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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The NFL Could Be the Key to Stephen A. Smith’s ESPN Future

  • With few worlds left to conquer in the daytime, Smith is thinking about the NFL.
  • Smith idolized Howard Cosell growing up in Queens.
Tori Lynn Schneider / USA TODAY NETWORK

Can Stephen A. Smith become the next Howard Cosell?

That question could move to the forefront in coming months as Smith negotiates the most closely watched contract extension in ESPN history. My sources tell me that giving Smith the green light for more direct NFL coverage could be a key negotiating point in his contract talks this year. 

Preliminary discussions between Smith’s agent at WME and ESPN brass have begun, author Jim Miller said on the SI Media With Jimmy Traina podcast last week. ESPN has been known to throw in access to other sports as a goodie for performance. Back in 2016, for example, NFL insider Adam Schefter was allowed to cross over into NBA coverage. 

As the lead face and voice of ESPN, Smith has made it crystal clear he wants to be the highest-paid talent at the network. His current deal expires in July 2025. As the lead face and voice of ESPN, the 56-year-old host of First Take could command a salary of $20 million annually; Troy Aikman is currently No. 1 at $18 million. If Smith doesn’t get it, he could strike out on his own, via his eponymous podcast/YouTube show and production company Mr. SAS Inc. Or sign a deal with ESPN parent Disney to succeed Jimmy Kimmel as ABC’s late-night talk show host. Or enter politics, as he’s discussed with his Fox News pal Sean Hannity.

The outspoken commentator idolized Cosell growing up on the streets of New York City. Smith has publicly talked about expanding beyond his home base of First Take and NBA Countdown to include coverage of the country’s most popular, highest-rated sport.

“I’m looking at the NFL and I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve accomplished a lot of things in my life, but my idol was Howard Cosell, who was in the NFL,’” mused Smith during an interview with Jason Barrett at the Barrett Sports Media Summit in March. “I talk about the NFL on First Take every day. I think I can do it. All of a sudden you get excited about it.”

Smith’s First Take has ruled its weekday time slot for 12 years. In April, the morning debate show continued to put up monster numbers, averaging 482,000 viewers, up 12%, and registering its 20th consecutive month of year-over-year audience growth. The addition of Shannon Sharpe to Smith, Molly Qerim, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, Damien Woody, Dan Orlovsky, and Dan Graziano have enabled First Take to boat-race Skip Bayless’s rival Undisputed on FS1. In short, there are not many worlds left for Smith to conquer on morning TV. 

Smith has reported on the NBA for decades. But as he noted to Barrett, he actually talks about the NFL more than the NBA on First Take. He’s carved out his own entertaining lane as chief TV troll and tormentor of Cowboys fans.

There are similarities between Smith and the late Cosell, who died at age 77 in 1995. Both are feisty, combative New Yorkers, as Smith grew up in Hollis, Queens; Cosell in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. Both specialize in no-holds-barred opinions, delivered in a tell-it-like-it-is style, that make them a lightning rod for criticism. Both made their bones covering other sports, Smith with the NBA, Cosell with boxing and the Olympics. In fact, Cosell didn’t take up the microphone on ABC’s Monday Night Football until age 52 in ’70. Both like to dabble in entertainment. Smith has guest-hosted for Kimmel and appeared as mob surveillance expert “Brick” on General Hospital. Cosell hosted variety and news shows, including Battle of the Network Stars, while costarring as himself on The Odd Couple.

Could I see Smith calling MNF? Not likely with ESPN paying Aikman and Joe Buck a combined $165 million to serve as the No. 1 broadcast booth through 2027. But I could see ESPN using Smith more on NFL shoulder programming like Sunday NFL Countdown and Monday Night Countdown, as it tried a few years back. Or Smith leading his own alternative telecast of MNF on streaming platforms such as ESPN+ or the new Venu Sports from ESPN, Fox, and Warner Bros. Discovery. If there’s an MNF doubleheader, why not have Smith in the broadcast booth as an analyst once or twice a year? At his best, Smith could be terrific. If he bombs, he can’t be worse than former MNF analyst Jason Witten.

Smith’s recent moves into covering other sports like the UFC and boxing have generated complaints from purists and feuds with the likes of Joe Rogan. But that doesn’t mean he can’t expand into NFL coverage the way his idol moved from boxing to football in the ’70s.

As ESPN’s Michael Eaves said on The Jake Asman Show in 2021: “Here is what people have to understand:  Stephen A. Smith is the modern-day Howard Cosell,” said the ESPN UFC anchor. “Howard Cosell was an attorney, and all of a sudden, he became a sportscaster. So was he from the boxing world? No. Was he covering boxing on ABC? Yes. Was he from the NFL world? Did he play football? No. Was he in the Monday Night Football booth? Yes. That’s who Stephen A. Smith is. He is polarizing because he has an opinion on just about everything. You’re not going to make everybody happy.”

McAfee Finalizing New College GameDay Deal 

Stephen A. Smith is not the only pending contract headache for ESPN. The network has finalized a deal, on paper, for Pat McAfee to return to College GameDay, said sources. There’s only one problem: McAfee has yet to sign it. McAfee is known to play chicken during contract talks. His employment history is littered with him walking away from deals. But McAfee said last fall he expects to be back on the famed college football pregame show, and I think he will. The show is too big, he’s too tight with Kirk Herbstreit, and he’s too good of a fit as Lee Corso’s successor for him to walk away. 

Mike Drops

Tom Brady had a terrific interview on The Herd with Colin Cowherd. I’m impressed with the preparation, studying, and planning he’s putting into his debut as Fox’s No. 1 NFL game analyst this fall. Brady may not know it, but he’s tackling the No. 1 reasons former jocks fail on TV: preparation. They blithely assume they can tell a few war stories and wing it. In fact, they have to work as hard to succeed on TV as they did on the field. …What’s next for ESPN’s No. 1 NBA announce team if JJ Redick leaves for the Lakers coaching job? Nothing for a while, say my sources. ESPN shot-caller David Roberts will take his team if the network’s lead team is reduced to Doris Burke and Mike Breen. ESPN could very well go with a two-person booth of Burke and Breen. If not, look for Richard Jefferson to make a possible move up to the A team. Either way, I’m hearing, nothing will happen for months. … Legendary Fox play-by-play announcer Tim Brando agreed with “Tuned In” analysis that a fiercely loyal Charles Barkley is announcing “retirement” to try to keep his colleagues at TNT Sports in business with the NBA. “I’m in complete agreement here,” tweeted Brando.

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.

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