Rumbling, bumbling, stumbling: A new book tells the ESPN story

Rumbling, bumbling, stumbling: A new book tells the ESPN story

The first half of the ’90s was something of a creative heyday for ESPN, as distinctive new personalities like Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Craig Kilborn, and Kenny Mayne arrived to complement sturdy veterans like Charley Steiner, Bob Ley, and Robin Roberts. The network launched ESPN Radio and ESPN2, and expanded its relationships with the NHL, the NFL, the NCAA, and Major League Baseball. On the journalism front, ESPN’s reporters were developing a reputation for breaking stories, while programs and segments like Up Close, Outside The Lines, and “The Sunday Conversation” were getting more out of athletes than the usual post-game clichés. To top it all off, Wieden+Kennedy’s “This Is SportsCenter” ad campaign emphasized the network’s sense of humor about itself, in addition to making Bristol, Connecticut look like a hip, happening place for sports nuts to hang out.

But sometimes the roots of an institution’s failures extend directly from its successes. The popularity of the “This Is SportsCenter” campaign led ESPN management to relax its rules against the talent promoting other products in TV commercials, which put a bit of a drag on that growing journalistic integrity. Meanwhile, the increased emphasis on cleverness in the highlight packages led to sports anchors spending more time coming up with catch-phrases than offering pertinent info. (The trend may have reached its nadir when Kilborn and Brett Haber conspired to make “salsa!” into a catchphrase, as a dare.) And the more popular ESPN has become—and the closer its relationships with the major sports leagues—the more it’s evolved from merely covering sports to being business partners with the people on whom it reports.

I’ve expressed my dissatisfaction with ESPN several times on this site, so I don’t want to pile on too much. Besides, I do watch a lot of ESPN, primarily when it’s just broadcasting sports—I’ve been parked on the network lately, what with Wimbledon and the College World Series—and will concede that the crews at ESPN still do that part of their job reasonably well. I’m not crazy about the MLB or NFL telecasts, but by and large, I have no complaints about how ESPN handles play-by-play sports coverage. It’s more the studio shows that I’ve steered clear of for much of the last decade-plus, along with the subgenre of shows that 30 Rock once aptly skewered as Sports Shouting. Those represent where the network used to do so well, until those corrupting elements mentioned above grew too strong.

The oral history Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World Of ESPN, by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, puts the current state of the network in context by going back to the beginning. For nearly 800 pages, Miller and Shales collect stories about how ESPN came into being almost through sheer luck—because an unemployed sports reporter looking to create a job for himself and his son bought a 24-hour satellite feed right before such a thing became hard to acquire—and then grew through a series of shrewd moves, fortunate hires, and what turned out to be an even more insatiable appetite for sports than the American public had previously shown. Early on, the channel was the butt of jokes for filling the wee hours with the likes of Australian rules football, but this diversity-by-necessity proved to be a strength back in the days when cable channels were making their case to every fledgling system in every corner of the country. Yacht racing, for example, might’ve only drawn a handful of viewers in the mid-’80s, but that handful could make a hard-to-ignore noise if Kabletown refused to pay the subscriber fees that ESPN was asking.

Yet while ESPN was making inroads with the sports that ABC, NBC, and CBS barely covered—like college basketball, which ESPN elevated from a regional passion to a national obsession—the channel was being scoffed at by the major networks, and it was in a tight competition for ratings with all the other cable sports outlets scrambling to find a foothold in an emerging market. Prior to the teaming of Patrick and Olbermann on the 11 p.m. SportsCenter, the show was routinely beaten by CNN’s sports highlights show. Bringing together the affably wry Patrick and the alternately eloquent and acerbic Olbermann made SportsCenter required viewing for sports fans. Behind the scenes, according to Those Guys Have All The Fun, Olbermann was a hard one to handle, disobedient to management and dismissive of his colleagues. But he could also sit down at his desk and bang out a whole show’s worth of brilliant copy in under half an hour, pulling dates and stats right out of his head. Olbermann’s quick rise to ESPN stardom was a harbinger of all the unearned swagger and smart-assery to come from the network’s anchors, but while he was in ESPN’s employ, Olbermann himself was (mostly) worth the trouble.

