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Saturday, June 22, 2024

How Amazon’s Michael Smith Is Experiencing ‘Life Beyond ESPN’

  • “Was it fair? No. I’m just gonna be binary about it. But life ain’t fair. I appreciate the 15 years I had there,” Smith told FOS about his ESPN exit.
  • Now with Amazon and NBC Sports, Smith’s Inflection Network startup debuts with a podcast from NFL star Darren Waller.
"A lot of producers in this business think they're chemists, [but] chemistry cannot be created in a lab,” Smith told FOS.
Courtesy of Inflection Network.

Michael Smith’s tenure at ESPN did not end exactly how he would have wanted following 15 years at the network from 2004-2019.

Smith reached a buyout in September 2019 despite having two years left on his contract, which was reportedly worth $10 million. About a year earlier, his former SportsCenter “SC6” co-host Jemele Hill reached a buyout, while Smith was phased out of on-air programming once he left “SC6” in March 2018. 

At the time, Smith said he and Hill felt “muted” by ESPN and frustrated with production decisions to limit their commentary on “SC6.” The 6 p.m. ET “SportsCenter” show was canceled one year after its 2017 debut.

Now, Smith is launching his own podcast production company Inflection Network and told Front Office Sports that his perception on his ESPN tenure and exit has evolved with time. 

“If you’d asked me that question six months, a year ago, definitely when it first happened — I’d have answered it from a place of frustration, anger, and bitterness,” Smith told FOS. “Somebody told me a long time ago everything ends badly; otherwise, it wouldn’t end. Was it fair? No. I’m just gonna be binary about it. But life ain’t fair. I don’t look at it that way anymore, I appreciate the 15 years I had there.” 

Smith, 44, joined NBC Sports in 2020 to co-host Peacock’s streaming show “Brother From Another” alongside his friend Michael Holley. He also joined Amazon Prime Video as a “Thursday Night Football” correspondent last season and is returning this season. ESPN’s NFL coverage will look very different this season after the recent layoffs and departures of Suzy Kolber, Steve Young, Dianna Russini, Keyshawn Johnson, and Matt Hasselback. 

“I remember being on the ‘SportsCenter’ set, this would’ve been 2018 when it was the first big layoffs, and that was uncharted territory because it felt like Disney and ESPN was printing money at that point. And it’s happened several times since then,” Smith said. “What you don’t know at ESPN while you’re there is there is life beyond ESPN. So many people have left the Worldwide Leader and more than landed on their feet. I hope and pray that’s what’s in my former colleagues’ futures.”

But Smith’s post-ESPN road was not without its bumps. He first joined Jaymee Messler’s sports media startup (Co)laboratory as chief content officer in October 2019 and briefly stayed with the company during its rebrand to Game1. Smith’s gig lasted less than a year, and Game1’s X (formerly Twitter) account has been dormant since July 2022.

“I went through two startups before I started my own. I was kind of off-the-radar for a second before I landed at NBC, which has been great. I’m back with Amazon, and this is more or less the modern media landscape; it’s very a la carte,” said Smith. “If you’re doing one thing, you’re probably doing it wrong, or you’re getting paid a sh-t ton of money. But I like having this diverse portfolio of wearing these different hats.”

Smith also hosts his own “My Main Man Michael Smith” solo podcast for NBC. As an on-field TNF correspondent for Amazon, Smith says he’s “back to my roots” covering football. His career began as a Boston Globe reporter covering the New England Patriots from 2001-2004 before he joined ESPN and became an insider for its “NFL Live” TV show.

Smith’s Inflection Network is now producing “Comeback Stories,” a mental health-focused podcast hosted by New York Giants tight end Darren Waller. Phoenix Suns yoga instructor Donny Starkins co-hosts the show with Waller, a 2020 Pro Bowler entering his first season with the Giants after five years with the Raiders.

“Once athletes decided to tell their stories, as non-athletes, we had to adapt or die,” Smith says. “I’m old enough to remember when sports media had this bright red line between the media and athletes, teams we covered — oftentimes a combative and adversarial relationship. Not only has that line been blurred, it’s non-existent,” Smith said. “You’re talking to an NFL analyst for Amazon ‘Thursday Night Football’ who covers the NFL, but I’m also business partners with one of the premier players in the NFL.”

Inflection Network has signed a distribution deal with iHeartMedia and plans to produce podcasts hosted by Olympians Lolo Jones and Ibtihaj Muhammad and former NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger. The shows will touch on the intersections of sports and society across politics, pop culture, and entertainment.

With iHeartMedia, Inflection Network enters a crowded sports podcast market, including Amazon’s Wondery, which recently added Smith’s former ESPN colleagues Trey Wingo and Michelle Beadle to host shows. Smith says Inflection Network will be “very talent friendly” to avoid the pitfalls he feels producers brought upon him earlier in his hosting career.

“Early on [in my career] and at different points, I often remember being frustrated because I was at the mercy of somebody else’s imagination, vision, or lack thereof,” Smith said. “A lot of producers in this business think they’re chemists, [but] chemistry cannot be created in a lab,” he adds. “I always wanted to be somebody who identified talent and elevated voices and owner of intellectual property as opposed to just somebody who was a movable piece on somebody else’s chess board.”

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