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Thursday, September 24, 2015


4 stars out of 5

I'm far from a sports fanatic, but on the other hand, I've got a long history of mostly non hands-on participation that dates back to the 1950s, when I loved to watch the Gillette-sponsored Friday night boxing matches with my dad - on our black-and-white TV set (complete with rabbit ears, no less). Later, I was a diehard viewer of ABC's Wide world of Sports that launched in 1961, and I waited impatiently for the every-four-year coverage of my beloved Olympic games. My heart was in my throat as my hero, Jean-Claude Killy, schussed his way to wins in all three Alpine events in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. And who could forget late sportscaster Jim McKay's emotional, "They're all gone" as he reported on the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics?

Except for the Olympics, which now come at us every two years (and with far less impressive TV coverage, IMHO), those other programs have long since come and gone. But on Sept. 7, 1979, another sports phenomenon emerged: ESPN (the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network). It hit the ground running, and - although I learned from this book that it didn't turn a profit until 1985 - it's pretty safe to say it's become a household acronym. In 2014, as the author points out, ESPN was named the "world's most valuable media property."

Today, I'd bet the farm that not a day goes by that my husband and I - separately or together - tune in to some kind of ESPN show. Virtually every weeknight, you'll find our set tuned to one of my favorite shows, Pardon the Interruption, to watch the sparring between hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. 

So it was that when I was granted the opportunity to read and review this by the publisher (via NetGalley), I jumped at the chance. Let me be perfectly clear, though: This is a scholarly publication. If you're expecting witty quotes from famous athletes or network executives or smack-on-the-butt locker room jokes, you'll be disappointed. Rather, it's a straightforward and exceptionally well-researched documentation of how ESPN and all its offshoots - from the magazine to books to made-for-TV movies and docudramas - came to be. 

Initially, it was to a degree a matter of right place, right time, given more public interest in sports, the emergence of cable TV and increasing deregulation of the communications industry. But transforming that beginning into the media powerhouse as we know it certainly didn't happen by accident; the author details almost every step of the route to success, such as the launch of "SportsCentury," a concept headed by Mark Shapiro, that helped bring much-needed credibility to the network. 

The well-written book reads almost like a doctoral dissertation - albeit a much more interesting one than the few I helped edit back in my days as a university administrator - complete with extensive references at the end (close to 25% of the book is comprised of footnote and other resources, most arranged by chapter). In short, it's exactly what I would expect from a university press. That said, there's no way I can condense all the information that's in here; but I will say that if there was a stone left untouched, I'm confident it isn't an important one.

ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire by Travis Vogan (University of Illinois Press, October 2015); 288 pp.

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