Like Miller and Shales’ previous oral history Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live, their new book can be as frustrating as it is fascinating. The problem with the oral history format is that it tends toward the disorganized, with topics coming and going without being fully addressed, and interviewees talking around each other without any authorial adjudication of their claims. Meanwhile, in their interstitial pieces, Miller and Shales get a little fawning at times, treating the biggest steps toward ESPN’s eventual dominance like the stations of the cross.

But Those Guys Have All The Fun also digs into the controversies surrounding ESPN over the years, like the claims that the remoteness of Bristol fostered a culture of frat-boy drunkenness and sexual harassment in the early days, and like the internal hand-wringing over the hiring of obnoxious talk-show host Jim Rome. Mostly, the book documents decades of power-struggles dating back to the network’s origins, when the financial backers, the big-picture guys, and the day-to-day business managers clashed over how best to make money and win respect. That debate has never been properly resolved, apparently. Later, while SportsCenter was moving beyond fast-paced highlights packages and developing some real journalistic standards, other divisions of ESPN were trying to expand the brand through ESPN Radio and ESPN2, both of which valued edginess over seriousness. By the mid-’90s, it became harder and harder for any one person to control what “ESPN” stood for.

Some of the funniest and most enlightening passages of Those Guys Have All The Fun deal with the decision to separate Patrick and Olbermann by drafting the latter to host SportsNight, the flagship show on “The Deuce,” which required Olbermann to wear a leather jacket and banter with Suzy Kolber (to whom he mostly refused to speak off-camera). Olbermann says that his biggest problem back then with both ESPN and ESPN2 was that there were too many bosses to answer to, none of whom agreed on the direction the network should be taking. The situation grew worse when Disney bought a controlling stake in the company and started pushing for more cross-promotion, both with their own products and with sister network ABC. Meanwhile, the on-air talent was asked to sign new contracts that made everything they wrote or uttered the intellectual property of the corporation, even though they couldn’t even get upper management to spring for offices. (Dan Patrick says he was told that the fire marshal wouldn’t allow it, but adds, “If you were there for three weeks as a coordinating producer, you got an office.”)

Anyone looking for insight into what’s wrong with ESPN in 2011 should start there, with the increasingly top-heavy bureaucracy. Judging by what Miller and Shales uncovered, creative decisions at ESPN today are being driven too often by something other than genuine, from-the-ground-up inspiration. Granted, the interviewees in Those Guys Have All The Fun insist that their various corporate partners don’t kill unflattering news stories, as much as they might like to. (The creators of the short-lived ESPN drama series Playmakers have a different story to tell, but then, they’re not journalists.) But there’s still a chumminess between ESPN and what Howard Cosell once dubbed “the jockocracy” that leads to embarrassments like last year’s The Decision, in which the network gave an hour of airtime to LeBron James as he announced where he was going to play basketball the next season. And the same lack of imagination that led to dozens of anchors imitating Patrick and Olbermann—and Chris Berman, the original ESPN shtick-meister—led to ESPN following up the offbeat sports-commentary show Pardon The Interruption with the asinine Around The Horn, in which columnists are literally awarded points just for talking, whether they’re saying anything cogent or not.

Which brings us back to highlight shows, so ably parodied by our pals at Onion Sportsdome. From the “Up Next” crawl on the side of the screen to the slick smirkiness of the patter, SportsCenter in particular has become so drearily predictable. Watching the show has become like eating at the same theme restaurant every night, with the same fake-friendly waitress. (Also, why can’t the anchors do better at keeping their copy and comments in synch with the highlights? I mean, isn’t that their job?)

Reading Those Guys Have All The Fun reminded me how much I used to enjoy ESPN, and how much the network has contributed—positively—to the coverage of sports on television. But it also reminded me of how much more entertaining ESPN was when it was catering to its dozen or so weird niches by showing logging competitions at 3 a.m. instead of yet another SportsCenter repeat. In those early days, the staff was making up the rules on the fly. Sure, some of the rules were mistakes, and some of those mistakes became entrenched in the ESPN culture. But at least the people working for the network had the freedom to experiment. For the first 15 or so years, right through that early-’90s peak, ESPN had an infectious fannish side that made the whole world of sports seem more fun. These days, perhaps driven by that overabundance of bosses, the network is making sports seem too much like a day at the office.

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