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Friday, July 12, 2024

Stephen A. Smith Could Get a $100 Million Payday, Thanks to Pat McAfee

  • McAfee’s bad-boy antics highlight Smith’s team-player approach.
  • Stephen A. is poised to become ESPN’s highest-paid talent.
Feb 16, 2024; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Team Stephen A coach Stephen A. Smith looks on against Team Shannon during the All Star Celebrity Game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen A. Smith might have a powerful leverage point as he negotiates a new contract with ESPN: Pat McAfee’s reputation. 

Smith is earning plenty of respect from ESPN management for the way he’s handling his contract negotiations—as well as his continued willingness to do whatever it takes to keep the four letters on top, sources tell Front Office Sports.

Smith’s team-player approach contrasts with the occasional bad-boy antics of McAfee, who likes to needle his bosses and test the bounds of their authority. As one top TV insider told FOS on the condition of anonymity: “I’ve got to give Stephen A. credit. He’s used that McAfee is such a bad team player to his own advantage. He brings on only ESPN people; McAfee brings on Shams [Charania]. That’s the kind of thing Stephen A. Smith would never do. He lets Pat McAfee frustrate the ESPN executives so much, they’re like, ‘F*** it. Stephen A. is a good team player.’” 

Sources say ESPN brass loves 37-year-old McAfee’s appeal to younger viewers; his performance on College GameDay; and his ability to book A-list guests including Aaron Rodgers, Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, Peyton Manning, and Caitlin Clark. But the former NFL punter has also been a loose cannon. He apologized for his role in the Aaron Rodgers vs. Jimmy Kimmel feud and for calling Caitlin Clark a “white b****.” He publicly lambasted top ESPN executive Norby Williamson as a “rat” seeking to “sabotage” his show in January (Williamson resigned three months later after 40 years at ESPN). He remained defiant on Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson’s All The Smoke podcast: “I report directly to [ESPN chairman] Jimmy [Pitaro] and [Disney CEO] Bob [Iger]. … I saw [media reporting] ‘Pat calls out his boss.’ I don’t got a motherf***ing boss.” 

McAfee is correct. From a contractual standpoint, he’s more independent than Smith. He owns his own program, licensing The Pat McAfee Show to ESPN. As executive producer, he maintains creative freedom. (McAfee has a separate talent deal for GameDay.) 

And McAfee likes to assert that independence, which includes the on-air invitation to Charania of The Athletic and Stadium to take a victory lap over ESPN’s own Adrian Wojnarowski on their differing JJ Redick coverage. Charania has appeared on the show for years, noted McAfee in June. He won’t join Team Woj on air just because he now works with ESPN. “Shams was our guy. Shams is our NBA guy,” said McAfee on his show.

In stark contrast is Smith, who plays by the rules. It behooves him to do so, as he could potentially be one of the two most sought-after free agents in sports media, along with TNT’s Charles Barkley. It’s doubtful ESPN would let Smith slip away. But his current $12 million–per-year deal with ESPN expires next July. The 56-year-old featured commentator and executive producer of First Take made it clear to Clay Travis of OutKick in December he wants to be the highest-paid talent at Disney’s sports media giant. With ESPN poised to take its flagship network direct-to-consumer next year, The Wall Street Journal hails Smith as “The Face of ESPN.”

Given Smith is now heir to ESPN legends including Chris Berman, Bob Ley, and Robin Roberts, he could throw his weight around come contract time. Instead, he has coolly played his hand.  

Start with his performance. Yes, Smith irritates ESPN brass by tackling the third rail of politics on Fox News with Sean Hannity or appearing with Travis, the network’s most outspoken critic. But he and moderator Molly Qerim have turned First Take into a morning blockbuster, with the weekday show averaging 451,000 viewers in June to 56,000 for Skip Bayless’ rival Undisputed on FS1. The show posted its most-watched year ever in 2023, averaging 496,000 viewers. First Take is riding a hot streak of 23 straight months of year-over-year growth. The 17-year ESPN veteran also costars on NBA Countdown, hosts The NBA in Stephen A’s World alt-cast, and contributes to SportsCenter. Smith has evolved First Take by recruiting new talent like Bayless’s former on-air partner Shannon Sharpe, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, and Monica McNutt.

Burke Magnus, ESPN’s No. 2 executive, called Smith a “bona fide superstar” during an interview on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast. “Nobody works harder than him. He is everywhere all the time,” said Magnus. “Everything we ask him to do, from a different show, a particular appearance or can you join this meeting with sales because it’s an important client meeting, and they’d really love to have you stop by and meet the client. He’ll do that. He never says no. He’s great in that regard. And First Take, which is his primary assignment, is a juggernaut.” Magnus added McAfee is also very open to constructive feedback from him and Pitaro, calling him the voice of a younger generation of sports fans.

Today’s Smith is far more business savvy than the immature “Screaming A” dumped by ESPN in 2009. He’s always willing to appear on other shows like Get Up to juice ESPN ratings. He’s honed his marketing and promotional skills. He’s expanded beyond sports into late-night TV, acting, and politics. With his own podcast and production company, Smith now has multiple options if he can’t reach an agreement with ESPN.

Consider how Smith said all the right things when ESPN broke the bank first for Troy Aikman and Joe Buck in 2022, then McAfee in ’23. Aikman ($18 million a year), McAfee ($17 million), and Buck ($15 million) all leap-frogged Smith’s annual compensation. Instead of throwing a tantrum, the Queens native saluted McAfee for raising the salary bar—and blazing a path of independence for other sports media talents like himself to follow.

“Two things. Number 1: I don’t give a damn. [McAfee] negotiated his deal a few weeks ago. I negotiated my deal a few years ago. The situation is not the same. I’m a big boy. I’ve been to hell and back. This does not faze me at all. Pat McAfee deserves it,” said Smith on his own podcast. “You lookin’ for some haterade here, wrong place. I admire what he has done. I respect what he has done, so much so that I’m doing it. It’s people like Pat McAfee I get to thank for that.” 

Even when Smith goes off—such as his merciless attack on former colleague Jason Whitlock—he’s smart enough to do it on his own show, not ESPN air.

On the other hand, studio talents are traditionally far less compensated than the announcers calling the biggest NFL games like Aikman and Buck. Maybe that’s why I keep hearing Smith wants to cover the NFL under his new deal, à la his idol Howard Cosell. Getting his mitts on the NFL would make him even more valuable to ESPN.

Under Pitaro and Magnus, ESPN just posted a strong first half after a 2023 marked by layoffs. Monday Night Football drew its most-watched season in 23 years. ESPN also signed marquee talents like Jason Kelce and Nick Saban and signed extensions with Sharpe and Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions. Put it all together, and the stars are aligning for Smith to possibly become ESPN’s first $100 million talent. Sources have relayed that his new compensation could eventually come in between $20 million and $25 million per year over five years, compared to five years, $90 million for Aikman, five years, $85 million for McAfee and five years, $75 million for Buck.

Throughout his mercurial career, Smith has also learned there’s an advantage to playing the diplomat. As he tweeted in 2021: “I wake up every morning with [two] thoughts. #1, how do I make my bosses more money? And #2, how do I get some of it?”

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

This September, the column will come to life as a one-day event bringing together industry experts to discuss media trends and the future of fan viewership.

The event will take place in New York on Sept. 10 at Times Center (242 W. 41st St.)

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