In their new book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales have compiled a massive oral history of the most successful sports channel in the history of television, drawing on interviews with almost everyone we associate with the network. Not surprisingly, Keith Olbermann figures prominently in the book, both as a character and as one of the many interviewees. In his time at ESPN, Olbermann was best known for co-hosting the 11 p.m. SportsCenter with Dan Patrick, a position he held more or less continuously from 1992 until his abrupt departure in 1997. (Olbermann also helped launch ESPN2, hosting SportsNight for a short period in 1993-94.)
After reading the accounts of Olbermann’s many former colleagues, coupled with his own recollections of his time at the network, the reader emerges with a more complete picture of a man who, though seriously flawed, was decisive in shaping the network’s future and who inspired an entire generation of sports broadcasters.
Interestingly, when Olbermann first joined ESPN in 1992, he took a major pay cut. He had previously been making $475,000 annually as a sportscaster for KCBS in Los Angeles (in a contract that network chose not to renew), but when he made the move to Bristol, Conn., he started with a salary of only $150,000. At the time, Olbermann’s ego already had a notorious reputation, and just before Olbermann signed on to the network, sportscaster Bob Ley made a prescient comment:
I still remember the lunch when John [Walsh] and Steve [Bornstein] were deciding whether they were going to hire Keith. I said, “You’re aware of his reputation, aren’t you?” They said, “Oh, it’s not going to be like that. He’s not making all that much money.” I said, “It’s not a function of money. Know what you’re buying.” When he arrived, Keith had one thing in mind: it was Keith. That’s fine. Nothing wrong with that.
Charley Steiner, who had previously hired Olbermann in 1980 in New York on the radio, was impressed by Olbermann’s intelligence but was also aware of the potential havoc his personality could wreak:
Keith is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. . . . [I]ntellectually he was a genius and socially he was, well, a special-needs student. When I heard he was coming to ESPN I knew it would take some getting used to — on everyone’s part.
Upon assuming the 11pm SportsCenter anchor chair in 1992, Olbermann immediately put his signature on the program and gained a substantial new audience, particularly in the 18–25 demographic. What most impressed his co-workers was just how much Olbermann knew about sports, and how quickly he was consequently able to write and put together segments for SportsCenter. Producer Bill Fairweather recalls an example of this following the death of Mickey Mantle, whom Olbermann, a lifelong Yankee fan, idolized:
It was my responsibility to produce that SportsCenter show. I said to Keith, “Obviously, you have to write the obit for Mantle, and he said, “Yeah, no problem.” We went through the rest of the meeting, Keith leaves the room, and by the time I make it back to the newsroom, about fifteen minutes later, Keith calls me over to his desk. I say, “What’s up, K.O.?” and he says, “Hold on a second, I’m almost done.” And he had written a complete five minute and thirty five second long obituary! I know that because the computer would tell you how long the actual version would be on tape. So he handed it to me and here was this obit [starting] with when Mick had come into the league, what he had hit in particular years, home runs, and the dates of important milestones. Now, Keith did have a little reference guide next to him, but let’s face it, how much time did he actually have to look up a lot of things if he wrote the whole thing in fifteen minutes? You know what I mean? . . . So whatever you think about Keith…and everybody always has many different opinions — if you’re a producer, the guy’s hitting grand slams for you.
At one point, Olbermann’s on-air personality was so dominant that many newer sportscasters had difficulty finding their own voices on the network. Journalist Steve Levy recalls:
When I first got to ESPN, I wasn’t being myself on the air. I was trying to be either Dan [Patrick] or Keith, and that was the trap that a lot of new anchors fell into. The height of SportsCenter was with those two; they were the signature figures. I don’t think that’ll be different seventy-five years from now.