UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

ESPN goes under the knife with Those Guys Have All the Fun

Over the past 36 months, as he immersed himself in the nation-state otherwise known as ESPN, James Andrew Miller became admittedly obsessed with his subject. Charged with writing a book on one of the great media success stories of all time, Miller found himself struggling to condense a tale of empire building, fierce rivalries, sex and drugs, and self-reverence. He had enough information for multiple books after interviews with more than 550 subjects. The hardest part, he knew, was letting some of it go.

Ultimately, his tome, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, clocked in at a robust 763 pages, an oral history of how the network morphed from a muddy landfill in Bristol, Conn., to a broadcasting behemoth that airs roughly 70,000 hours of programming annually, can be seen in 200 countries and employs more than 6,000 staffers.

"They are very good at controlling the message," Miller said of ESPN. "But at the same time, nobody has covered them the way they cover the Cowboys."

It is a long book (which hits stores Tuesday and will debut in the top 10 among Amazon.com best-sellers), told chronologically, and younger viewers of ESPN are going to have to stay with it to find moments of relevance for them. Much of the first quarter of the book focuses on the network's rise from humble origins, from founder Bill Rasmussen's decision to buy a transponder in 1978 on RCA SAT-COM 1, to Getty Oil's early investment of $15 million, to the genius of creating a dual revenue stream in the form of payments from cable operators and advertising sales (which set up ESPN for world domination). The book gives voice to some of the behind-the-scenes players (such as former ESPN CEO Bill Grimes and COO Roger Werner) whose shrewd moves help chart the course for future success. Miller also explores in detail ESPN's foresight in recognizing the power of college basketball and its savvy acquisitions of the NFL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR.

What has drawn headlines -- and understandably so -- are the rivalries produced from working within the world's best-known sports broadcast entity. (USA Today's Mike McCarthy nicely charts the most notable feuds to emerge from the book.) The barbs also come from outside ESPN, no doubt fueled by ego, jealously and a desire to be included in the narrative.

Of the power of ESPN, outgoing NBC Sports Group chairman Dick Ebersol said in the book: "ESPN basically has to have one of their talent talk about Hitler or put a picture of their d--- on a phone -- which is what that [Sean] Salisbury guy did -- before they'll do anything about any of these various crazies because they don't have to. Nobody can touch them."

Added David Hill, chairman of the Fox Sports Media Group: "Perhaps the most interesting thing of all is that for the most part, I think ESPN rates something like a 0.7. So that means that 99.3 percent of Americans -- somewhere around 299 million people -- don't give a rat's ass about ESPN. Yet somehow, ESPN has convinced cable operators that the people will rise up with torches and pitchforks and storm the castle if they ever take it off the air...God bless them."

The authors -- Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tom Shales helped conceive the book but Miller did nearly all of the reporting -- interviewed hundreds of ESPN staffers, including pioneering on-air anchors such as Karie Ross (who bravely stood up against sexual harassment in the workplace), past on-air talent (Keith Olbermann) and present alpha dogs (Bill Simmons and Tony Kornheiser).

In one riveting section, Kornheiser accuses colleague Mike Tirico of sabotaging his on-air performance by not engaging him while both were in the booth for Monday Night Football. Kornheiser was ultimately replaced by Jon Gruden in 2009.

"Look, I know that Mike Tirico is smart and funny and as quick if not quicker than I am," Kornheiser said in the book. "I admire and respect him, but it killed me that he had none of that for me. After many conversations, I came to believe that he had little respect for sportswriters and remembers all the sportswriters who wrote bad s--- about him. He loves it when sportswriters get something wrong. And I felt he put me in that group, because I'm part of them. It wasn't that I was right and he was wrong. We just couldn't agree.

"I had a lot of conversations with [MNF executive producer Jay] Rothman and [network executive John] Walsh and some even with [network executive] Norby [Williamson], and I'll admit I would get upset. I said, 'He's killing me, and it keeps happening.' They would say, 'We've talked to him, and it's going to get better,' but it never did. He was doing it deliberately; anybody with eyes could see it. He just wouldn't engage me."

