It was 1979, and Bill Rasmussen was out of a job. He’d been in broadcasting all his life and wanted to stick to what he knew best, but there were not many opportunities for an out-of-work, middle-aged sports executive. An improbable combination of desperate job hunting, the presence of his son, Scott, and the wondrous possibilities made probable by a device known as a transponder resulted in what we now know as ESPN, the self-styled “worldwide leader in sports.”
Alas, the Rasmussens were not part of ESPN’s geometric growth. They were quickly forced out by executives who saw more possibilities in twenty-four sports broadcasting than what the father and son duo did. In James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ lengthy (perhaps a bit egregious in this respect) oral history, the various characters who have played a role in ESPN have their say. What results is a vivid and oftentimes contentious profile of the network that has come to dominate the lives of sports fans the world over.
The early part of ESPN’s corporate life was spent in getting validation for their concept of twenty-four sports. While it is hard to believe now that ESPN is so ubiquitous, the cable network faced a huge obstructive wall in cable companies. Contrary to the advertising-driven business model of network television, cable television depends largely on subscription fees paid by cable networks. This was a hard sell for ESPN, and it took them a long and arduous path to get to where they are today. This part of the book—the part where they solidify their subscription-driven model—is fascinating. The voices of key players such as George Bodenheimer and others clearly reveal the immense challenges that ESPN faced.
The later part of the book describes Disney’s purchase of ESPN (via their acquisition of ABC) and what the change in control did for the cable network. While this is critical for ESPN as a channel, the reader is most likely less interested in corporate power plays.
In recent times, ESPN has become a behemoth and is not reluctant to exert its power. The third part of the book deals with this aspect of ESPN and the myriad conflicts among the on-air and off-air personalities involved with it. This part features the Erin Andrews controversy, the conflict between Chris Berman and Tony Kornheiser, and various similar ego clashes. The authors allow all the personalities to air their point-of-view, but what this ends up doing is simply add the element of prurient interest to the narrative. Like the proverbial curate’s egg, this voluminous book is only good in parts.