Saturday December 9, 2023

How Stephen A. Smith Built an Empire From Inside ESPN

  • "Normal rules that apply to most talent at ESPN don’t apply to him."
  • Smith built up tremendous clout and now he doesn't have to stick to sports.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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ESPN has guidelines stating that commentary by employees “should refrain from overt partisanship or endorsement of particular candidates, politicians, or political parties.”

But there was Stephen A. Smith on ABC’s “The View” this week, declaring he does not want to see former U.S. President Donald Trump back in the Oval Office.

“The objective is to make sure that the former president is never in office again,” Smith said.

On some teams, there’s one superstar like Michael Jordan or Lawrence Taylor who gets away with things that others can’t. At Walt Disney’s Co.’s ESPN, Stephen A. Smith is such a figure.

  • Smith made his bones as an NBA beat reporter and columnist at newspapers like the “Philadelphia Inquirer.” Hired by ESPN in 2003, he scored his own national show, “Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith,” within two years.
  • But he wasn’t a great colleague, and ESPN dropped his show in 2007 — then dropped him after a contract dispute in 2009.

That was rock bottom for Smith professionally, but he slowly worked his way back into ESPN, culminating with his ascension to Skip Bayless’ full-time debate partner on “First Take” in 2012. Since then he’s been a rocket ship.

Smith is now the face and voice of ESPN — and the company’s highest-paid talent, with the exception of the new “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth of Troy Aikman and Joe Buck.

Colossus of Clout

At the Worldwide Leader in Sports, the human hot-take machine has become the network’s most popular — and powerful — personality.

What Stephen A. wants, Stephen A. usually gets.

It helps that the 55-year-old Smith has the ear of ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro. If he has an issue, he calls the boss directly, according to one former ESPN on-air talent.

“Normal rules that apply to most talent at ESPN don’t apply to him. Very few talents call Pitaro directly. He can and does. And Pitaro is good with it, which makes sense on some level. [Smith] makes the company a ton of money. And works his ass off.”

The only ESPN personalities with similar clout to Smith might be Aikman, Buck, Kirk Herbstreit, Adam Schefter, and Adrian Wojnarowski, noted Richard Deitsch on his Sports Media podcast.

No ESPN talent gets more face time than Smith, either. With the semi-retirement, or retirement, of mainstays like Chris Berman and Bob Ley, he’s one of the few stars with real leverage in Bristol.

“Stephen A. Smith engineered one of the greatest turnarounds in ESPN history. He was out the door. He was in Siberia. At the time he left, many thought he’d have many more opportunities than he ended up getting,” Jim Miller, author of “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” told Front Office Sports in an interview.

“Lo and behold, he returns to the fold and goes on one of the more incredible upward trajectories that any talent has had at ESPN, particularly from a financial point of view. At a time when a lot of ESPN talents were being cut and shredded on their contracts, he’s got probably the biggest deal at ESPN apart from the booth.”

Stick to Sports?

In August, Smith negotiated an outside deal with Audacy’s Cadence13 to host his own podcast, “K[no]w Mercy With Stephen A. Smith,” giving him the wiggle room to tackle non-sports issues ranging from politics and entertainment to race and criminal justice.

It’s strange enough that ESPN would allow one of its highest-paid employees to host a podcast for an outside company — especially when it has its own podcast network.

But why would it allow its biggest star to embrace the third rail of politics? 

Former ESPNers like Jemele Hill have gotten into hot water for ripping Trump — but not the star of “First Take.”

If Smith can discuss politics on his independent podcast, then he can talk about Trump on “The View” — with zero repercussions from ESPN. In recent months, he’s even appeared multiple times with his friend Sean Hannity of Fox News.

Smith had enough juice to call his own shot, said sources — and ESPN brass didn’t stand in his way.

“Stephen A. has an agreement to host a podcast separate from ESPN, which we approved specifically because it’s focused on topics outside of the sports realm,” said ESPN in a statement. “These appearances are an extension of what he discusses on his podcast, and the conversation and topics are not related to his sports-centric ESPN work.”

Two Sides of Stephen A.

The son of West Indian parents, Smith grew up in Queens. He was held back in third and fourth grade until overcoming an undiagnosed case of dyslexia with the help of his mother, sisters, and teachers. 

One of his most painful childhood memories is his dad telling his mom, “The boy ain’t smart.” That’s one reason why Smith has a fierce sense of loyalty to folks who have his back.

When Skip Bayless became a national pariah for his callous reaction to Damar Hamlin’s heart attack, it would have been easy for Smith to pile on his old partner. 

