While the antics of Keith Olberman and Chris Berman and old stories of bad boy behavior are getting all the attention, there's a lot of good business dirt in the new book "Those Guys Have All The Fun" about the creation of the ESPN sports empire.
The 745-page tome by James Miller and Tom Shales tracks ESPN from its humble beginnings as a tiny cable channel struggling to get noticed and be taken seriously to its emergence as a serious news operation and cultural icon.
"Once a bastard stepchild filed, along with 'almond groves,' under `other' among the holdings of Getty Oil, ESPN is now the most important component of the Disney empire, worth more than the entire National Football League, worth more than the NBA, MLB, and the NHL put together," the authors said in the book's introduction.
Those early days were often quite comical. The point person for Getty was Stuart Evey, a vice president of Getty whose big job, per the authors, was "cleaning up family messes." A hard-drinking, fast-living executive who enjoyed hobnobbing with celebrities and power players, Evey once got into a bit of a shoving match with Ted Turner at a party at the Playboy mansion after the media mogul said something about Evey's daughter that didn't sit well.
He also engaged in some clever deal-making. When ESPN negotiated the rights to the now-defunct United States Football League back in 1982, he cut a deal with Anheuser-Busch that guaranteed the beer manufacturer mentions of Budweiser every five minutes during games.
For the executives under him, Evey could be a challenge.
"Evey was a difficult man," longtime ESPN President Steve Bornstein told the authors. Bornstein told a funny story about how ESPN brokered a deal to share a helicopter with Timex. Both companies were based in Connecticut and the copter allowed for easy trips to the city of New York. On one such trip, Evey kept opening the helicopter door while it was in the air. "Drunk as a @#$*&% skunk," is how Bornstein described him. After Evey's antics, the whirlybird went away. Recalled Bornstein: "Needless to say, the next day I get an irate #@$% phone call from my counterpart at Timex: The @#$%&! deal is off! You can never use the helicopter again."
Most executives are guarded when they talk and often get caught up in engaging in industry speak, not revealing a whole lot. Not Bornstein. Currently an executive vice president at the National Football League with oversight over its TV deals and head of the NFL Network, he is refreshingly candid in his memories of ESPN and his thoughts about the executives he worked with and for over the years.
Disney's Bob Iger is described by Bornstein as "a very insecure guy" who was never willing to stand up to Michael Eisner when the latter was CEO of the company. Eisner, Bornstein said, "will turn any circumstance into why he is a prescient genius."
Of course, Bornstein left Disney after clashing with Iger and Eisner and naturally has less than positive feelings about his final years at the company when he was thrust into overseeing Disney's ill-fated Go website. He got his revenge later when, in his new role at the NFL, he negotiated the landmark deal that saw ESPN pony up over $1 billion a year for "Monday Night Football."
One thing many agree on is that ABC made a huge mistake by not buying the 20% of ESPN that is currently owned by Hearst Corp. That chunk used to be owned by RJR Nabisco and later Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. When KKR put it up for sale, CapCities/ABC, which owned 80% of ESPN already, passed.
Also missing out was Comcast. Former ESPN chief Roger Werner details a meeting between Tom Murphy, the top guy at CapCities/ABC, and Comcast's Ralph and Brian Roberts. "They tried to drive too hard a bargain," Werner said of Comcast. "Brian is a very tough negotiator. In this case, he didn't get a deal that would have been unbelievable for Comcast."
Hearst Corp. ended up reluctantly buying the stake.
"A lot of people had been saying, why do you want 20 percent of this thing -- tractor pulls and all the other pejoratives that can come out from one's advisers," said Hearst Chairman Frank Bennack.
Perhaps the person who has made the most money off ESPN after Disney is Don Ohlmeyer. The former head of NBC Entertainment and sports producer owned a part of RJR's piece of ESPN that was bought by Hearst. Later he sold his own company to ESPN.
"Don Ohlmeyer made more money out of ESPN than anybody else," said Bornstein. "Hey, he's a smart guy."
-- Joe Flint
Photos: Top right: Steve Bornstein. Credit: NFL. Bottom left: Don Ohlmeyer. Credit: Lawrence Ho/Los Angeles Times.