Friday, August 5, 2011

Bristol Doesn't Go by the Book

Friday, August 5, 2011
[SPRTS_FEATURE3]Mike Orazzi/The Bristol Press

Main Street in downtown Bristol, Conn., a town of more than 60,000 people and the home of ESPN, on Friday afternoon.

BRISTOL, Conn.—Outside the gates of ESPN's sprawling 116-acre campus here in the rolling hills of central Connecticut, the residents of Bristol got word late last week that there were some unflattering things said about their blue-collar city in "These Guys Have All the Fun," the new 763-page oral history of the sports-media behemoth.

The headline in Monday's edition of the Bristol Press said it all: "Book About ESPN Bashes Bristol." The city was being described as "remote" by authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, as "unkempt" before ESPN planted roots here in 1979. One former executive assessed the city as a dump—but in less-flattering terms.

"Sour grapes!" said Allison Moreau, a 47-year-old respiratory therapist, who spent Thursday afternoon watching a softball game at Bristol Central High School.

The book has cast a spotlight on the residents of Bristol, who are accustomed to dwelling in the shadows cast by ESPN. But for some, enough is enough.

"It does bother you," Mayor Art Ward said in an interview this week, "because this is your home, this is where you raise your family. And you've got people casting aspersions, which are ill-founded at best. It has a tendency to raise your ire a bit."

Bristol is, by most obvious measures, a prototypical working-class city—a community largely indistinguishable from hundreds of others across the Northeast. There are leafy parks and strip malls, dilapidated blocks and upscale neighborhoods. The American Clock and Watch Museum on Maple Street has pieces in its collection from the 17th century. The Bedding Barn over on Farmington Avenue offers 0% financing. "It's like any city," said Matt Pirog, 37. "There are good spots and bad spots."

Associated Press

According to ESPN, only 800 of its 4,000 Bristol, Conn.-based employees actually live in Bristol.

What makes Bristol unique is the presence of ESPN, which is the city's largest taxpayer and employer. The dynamic between the two is nuanced. Many residents said ESPN is not a significant part of the community's social fabric. In fact, only 800 of ESPN's 4,000 Bristol-based employees actually live in Bristol, according to ESPN.

Ward said he first read the book's Bristol-related excerpts late last week and got what he considered a conciliatory call that night from an ESPN representative. That meant a lot to him, he said, because he found parts of the book distasteful. In one excerpt, former ESPN Chairman Steve Bornstein told the authors that he felt some of the company's problems with sexual harassment were the result of Bristol being "100 miles from real civilization." In other words, employees were bored.

"I had a real hard time coming to grips with that gentleman who tried to legitimize those atrocious sexual activities," Ward said.

With the exception of a stint in the Marine Corps, Ward has spent his entire life in Bristol. He said the city's relationship with ESPN has long been strong and remains so. He emphasized "our history together" and cited some of the under-the-radar charitable work ESPN has done for Bristol, such as fixing up abandoned baseball diamonds in low-income neighborhoods. He also pointed out that the folks who made negative comments about Bristol in the book are no longer employed by ESPN.

"ESPN has looked at our presence in Bristol as a strength and a reason for our growth," said ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys. "The negative comments were made by people that are no longer here. We've got thousands of employees who enjoy living in central Connecticut."

Mike Sassu, a 46-year-old insurance manager, is a lifelong resident. He has six brothers who also live in the city. Two are police officers, one is a fireman and one is the head pro at Chippanee Golf Club. Sassu has little patience for people who are dismissive of Bristol. "Didn't Olbermann badmouth us when he left, too?" he asked.

Sassu was referring to former SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann, who actually assessed Bristol as a "godforsaken place" during a television interview—in 1997, while he was still employed by the network. (His comments ignited a feud with ESPN, and he joined Fox Sports Net the following year.)

D.J. Sanderson, a senior at Bristol Central, said ESPN is an unobtrusive presence—unless you count "ESPN Day" at Lake Compounce, a family theme park on the southern edge of town where Sanderson has a summer job. "ESPN rents out the entire park for their employees and stuff," he said.

Sanderson said there had been some buzz about the book at school, where classmates found excerpts online. He has a hard time understanding how anyone could dump on Bristol for being "out in the boondocks," he said. With a population of more than 60,000, Bristol is one of the 15 largest towns or cities in the state. "It's not like Terryville," said Sanderson, referring to Bristol's quiet neighbor to the west. "I mean, we're not trying to badmouth Terryville. But that would be the middle of nowhere."

On Thursday night, the ballfields at the Giamatti Little League Center were bustling as Jim McGinley, a 44-year-old information technology specialist, gathered his team's bats and balls.

Like most of the other residents who were interviewed, McGinley said he was upset with what he described as the book's characterization of Bristol as a "podunk town where there's nothing to do." Just look around, he said. Besides, Bristol is hardly in the middle of nowhere.

The Little League complex is a source of pride, McGinley said. A tournament is held here each summer to determine which team will represent New England at the Little League World Series. The event is even televised. "This is the one they play," McGinley said, "when ESPN comes to town."

Write to Scott Cacciola at

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