By Ryan Berenz (Twitter: @ChannelGuideRAB)
When something gets this big, it needs to be viewed under a microscope.
As they did with Saturday Night Live in their best-selling 2003 book Live From New York, authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales do with ESPN in Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN (Little, Brown and Company, $27.99) which hits bookshelves May 24. Having completed over 500 interviews for the book, including current and former ESPN presidents, chairmen, executives, on-air talent and employees, as well as athletes and other media personalities, Miller and Shales put together a comprehensive history of the sports media giant, warts and all.
It’s the warts part that might have ESPN brass worried. “I wouldn’t hazard to guess what they’re really thinking,” Miller says of the feelings within ESPN about the book’s release. “They’ve certainly been cooperative during the past year. They weren’t initially cooperative, but now they have been. They say they’re looking forward to it, but I don’t know if anybody really knows what they’re thinking behind closed doors.”
While the lure of ESPN luminaries dishing dirt on each other is great, Miller thinks the story of ESPN’s rise to become one of the biggest brands in sports is just as fascinating. “I think we’re talking about arguably one of the great media success stories of all time,” Miller says. “I think there needs to be a book of record, so to speak, about tracing the pedigree of the place, how it got to be the way it is now. And I think a lot of this history has maybe been told in different parts. But no offense against anybody’s work previously, but I don’t think there’s been a comprehensive book of record.”
But, yes, there will be plenty of juicy stories from and about ESPN personalities, past and present. “We have them on in our living rooms and our kitchens and our bedrooms at all hours of the night,” Miller says. “We feel like we know them, and I think there’s genuine curiosity about who they are and what happens when the lights and the camera are not on.”
Here’s more of our interview with Miller:
The first year of working on the book, you weren’t granted access to the Bristol campus. What changed?
James Andrew Miller: They’d probably be the best people to ask, but this is what my understanding is: That they originally elected not to cooperate, but I went about interviewing people who weren’t currently employed but were significant players, like previous presidents and previous chairmen and other people like that. So it got to the point where there was a pretty good level of participation outside actual current employees, so I think that probably helped changed their mind.
There’s sort of a perception that Bristol, Conn., is a very boring place, there’s not much to do and that ESPN employees kind of have to make their own fun which sometimes leads to trouble. What’s your perception of the Bristol campus culture?
I think it’s changed. Again, I have to be careful here. I do think that obviously, at the beginning, Bristol was a sea of mud and I don’t think there was a lot to do. And while it’s no Manhattan right now, I do think there’s probably more people coming to Bristol. There’s athletes, there’s celebrities. So it’s a little more fun to be in Bristol now than it used to be. But I also think that being in Bristol was an incredible competitive advantage for ESPN in a variety of ways. But it wound up being very important to the history of ESPN that it was is Bristol.
You also interviewed many athletes for the book. How important is ESPN to these athletes and their “brand,” so to speak?
Obviously, it’s ubiquitous. For the athletes who are playing, they sit around and watch SportsCenter with their families and their friends, and they want to be treated nice. For the ones who are thinking about retiring, a lot of them are looking to get analyst jobs with ESPN. If you’re in that world, it’s just such a big presence that you just can’t afford to ignore it and you certainly don’t want to alienate it. Occasionally, athletes will be outspoken about something that they don’t like or they didn’t think was fair, but by and large, it’s a pretty big place and I think there’s very few athletes who are willing to take it on.
Despite improved gender equality in the workplace, sportscasting has always been thought of as a boys club. What impression did you get about gender equality at ESPN?
I think it’s changed through the years. They definitely had a steep learning curve early on. I think in many ways they’ve paid attention to a lot of the criticisms and a lot of the lessons that have come along through the years. I don’t think that there’s anybody on campus who will say that they’ve done enough, that they don’t have to do any more. So I think it’s a continuing process. But I do think its definitely on their radar screen in a clear and present way, and that wasn’t necessarily the case for a long time.
What was the overall impact of Disney’s purchase of ESPN in 1996? Did they go overboard with the corporate synergy?