Instead, he was one of the few voices to publicly support Bayless, whom he credits with saving his career by hiring him for “First Take” in 2012.

Then there’s the ruthlessly competitive, all-business Stephen A.

Sensing “First Take” was growing stale, he engineered the departure of longtime debate partner Max Kellerman from the show in 2021. 

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It was a tough call after five years together on the air, but Smith’s bite-the-bullet instincts proved to be correct. The addition of rotating co-hosts like Dallas Cowboys legend Michael Irvin, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, Marcus Spears, Dan Orlovsky, and JJ Redick has ultimately made “First Take” a better show.

“I was very, very honest about me saying that I thought the show needed a change,” Smith told Russo. “But what I also said to the bosses was, ‘Listen, I think our time together has passed. If you want to keep him on the show and not me, and you want me to do something else that you think I could be more beneficial and more profitable for the company, so be it.’”

A Mother’s Lesson

When ESPN dumped Smith in 2009, he retreated to his childhood bedroom to lick his wounds and feel sorry for himself.

His late, beloved mother served her son breakfast — along with a hand mirror.

She told him to take a good look at himself, and ask how he could turn himself into an asset rather than a liability to future employers.

Smith got the message and changed his attitude. Since then, he wakes up every morning with two thoughts:

“No. 1, how do I make my bosses more money? And No. 2, how do I get some of it?”

The $15 Million Man

Despite his broad footprint across ESPN’s daytime, NBA, and “SportsCenter” programming, Smith felt the need to remind everyone in October that he’s “underpaid” vs. other television talents.

At $13 million a year, Smith was ESPN’s highest-paid talent until Aikman and Buck signed five-year deals worth a respective $18 million and $15 million annually. 

But with his new podcast and autobiography, Smith’s now making “north of $15 million a year,” said one source.

Smith collaborates closely with David Roberts, ESPN’s chief of NBA and studio production, and Norby Williamson, executive editor and head of event and studio production.

Together with talented moderator Molly Qerim, Smith has turned the previously reviled “First Take” into a juggernaut that routinely trounces Bayless and Shannon Sharpe’s rival “Undisputed” on FS1 in ratings.

Given his omnipresence at ESPN, it seems at times like there must be several Stephen A. Smiths.

  • He serves as the featured commentator and executive producer of “First Take” five days a week.
  • He’s been an analyst on the “NBA Countdown” pregame show since 2021.
  • Since 2022, he’s hosted an alternate telecast of NBA games called “NBA in Stephen A’s World.”
  • He typically hosts several special “SportsCenter” specials each year.

On top of that, he has his own production company, Mr. SAS Productions.

What’s Next?

Smith has come a long way from the old “Screaming A” caricature. He’s been profiled in The New Yorker and parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” notes the Washington Post.

The bombast is still there. But his scowl has become more of a smile as he shows off his comedy chops.

What’s next for SAS? He could transition to Hollywood.

  • On Wednesday, he told Hannity he wants to be the “heir apparent” to Jimmy Kimmel as host of ABC’s late night talk show.
  • He’s dabbled in acting, guest-starring as hit man Brick on his favorite soap opera, “General Hospital.”
  • Perhaps mindful of his future in entertainment, Smith apologized to singer Rihanna for saying she “ain’t Beyonce” ahead of her halftime performance at Super Bowl 57.

Or, Smith could follow Trump into politics. He previously told ESPN’s Paul Finebaum he’d “strongly consider” a run for president.

“I’m not just about Black appeal. I’m about mass appeal,” Smith told Finebaum. ”Everybody in America would matter. Whatever it took to make this country better, is what I would do.”

The Good Life

Smith’s book tour for his new autobiography, “Straight Shooter: A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes,” was treated like a royal coronation by ESPN and Disney this week.

Here was a smiling Smith talking about his book with Robin Roberts on sister Disney network ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“I never wanted to be limited to just sports,” he told the former ESPNer.

There was Smith talking about presidential politics with Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sunny Hostin on ABC’s “The View.” The cast gushed over his political insights.

On air this week, Qerim recalled her only FaceTime session with Smith, while he was living large in Beverly Hills. A masseuse was rubbing Smith’s shoulders, another was giving him a manicure, and a third was giving him a pedicure. Smith just laughed.

“He’s created an empire on his own terms inside ESPN that was very, very difficult to do,” said Miller. “Others have tried — he managed to do it. And the fact he did it after being pushed out, and then coming back, is even more startling.”

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