In Part 1 of my review of Those Guys Have All the Fun, I commented on some of the things I liked and didn’t like. In Part 2, I want to tackle what I saw were two main themes: the business side of ESPN and ESPN personalities.
The authors provide some guidance in pointing out the steps that ESPN took to achieve global dominance. Like all TV networks that want to compete, ESPN had to pay big money for league packages and it took until the late 1980s for ESPN to even acquire a piece of the almighty NFL. I was surprised by the strong relationship between ESPN and NASCAR (perhaps because I am not a big fan): ESPN was willing to take a shot with racing in its early days when other networks were not so the two entities grew in popularity together. And one prominent negative for the network came when they finally acquired Monday Night Football only to find that the NFL and NBC had worked out a better deal for Sunday nights.
But like all businesses, ESPN needs to generate money. The key to this is that from its early years, ESPN charged cable services a per-subscriber fee. As it added content, particularly the NFL, ESPN raised these fees and now the book suggests something like around $4 of every cable bill goes toward ESPN. With advertising and subscriber revenue, ESPN was able to build its company.
Also from the early years, ESPN aimed for a particular corporate culture that valued the company above individual stars. Once ESPN became more popular, this became more difficult as certain individuals, like Keith Olbermann, who is featured a lot in this book, wanted to do things their own way and also wanted to make more money. While some of the executives seem to suggest that this corporate culture was about creating a tight-knit family, it also sounds like this was a business decision as it would help keep salaries down.
Even within this culture, I was surprised by the amount of sniping between personalities. This takes place in all companies, particularly in high-pressure situations, but some of it seemed silly here. Certain personalities, like Bob Ley, were cited as respected team players while others, like Mark Shapiro, were depicted as divisive. But there were a number of stories about yelling and aggressive behavior that made it sound like work life at ESPN could be quite unpleasant at times.
Another point of contention amongst the personalities was the strong emphasis on journalism, primarily attributed in this book to John Walsh. Many of the interviewed on-air personalities suggested they thought of themselves more as journalists in wanting to accurately and quickly report a story. Some personalities had some other thoughts and ended up leaving. Employees generally sounded like they didn’t get wrapped up or emotionally invested in individual stories, which I found a little surprising since the network seems to thrive on covering particular prominent athletes like Michael Jordan or Lebron James.
But this issue of journalism is where ESPN often seems to get into trouble these days: are they a news organization that just happens to only cover sports, or are they an entertainment company? The lines are blurred when ESPN becomes the story rather than reports the story and this seems to happen a lot. I understand why ESPN would want to appear more objective and ethical but I think they also need to acknowledge that they entertain and viewers are drawn to interesting voices and ideas.
(A side note: frankly, I am glad that the 1990s Chicago Bulls won their championships then compared to the over-analyzed and over-covered sports world of today. What might have ESPN done with such a dominant team and stories like Jordan’s gambling if their current form existed then? Back then, it seemed to be more about highlights than analysis – but I suppose they would argue that people can find highlights all over the place and so ESPN has to give them something else.)
These two issues, the business side and personalities, raise some questions:
- What would it take for ESPN to begin a decline or lose its prominence in the sports world?
- Why hasn’t there been a better competitor to ESPN over the years? (Perhaps they couldn’t access subscriber fees?) Ted Turner is portrayed as a competitor at times for league packages but he ends up fading away.
- How is ESPN viewed by other networks? There is some of this in the book but it is limited.
- Is ESPN’s corporate culture similar or different compared to other TV networks and other firms in other industries?
On the whole, I found this book to be quite engaging. If you are familiar with some of ESPN’s key shows and personalities, there is a lot of interesting material here. But if you want to better understand how ESPN became the behemoth that it is today, this is a good place to start.