Monday, August 15, 2011

A Hater's Take on ESPN's New Book

I didn't realize that this had come out until I saw it publicized on an entertainment website. A tell-all book about ESPN? Cool!

Some of the excerpts the website had seemed very juicy, so I knew I had to read it. Was this going to allow everyone else to realize the many reasons why ESPN is so overrated at the moment?

Well, not really. But I did read it, and here are some things I took out of it:

The Start of ESPN is Pretty Boring
A father-son team got the idea to do a 24-hour sports channel on this new thing called cable back in the 1970s. Of course, when the more responsible adults took over, father and son got pushed out of the way.

Much of the beginning of the book is this overview. The book is done in interview form, so you're hearing many sides of the story from all the people that were involved at the time. The man you hate in this section is Stu Evey, who is looked at as the guy that got the gasoline powerhouse Getty Oil to purchase this idea. He gets all the power and just turns into the man who parties too much and doesn't agree on anything the ESPN bosses suggest. Once you get through the 1980s era of the book, it starts to get more interesting.

This Is Sportscenter
They spend a lot of time explaining the forming of those awesome SportsCenter commercials that started to air in the 1990s. I found that to be especially interesting. But many of the SportsCenter anchors couldn't stand the idea of the ESPN "campus" full of athletes and, most reviled, mascots. Because it wasn't true at all!

Boozing and Floozing
The excerpts of the book that I read on the website were taken out of the first chapter of the book. Back in the early days many of the workers at ESPN were doing some not-very-nice things behind the scenes, mostly because Bristol at the time was an incredibly boring town and there was nothing to do. That's not too surprising; if that excerpt had been taken from, say, ten years ago, that would be especially eye-opening.

Executive Hate
Many of the top people on the job at ESPN are introduced with flair, "He was smart as a whip," or "He was a genius at doing this," or something like that. But as the book goes along, many of the decisions that the executives made got them a lot of negative opinions on the part of their peers and underlings. Eventually as the executive leaves the company, people look back and go, "He did good stuff, but man he was a jerk." And this wasn't just for one or two of these guys - it was for many of them!

These Anchors I Love Are Human
Many of these SportsCenter anchors that I had watched for the past 15 years had done nothing on the air to make me think they were nothing short of awesome. But reading these books and listening to them talk about certain people or events that took place and hearing them swear (yes, this is an uncensored book) and talk about those things made me realize that ESPN does a good job making them look awesome. It was a little sad to read those quotes for me. Especially sad was to read about Mike Tirico, who I'd always liked, but then reading a few stories about him made me realize he's a pretty big jerk.

They Missed My Favorite Pairings!
The book spent a lot of time on SportsCenter and rightfully so - it is the flagship of ESPN. And they spent a lot of time on some of the great pairings on SportsCenter: Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick or Robin Roberts, Charley Steiner, and Bob Ley. But I was hoping that they would cover a little bit on my two favorite pairings of the 90s: Stuart Scott and Rich Eisen, and also Dan Patrick and Kenny Mayne. These were the 11 o'clock and 1 o'clock anchors, and they were the first anchors I watched when I started following ESPN. They were familiar people to me, and it made me sad when there was someone else anchoring SportsCenter instead of them. I was heartbroken when Rich Eisen took his talents to the NFL Network.

Formulating the Classics
As an ESPN lover for much of my adult life, it was fun to see the origins of some of my favorite ESPN-related items. ESPN The Magazine was, obviously, an attempt to thwart Sports Illustrated's hold on sports print, but it also tried to take the hip, cool approach to the old, crotchety SI. I guess I'd never thought of that before (I liked both magazines, but my Dad got me ESPN The Magazine in 1999 and I just kept subscribing for the next seven years). I also finally found out who wrote the Answer Guy section of the magazine. That had been bugging me!

I loved when the origins of PTI and Around the Horn were discussed. The executive producer of PTI  had a close relationship with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, and only because he was on board with this project did the two of them agree to do it. And since this executive producer, found outside ESPN, had many awesome ideas that helped give the show its energy - like the rundown on the side of the page (which now has been stolen by both SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight and more), and the countdown of subjects. They did also talk about how Tony Reali got the host gig at Around the Horn after filling in for Max Kellermann a few times and then just taking over the role after Kellermann left for more money.

I also got reminded about  few other ESPN series. Anyone remember Dream Job? Or Playmakers? Or Mohr Sports? Oh yea! I remember those. And then I remembered why they didn't last long, too.

It made me hate the ESPYs more
The ESPY awards has a separate budget from ESPN, and it's more about glitz and glamour than Bristol. And the book talked about that fact - a lot. It would be talking about one event, and then it felt a need to add a few more ESPY stories into the book, when it really didn't need to. I got tired of those stories fast, since it didn't add anything to the book. I remembered why I didn't like watching the ESPYs, that's for sure!

We Get it, ESPN blew Monday Night Football
I hadn't realized that ESPN getting Monday Night Football was a terrible blow to them, but this book made sure to tell me that fact for about 40 pages in the last section of the book. Apparently ABC wasn't interested in doing MNF any more, and ESPN balked at their offer to get both Sunday and Monday night games, and NBC swooped in and got Sunday night. Because they had a better report with the NFL, the marquee Monday night games were now transferred to Sundays.

This was covered a lot in the book. It also talked a lot about the men in the booth - Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann (then Ron Jaworski), and Tony Kornheiser. Did it need to talk about them that much? No. 

By the way, apparently Kornheiser is a thorn in ESPN's side. He's had multiple run-ins with authority because of what he's said or done. I'm surprised he's still on ESPN after all of that!

Disney
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised at all the Disney talk, but I was. Much of the book discussed business dealings after ABC and ESPN got together under the Walt Disney Company, and Michael Eisner and Bob Iger were interviewed. I got a kick out of how they really wanted to synergize Disney into ESPN, like talking about the most recent Disney movie in SportsCenter.

I Finally Know Who To Blame For My "Hating" of ESPN
His name? Mark Shapiro. He had started many things I enjoyed - SportsCentury, PTI, Around the Horn. But later in the 2000s, he began to do a lot of things that I realized I didn't like. Then I read quotes like this:

"When Mark came in, he brought an arrogance. His regime or style, however you want to put it, was basically the turning point for ESPN going from the good guy to the arrogant guy. ...That's what Mark brought to the company."

Also:

"Mark Shapiro ran a dictatorship, and ESPN still suffers from it today."

He decided not to bring Al Michaels and John Madden to ESPN's Monday Night Football. He didn't get the NHL to renew its contract with ESPN. He pushed Dan Patrick out the door. And he did more. Does ESPN seem more arrogant? Absolutely. I wish it didn't, but that's how it is.

The book was an interesting read, that's for sure. It didn't leave many stones unturned - it also included many of the mistakes that ESPN personalities had made, and covered sexual harrasment and racial themes of the company as well. But did it help solidify my hate? Not really. I still go to ESPN when I am watching TV at home. I still probably will. But now there are many other sports outlets where I can get my news. And I probably will continue to ignore ESPN until something awesome happens there.

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