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Stephen A. Smith to ESPN: ‘I Want To Be Highest-Paid Talent’

  • After watching talent such as Troy Aikman and Pat McAfee score big deals, the host says it is his turn.
  • The host of ‘First Take’ tells Clay Travis that he may walk away from ESPN if they don’t reach a new deal.
ESPN Stephen A. Smith
ESPN Images

As the face and voice of ESPN, Stephen A. Smith has been patient about watching new hires like Troy Aikman, Joe Buck and Pat McAfee leap past him on the salary chart. But Smith’s patience appears to be at an end.

During an interview with Outkick’s Clay Travis that published Tuesday, Smith declared that he wants to be the highest-paid talent at ESPN. If Disney and ESPN don’t make that happen under his next contract, Smith seems ready to go independent.

When Travis asked him if he deserves to be the highest-paid talent at ESPN, Smith didn’t hesitate.

“Yes. I’m not stuttering. Hell, yes, that’s absolutely true,” Smith said. “I’ve mastered my own business in the world of sports television, Clay Travis, I’ve been No. 1 for 12 years. April 1 will mark 12 consecutive years I’ve been No. 1. Not only have I been No. 1 every year, I’ve been No. 1 every week in every month of every year for the last 12 years. You don’t get to say that about too many people.

“I look at whether it’s Pat McAfee, it’s Mike Greenberg, it’s Scott Van Pelt, it’s Troy Aikman, it’s Joe Buck, it’s Kirk Herbstreit. The list goes on and on. I’m so honored to have the colleagues that I have that I work with at ESPN every day. And at the end of the day, it would be nice for one day for this man to stand before everyone and be like, this is not I’m No. 1, and this says I’m No. 1.”

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To paraphrase Jay-Z, Smith said he’s not just a talent. He’s a “business,” he told Travis.

“I have my own production company. I’ve got my own YouTube channel. I’ve got my own show. It’s not even just a podcast. It’s a show with a fully loaded television studio. That’s what I built for myself, that could go linear or digital. The list goes on and on. I’m doing all of these things. I’m not doing all of that to be in second place. I’m not doing all of that to look up at somebody else to see that they’re making more than me when I’m producing superior ratings and revenue. No, I’m not doing that. And I’m not apologizing for anybody for it.”

The host of the top-rated “First Take” then lobbed the contract ball into the court of ESPN’s parent company, Disney.

“Again, I’ve got great relationships, and what have you, but this is a business, and Disney has a right to run its business the way it sees fit. ESPN does, as well. But if they do, so do I. I hope that we’re able to work it out. I’m confident that we will because I’m incredibly happy there. We’ll see.”

Smith currently makes roughly $12 million per year. But three big-budget hires have overtaken him in the last two years.

Top “Monday Night Football” analyst Troy Aikman zoomed past him last year with a five-year, $90 million contract that pays him $18 million a year. So did MNF play-by-play announcer Joe Buck, who scored a five-year, $75 million deal worth $15 million a year.

You could argue the NFL is its own category for ESPN. But Pat McAfee also vaulted past Smith with a new five-year, $80 million contract worth $16 million a year.

Would Smith be happy if ESPN ups his total pay to $20 million annually? Probably. The question is whether he has enough leverage to make more than he’s making now on his own. Or with another network.

A jump to Fox Sports is probably off the table since it doesn’t have NBA rights or a streaming platform. It’s an open question whether other networks would pay what it takes to land ESPN’s No. 1 star.

“No one is going to come close to ESPN,” said one source.

On the other hand, Smith has been a good soldier watching at least three new hires surpass him in salary. With his multiple roles on “First Take” and “NBA Countdown,” nobody works harder or produces more for the four letters.

After recruiting Shannon Sharpe to the show, Smith and Molly Qerim’s “First Take” posted its most-watched November ever, averaging 614,000 viewers.

His multiple projects have enable Smith to move beyond sports and tackle politics and pop culture. It’s been rumored for years that Smith’s ultimate endgame is to reunite with former “First Take” sparring partner turned competitor Skip Bayless on an independent streaming platform like YouTube. Or make a move into late night TV.

With Smith’s contract coming up in 18 months, there’s no talent negotiation more important for ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro.

Don’t underestimate Smith. Like other superstars, he operates under his own rules.

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