Cannonball Read IV: Those Guys Have All The Fun by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales
Those Guys Have All the Fun is an oral history of ESPN, consisting almost entirely of direct quotes from interviews with hundreds of people involved either directly or indirectly with the cable sports empire. At this point, if you’re not already interested, you can pretty much stop right now. Because while ESPN’s story is a fascinating one, and while there are a lot of really fascinating anecdotes gathered in this volume, ultimately the book suffers from enough flaws to render it a good read only for those who are really interested in ESPN.
Now, I am one of those people. ESPN is both a part of my daily life (I’m sure I’ve interacted with it, either on my TV, my computer, or my phone, just about every day for the past 15 or 20 years), and a source of fascination to me as one of the most astonishingly successful brand names in corporate history. That there would be a 24-hour sports network on cable was probably inevitable. However, it was not inevitable that the first one on the field would dominate it from day one, without ever facing serious competition. The story of how it came to pass that this one company has outperformed not just all other sports channels, but arguably all other cable channels is in this book. Unfortunately, so is a lot of other stuff.
The problems with this book start with the lack of editing. The book is a real brick, 745 pages long, and I am quite confident that it could have been cut down to around 500 pages without losing anything vital. Do I really need to hear everybody’s perspective on every merger, acquisition, change of ownership, or management shakeup in the 30 year history of ESPN? However, while trimming the dead weight would certainly have improved this book, there would still be problems with the tone. The book calls itself an unauthorized biography, and it certainly does cover topics and points of view that ESPN is probably not happy about. That said, the very nature of the book demands that nearly all the interview subjects are people that don’t particularly want to get on ESPN’s bad side, whether because they work for them directly, or because they work in the field which ESPN dominates. Moreover, the narrative sections which are interspersed between the interviews are off-puttingly breathless and dramatic. The whole thing has the feel of a Behind The Music episode about ESPN, stretched out to 8 hours and then transcribed. There’s a fascinating story buried in all this, and interesting anecodes scattered throughout, but this book is probably best experienced by having a friend read it and tell you all the good parts.
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