith Olbermann's prowess of writing a script in minutes, while typing with one hand. Didn't know that when ESPN got the NBA deal, league executives handed Mike Tirico a tape from the 1970s and, according to Tirico said, "Here's how we want the games." I was astonished how so many of the interview subjects were willing to talk about the biggest business secret in the game, their salaries. To see how little some of the big guys got paid when the network started was comical. And then to see how much they got paid when the game changed in the late 90s. (I, for the record, made $43,000 my first year at ESPN in 2000.)
I was also gripped by the most behind the scenes negotiations of TV deals that has ever been compiled from the insiders themselves.
If you want to know more about the supposed sex in the hallways or open use of drugs that has gotten so much airtime (and did in 2000 when Mike Freeman wrote his ESPN book), you'll be disappointed. For the record, I saw neither in my time there.
But if you want the highlights from the guys who brought you the highlights, all the essentials are there. Charlie Steiner's laughing at Carl Lewis' National Anthem, Steve Levy's bulging disk slip up, Gary Miller's urination arrest, Jim Rome and Jim Everett's fight, Rush Limbaugh's Donovan McNabb comments and Erin Andrews' peephole incident.
The style of the book is easy to read, with the authors allowing more than 500 interview subjects to tell the narrative.
If there's a negative, it's that it's 748 pages, which is about 200 pages too long. The book opens with a 58-page history of the first two years, which drags on. And the authors spend way too much time on the ESPY's and give only about 20 pages to the juggernaut that is ESPN.com, almost all of it predictably devoted to Bill Simmons.
But this book works because the characters are so complex. While Olbermann's tales have been told plenty, readers will be intrigued to learn more about executives like John Walsh and Mark Shapiro and what made them tick.
The one thing I don't really don't understand is the bashing of Bristol, Connecticut, ESPN's hometown. Yeah, it's a sleepy town. I lived there for six years. I ate at Applebee's, Chili's and the Outback when I wanted a "good" restaurant. I get it. But the fact that Bristol wasn't LA is one of the reasons why ESPN became ESPN. There was nothing else to do but go to work. I'd work from 8 to 5 p.m., then go home to eat dinner, and often come back from 8 p.m. to midnight to work some more. My life was my job and that was more the case because I lived in a town that offered me very little. That happened to be great for my career and I think it was probably good for others as well.
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