by Kent Sterling
There is a new book coming out on May 24th that has people in sports journalism buzzing. “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales is said to have all the dope on how ESPN was built and evolved into one of the most impactful brands in media.
I can tell you how it was built before the release of the book – granted, without any of the salacious details about sex, drugs, and sports-n-roll that will move copies, if we can find a bookstore that isn’t closing.
The people who work at ESPN are really fucking smart. They know what the hell they are doing, and what they do is done exceptionally well with attention to detail that is dizzying.
One of the best days I spent in my career was at ESPN Headquarters in Bristol. To see the attention to detail, the incredible facilities, and constant buzz of creativity was for lack of a less sycophantic word, inspiring.
It’s not surprising that they get it at ESPN. The call themselves the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” for a reason. They are exactly that, and by a Secretariat-esque distance over their nearest competitor. They are so far out in front, I can’t tell you who comes in second.
They do it all in Bristol – online, TV, radio, and publishing – and they do it better than anyone else because before they do it, they learn exactly what the audience wants. It may be a little more corporate and less irreverent than it used to be, but that’s what happens as smart people learn to eliminate mistakes.
There used to be periodic mayhem on ESPN. No more. That’s because everyone there got really good at their jobs.
ESPN, I was told during my visit, is a media research company with a broadcasting wing. Without understanding precisely the needs of an audience, the media cannot please them. Guessing is a quick road to failure, and ESPN guesses at nothing.
Why guess when the resources exist to find out exactly how audiences consume?
ESPN is also very successful because it is constantly focused on three-to-five years down the road. The young end of the audience adapts to new media very quickly, and ESPN works hard to understand them. They now know that the college kids who used to be the life blood of the SportsCenter audience are no longer watching. Some are going so far as to completely unplug from cable/satellite. Students use their computers as the hub of their consumption.
Most 35 year olds have no idea what ESPN3 is, but college students do. It’s the gateway to an almost unlimited supply of live sporting event coverage; and while Twitter is undecipherable to most over the age of 40, college students use it as their unique information news feed.
When I was wandering around ESPN’s headquarters, the guy from the staff I was with pointed to some empty space adjacent to the buildings that comprise the ESPN campus, and asked, “You know what’s going there?” I told him I didn’t. “We don’t either. It’s for what’s next.”
ESPN has the brains to know they don’t know what’s next, but can have the foresight to prepare for it anyway.
There are a lot of people shooting at ESPN because they are on the mountaintop, and when this book is released one week from tomorrow, readers will scan for the juicy bits about Keith Olberman being hated, and others acting like petulant idiots. There will be stories about managers pouting and yelling, and people will enjoy reading about the mistakes.
But the truth is that in the aggregate, ESPN is the best managed media company in the universe. They are creative, smart, and ridiculously profitable. Those profits allow them to continue to gather information, products, and technologies that will continue to separate them from those companies who continue to appear to be moving backwards as they chase ESPN.
Buy the book, and read it – the whole thing. Learn about how a modest business operated on a shoestring became a global icon. ESPN hasn’t been perfect, and growth always involves mistakes being made, but if the book is an accurate snapshot, you will be amazed at how smart this operation is.
ESPN is easy to mock because everybody watches. Walk the halls, and the mocking stops.