I don’t know if they went overboard. There might have been individual cases when things may have been a little wacky. In the book, I think that it becomes very clear what Disney’s impact was, and I think it was highly significant, and I think Michael Eisner’s role was highly significant in those early years. One of the things that happens in the book is there’s actually nine key moments in the history of ESPN. And when people go through those nine moments, they’ll see the Disney takeover was integral to at least one of them, and it was a pretty big one.
After this year’s NCAA Tournament selection, there was a lot of comment in the media on how intensely critical ESPN’s analysts were about the bracket and the selection committee. Sports media critics suggested that ESPN could do that because it doesn’t own the rights to televise the tournament. Institutionally, does ESPN treat the sports and leagues they have TV contracts with differently from those they don’t?
That’s kind of a common refrain. I think a lot of people think that. I have to believe that if ESPN had the rights to the games, that Jay [Bilas] would’ve said exactly the same thing. They have a huge, multibillion-dollar relationship with the NFL, but there they were doing the concussion stories like a lot of other places. There are numerous examples of ESPN doing enterprise journalism that may not be exactly what the leagues may want from a rights holder, but I think that there have been times when they may have messed up, but there are certainly times when they have shown their independence. People want to paint ESPN with a simple broad brush. The truth is, it’s so big, it’s so multifaceted and there are — on a widespread number of issues — there are things that cut both ways. There are times when maybe it does seem like they are too cozy with the leagues, but then there are times when they do unbelievable independent journalism. There are times when their analysts may look like they’re going easy on a league, and then there are times when their analysts go crazy and are hypercritical. I think it’s instructive at least to keep in mind the complexity that really is ESPN right now.
You said that LeBron James’ The Decision made you feel carsick. Does something like The Decision or the reality series Bonds on Bonds from a few years ago hurt ESPN’s credibility as a sports news source?
I think it does. I think a lot of people who worked there felt that, particularly about The Decision. The good news is that they have a lot of people paying attention to them. The bad news is that they have a lot of people paying attention to them. So when something like The Decision happens, they can disappoint a lot of people. And by the way, inside as well. For me, what was most striking about The Decision wasn’t what the media critics were writing, because that was kind of safe to assume, given how it played out. But I was really struck by the calls and the emails that I got from people inside saying, “Jim, this is crazy. How did this happen? This really hurt us. Hope this doesn’t happen again.” To me, that was perhaps just as important.
How is the new NBC Sports Group going to pose a challenge to ESPN?
There’s two ways to go. They can try to take them on step by step, and try to compete with them on every level that they want to. Or they can zig while ESPN’s zagging. I’m not sure that in order to be competitive, in order to have a thriving sports operation nowadays, you have to duplicate what ESPN is doing. I think that, in some ways, is financially prohibitive. But I do think there’s enough out there. Look, [Update: Former NBC Sports Group Chairman] Dick Ebersol is a really smart guy, and [NBCUniversal CEO] Steve Burke is a really smart guy. So I think they’re going to figure out a way to do it where they don’t have to lose $30 or $40 billion in order to just say, “OK, we’re creating another ESPN.” I don’t think that makes sense. You can be competitive without trying to duplicate.
What are the feelings towards websites like Deadspin within the ESPN organization?
Again, being consistent with my previous statement that it’s a big place, I think that there’s a variety of opinions. I think that there are people at ESPN who are addicted to Deadspin. They love reading it, or they get off campus and call it with scoops. I think there are people who think that it’s the devil’s work and they refuse to even click on it once. I think it’s all over the place. It seems to me like Deadspin has kind of laid off them in recent months. It doesn’t seem to be as ESPN-obsessed as it used to be.
Any thoughts on the Poynter Institute becoming the new ESPN ombudsman?
I think it’s bold. I think it’s a really interesting idea. We’ll see how they do. If it winds up failing, then it was a noble failure. Because I just think it’s a very interesting possibility. The other thing is, that the work — to be honest with you — was an extraordinary workload for the three previous people at the position. I think maybe the Institute will have a bigger bandwidth and that might create more activity.