Simmons, a close pal of Kornheiser's and a popular ESPN.com columnist who has long working under a set of rules akin to Michael Jordan's run of the place in Chicago, unleashed a provocative assessment of the value of game announcers, killing Tirico in the process: "Nobody on the planet watches a sports game for the f---ing announcers. And that's the thing that we have never understood. Mike Tirico could leave tomorrow and we could replace him with Mike Greenberg or one of 40 other guys, and the rating would not budge .00001. Nobody watches for Mike Tirico. Zero. No one. And then you have Jaws [Ron Jaworski] and Gruden. 'This guy's great. Great throw. What a play. It's a great call. Good timeout.' They don't say anything negative."

On Friday, SI.com asked ESPN communications vice president Mike Soltys if there would be discipline for those employees who were critical of colleagues in the book.

"Respect for colleagues is critically important to us and we'll address those issues internally," Soltys said. "That is as far as I will say."

The release of the excerpts prompted at least one current staffer to choose a stunning venue for commentary. SportsNation co-host Michelle Beadle did not hide her feelings for Erin Andrews in an interview last week with Deadspin. Asked how the company felt about Beadle's comments on a website that Miller compared to "crack cocaine" for many ESPN staffers, Soltys said, "She would also fall under the same comment."

Those who work in the business of sport will devour the book. The casual sports fan is likely to find certain parts tedious. The biggest criticism is the sheer size of the narrative. Miller gives certain subjects (Kornheiser, for starters) far too many pages to whine and dedicates six pages to the horribly conceived Bonds on Bonds show where two would suffice. While it's great that Lee Corso picked 12 straight winners in 1999, his assessment of it doesn't add much to the oral history of a company. In similar fashion, that Patrick McEnroe called a tennis match with his brother John is best left for the McEnroe scrapbook or a future McEnroe on McEnroe program.

In a podcast with SI.com, Miller admitted that the book is "schizophrenic." He said he found that his best-selling book on Saturday Night Live that he did with Shales was read in bursts over a long period. That will likely be the case here, too. The book would be sharper if excised by 100 pages or so.

But these are small quibbles, because the reader is ultimately granted the kind of behind-the-scenes access that sports media junkies are rarely given. For instance, Miller asked current ESPN college basketball analyst Bob Knight about the interview the former coach conducted with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap in 2000. The tense confrontation ended with Knight, who had just been fired by Indiana, insulting Schaap and walking out on camera.

"They gave me three people to choose from who would do that interview, and I picked Schaap because of his dad," Knight said. "I didn't even know the kid. I had Digger [Phelps] tell Schaap that there was a question that I'd like for him to ask, and he refused to ask it. He told Digger, 'I can't do that. I can't ask something that he wants asked.' I didn't enjoy that interview at all. I thought the guy was a chicken---- little coc-------. Forget that guy. I have no interest in talking about that. Jesus Christ, enough of this bull----."

In what my colleague Jack McCallum called "an astonishingly self-defining moment," veteran anchor Chris Berman, the standard-bearer of cacophony and all things pro football at ESPN, offered this remarkable take about his network's canceling the controversial drama, Playmakers, at the behest of the NFL. "I'm a simple guy," Berman said. "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." McCallum, in an upcoming review of the book for Sports Illustrated magazine, accurately writes that "Berman does not cover the NFL; he is the NFL."

The long-term reverberations of the book are unlikely to be profound. The news cycle will play up the titillating aspects, the author will go on a long book tour and ESPN will continue to broadcast SportsCenter and gobble up sports rights. Interestingly, the company's current top two executives -- president George Bodenheimer and John Skipper, the executive vice president of content -- come off as the least ego-filled of all the top decision-makers interviewed. Both are smart and well-liked among the troops.

What should be fascinating, at least, is how the entity covers the book itself. Miller is scheduled to appear on the not-so-hard-hitting Mike and Mike in the Morning radio program on Tuesday morning and the Scott Van Pelt Show later that afternoon.

Miller said he has already heard from more than a dozen ESPN staffers, and most of those calls were favorable and complimentary. "But several called to complain that they weren't in it or not in it enough," Miller said. "One in particular called to ask for help about what to do next in their career. They are convinced they are going to get fired."