Rivalry with NBC has a starring role in new book on ESPN
I didn’t realize that ESPN2’s 1993 launch led to one of the craziest, drunken parties in the 32-year history of ESPN.
But dozens of stories like these make up the 745 pages of James Miller and Tom Shales’ much-anticipated book, “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” which will be released this week.
The book is comprehensive, covering ESPN in great detail from its humble beginnings to its current brand as the Worldwide Leader in Sports. The parts of the book I found most fascinating, however, didn’t come from inside the world of ESPN. They come from outside, detailing how ESPN’s rivals and league partners view the sports media giant.
In particular, I was struck with the ferocity of ESPN’s rivalry with NBC. The book details a bitter multi-decade feud between ESPN and ABC Sports. Since ESPN shed the ABC Sports brand in 2006, it seems that NBC has stepped in to carry the mantle as ESPN’s most bitter rival.
In a quote that is certain to make the rounds in Bristol, Conn., this week, Ebersol tells Miller and Shales, “But there’s very little that they do anymore that’s much better than some local cable operation. That’s hard to believe with all the resources they have and the army of people and all that, but nobody seems to care. That’s what I mean when I say they lost their way in terms of quality and everything else.”
Sitting in a Manhattan café following ESPN’s upfront presentation last week, I asked Miller about that quote, and he said it reflects a real sense of competitiveness between the two sports media companies.
“NBC and ESPN are like the Bears and the Packers. They are like the Yankees and the Red Sox,” Miller said. “They are very, very competitive with each other.”
Miller believes a lot of that competitiveness stems from the fact that many of NBC’s top-flight producers and talent left ESPN and ABC Sports — many on less than good terms. Miller referenced people like Al Michaels, John Madden, Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff. They have remained competitive with their former employer, and their former employer has remained competitive with them.
“Those are pretty important people who left,” he said, “and I think that contributes to some of the competitiveness.”
With NBC now overseeing Comcast’s cable sports channels, Versus and Golf Channel, the competition has become even more intense. ESPN and NBC fought over the rights to the NHL (which went to NBC) and the Pac-10 (which went to ESPN and Fox). Next month, they will be dueling for Olympic rights.
The intense competition also can be seen during the NFL season, when NBC and ESPN compete more than any other of the league’s network partners, due to the fact that they split the NFL’s two full-season prime-time packages.
While Fox and CBS also compete with ESPN, Miller says he doesn’t get the sense that their battles are as fierce as NBC’s.
“One of my favorite interviews for the book was [Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill,” Miller said. “His basic premise is that ESPN is zigging and Fox is zagging. ESPN doesn’t do what Fox does. Fox isn’t going to put football on at night, because that’s going to ruin a guaranteed revenue stream for them. But on Sunday afternoon, that’s fine, they’ll do it then. I don’t think he’s upset by ESPN because he thinks they do something different. They don’t have ESPN in their sights as much. I think NBC does.”
Miller said the leagues also are wary of ESPN’s propensity to market ESPN more than a league — something that was started during Mark Shapiro’s reign as head of programming.
“During the Shapiro years, Mark was such a fierce defender of ESPN’s brand that if the leagues didn’t like it, tough. So he had tough relationships with the leagues,” Miller said. “[John] Skipper is a kinder, softer leader. But I still think there’s some tension there.”
Miller also pointed out that because ESPN has more hours to fill than its broadcast competitors, it appears that it is thumping its chest more frequently than others.
“The leagues should thank them, I guess, in the sense that it gives them more exposure,” Miller said. “I don’t think the leagues see it that way. They see it as being used.”