The Greatest Media startup story ever told.

When the book “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” was first published last year, much of the coverage focused on the lascivious elements of the story. Especially during the early years, the cable sports network attracted all kinds of characters, some of who engaged in sex with coworkers, took drugs and drank like fish. ESPN also had a serious issue with sexual harassment. But this bad behavior and debauchery is ultimately a small part of the story and distracts from what the book is really about: the improbable rise of one of the most powerful media brands today.

There were a host of factors that lead to ESPN’s success, including:

Vision. ESPN’s founders had a crazy vision to build a 24-hour cable sports network. Back in 1977 this was a ludicrous goal, especially since the founders had limited experience in television programming and very limited resources.

Technology. If it weren’t for a satellite transponder that ESPN was able to pick up on the cheap in 1978, the network would have never grown so large, so quick.

Money. Launching and sustaining a 24-hour sports network, even in the late 1970s, was an expensive proposition. If ESPN’s founders hadn’t talked Getty Oil into pouring millions of dollars into the company, it would have collapsed within a short time.

Leadership. Unlike some software startups where the founder runs the business for decades, ESPN has had many different leaders over the years. The ESPN founders were kicked out of their own business after a short time. Each change in leadership contributed exactly what the business needed at the right time to help it grow.

Revenue. Back in the 1980s, ESPN’s leadership realized that advertising alone could not support their business. As a result, the network managed to extract a fee from the cable TV operators. Thanks to this arrangement, today the cable networks are in ascendance.

Marketing. Over the years, ESPN’s ad agency, Wieden+Kennedy, produced a series of hilarious television ads establishing the network as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

Passion. Most people at ESPN weren’t paid very well in the early days, and there was no formal employee stock option plan. This had the effect of attracting the true believers: people who were unbelievably passionate about sports.

Hate. Like other organizations, the history of ESPN is littered with people who didn’t get always get along. But most everyone agreed on one thing: they hated the sleepy little town of Bristol, Conn., where ESPN is headquartered. There was so little to do in Bristol that people spent more time together at ESPN than they would have otherwise.

Humor. There has been no shortage of hilarity in the history of ESPN. One of the most amusing stories involves an inebriated fan at a football game who lost control of her bladder in subzero temperatures and then needed to be chipped off the metal bleacher where she sat by an ESPN television production team.

Love. There have been many special moments in the history of ESPN, including when the network broadcast its first NFL game in 1987. But the moment that ESPN really came together as a company was when college basketball coach and sports commentator Jim Valvano was diagnosed with cancer. Since his death in 1993, the network has helped to raise millions of dollars for cancer research.

“Those Guys Have All The Fun” is not a quick read. There are over 500 interviews packed into the book’s 832 pages. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of all the characters in the story. Regardless, “Those Guys Have All The Fun”is the most comprehensive book written about the network — and the greatest story ever told about a media startup.

By Matt Straz
Matt Straz was a senior partner at MEC from 2002-2008. He is currently the CEO of Namely.
Courtesy of MediaPost.

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