GQ called dibs on the first exclusive excerpt of the gigantic Miller-Shales ESPN oral history, Those Guys Have All The Fun, but we've been given an excerpt of their excerpt just because nobody wants us running any more unapproved excerpts. We'll play along. So read this, then pop over to GQ for the rest. Then follow us for the rest of the week for the wince-worthy stuff.
This section shows us how SportsNight — the SportsCenter knockoff with Keith Olbermann and Suzy Kolber — was haphazardly built as the flagship program for ESPN2 (aka "The Deuce") and served as the beginning of the end for Olbermann's time at the WWL.
As opening night for the new network and the launch of its flagship series, SportsNight, grew closer, the atmosphere around ESPN2 was filled with doubt and trepidation. On the morning after a September 26 dry run that Olbermann considered a medley of calamities, he fired off a three-page single-spaced memo on what went wrong. Since Olbermann is such an erudite and accomplished writer, the memo reads beautifully. It also says the show sucks. "It is not an expansion on SportsCenter but an apparent redundancy," he wrote, adding that although the executives had said they wanted a "loose" show with byplay, interaction, and ad-libbing, the actual program was produced more like "a concentration camp."
The night before we went on the air, they were still making major, major changes. We were all in this giant room while they were doing it, and I vaguely remember Keith sitting on the floor in the corner. I just felt that Keith was an unhappy person. He made a lot of people unhappy around him. I'm sure he made me unhappy.
Lack came to me no more than an hour before the first show and said, "Walsh doesn't know what the fuck he's doing." Which was true, but it was not inclusive enough. What I meant to say to him was, "None of you know what the fuck you're doing. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing. I don't know what I'm going to say in an hour."
The network began on a Friday night. We were sitting in the dark waiting for the lights to come up, and I remember thinking, "Wow, this is the start of a network. I'm part of history here." And with that thought in mind, the lights come up and Keith Olbermann, wearing a leather coat, says, "Welcome to the end of my career."
I was working the teleprompter for that first show, and I can tell you that first line of Keith's was not on the prompter.
In February 1994, word came that Olbermann would be liberated from ESPN2's SportsNight and would return
to his royal roost on SportsCenter. It was precisely what Olbermann — as well as the network's fans, including many college and pro athletes — had been hoping for.
I paid the ransom money. Faced with the option of being stuck on this show, whatever their demand was — $25,000 less per year, add another two years to my contract — I had no choice. I wasn't happy about it, but I said, "All right, let me just get out of it."
Chris Berman made that place. But the guy who made ESPN a household word, the guy who made ESPN mean something in the market to everyone, was Keith Olbermann. God, he was a genius. He just reinvented sportscasting by being the smartest guy who ever did it. And watching him in the mid-'90s was a pleasure. It was appointment viewing: What was Olbermann going to say that night?
I'd do the rundown, and Keith would sit behind me and say, "Are you almost done?" In thirty-five minutes he had written the entire show. It was insane. And that happened every day. See, for me, that was fun, because as long as you were, as he put it, "on the raft," you were good, meaning you were in with him.
I remember [producer] Gus Ramsey and Mike McQuade would always say, "Are you still in the life raft?" If they had screwed up with Keith, then they would be excommunicated. You didn't know from day to day if you were on or off, and it was tough for them, because they didn't have the power to say to Keith, "Hey, stop; grow up." Everything he did was personal. And that was what made him great. And if he felt like you had just turned on him, then you had actually turned on him, and that was something that was very, very deep to him.
When I got there, I was obviously very much influenced by Keith's style, and everything I did, I tried to make a joke. So I walked by Keith one day in the hallway, and he goes to me, "Nope, not yet," and kept walking. About three days later, I walked past him again and he goes, "Nope, not yet." So I finally asked him, "Keith, what do you mean?" He goes, "You're not even close to doing this show the way you should be doing it or can do it." So one day I get an interoffice envelope, and it's a cover letter from Keith basically saying, "I got this letter from a fan." It was a three-page letter to Keith essentially saying, "Who is this new guy on SportsCenter? Why has he hijacked my program?" And Keith's cover letter said, "Don't take this personally, but he has a point." I was absolutely crestfallen. So I went to Keith and said, "I don't know how to respond to this." He said, "Listen, just do one highlight without a joke. Just one. Then try to do one segment without a joke. Then do an entire show where you go home and say, ‘That was the most boring show I've ever done.' And do that for an entire week." He essentially gave me the long-standing concept of less is more. Hands down the best advice I've ever been given.
I've never seen anybody do SportsCenter as well as Olbermann. Nobody. It hasn't even been close.
I remember when Olbermann said to me, "Do you know how much this job is worth?" And I said no. He said, "It's worth a million fucking dollars." Keith looked at it as a businessman, saying, "Do you know what they're making off of this?"
Based on the reported profits of the Today show and the salaries of its key figures, a fair ratio was to pay your talent a total figure of about 10 percent of their show's profits. Working off numbers I had gotten from a sales guy in the N.Y.C. office, I calculated that the correct salaries for Dan and me were about $2,750,000 a year. And a year and a half later, Fox offered me a contract for something like $2,813,000 a year. The top salary paid to anybody doing SportsCenter had been whatever I was getting, which I think topped out around $310,000 a year.
The number one thing that surprised me about ESPN was how little team spirit there was for a place that said that its business was sports. If I said "I think you're wrong" to someone who was higher in the organizational chart than I was, what I would get back was "You're not a team player." And on more than one occasion I responded, "When's the last time you wore a jockstrap?" A team is where you have your teammate's back regardless of what happens; you defend them and you sort out any dirty laundry quietly behind closed doors. There was almost none of that at ESPN. There was no encouragement, because the atmosphere was one of stick the knife in his back, climb the corporate ladder. It was a very, very negative place to work. Don't believe the mascot promos. Life is not like that at SportsCenter. The prevailing idea was that the network was much more important than individuals. In many ways, Chris Berman is their greatest nightmare, because he is a fabulously talented, extraordinarily hardworking, obsessed, dedicated, funny man who relates directly one-on-one to everyone who's ever watched him on television. They have done everything in their power to prevent anybody from getting that kind of power again. Their greatest corporate nightmare is to need someone more than that person needs ESPN.
I was enraged by Olbermann. Guys like that just piss me off, you know, because there's no loyalty. It's just me, me, me. There was no choice but to get rid of him.
Again, go read the rest of the excerpt over at GQ and read the rest in the June issue, on newsstands May 24. Buy the book right here. Come here all week for the sections destined to make ESPN folks livid.