ESPN Can't Afford to Lose Stephen A. Smith, $10 Million a Year Looks Like a Bargain

Bobby Burack
Apr 4, 2019, 2:30 PM EDT

The latest contract rumors in sports media to swirl relate to Tony Romo and Stephen A. Smith. And both involve the two media stars inking deals worth around $10 million per year. To no surprise, the report involving Smith caused an unpleasant reaction. Which, to use his word, is asinine. As much as most hate to fathom it, Smith and those in his class are as valuable as ever.

He has been on top of the sports media landscape for at least five years and is one of the few talents in the business to make a significant difference on linear television in 2019. Another is his former debate partner Skip Bayless, whose departure caused at one point a nearly 35 percent ratings decline to their timeslot. This led to ESPN moving First Take to the main channel, essentially killing ESPN2’s relevance. A Smith departure from ESPN could create a scenario that nobody would’ve ever seen coming just two years ago: ESPN routinely losing to another personality-driven sports show head-to-head.

Smith is going to have options. The two that come to mind, if he opts to leave ESPN, are FS1 and Turner (now with AT&T). Bayless provided FS1 a major boost in rating and eclipsed the 200k mark numerous times during this past football season. If Fox could reunite Bayless and Smith, ESPN would be in real danger of losing to them from 9:30-noon daily. Not to mention, the increased ratings would provide The Herd with a better lead-in. Even if Fox didn’t pair Smith and Bayless together, Smith seemingly could match, or even top, Undisputed‘s ratings at another time during the day and take away from whatever ESPN has airing head-to-head at that point.

It would be a similar story with Turner. While they don’t currently have an all-sports channel, they could cause a major headache to both ESPN and FS1  if they were to bring in Smith. They could utilize TNT or TBS as a vehicle for Smith. Could Smith, who is known for saying he is more of a night person, have success this time around hosting a nightly sports show? Say, against one of ESPN’s most valued assets in Scott Van Pelt at midnight? Could they add a third morning sports debate show to the guide?  Turner also could promote him with occasional appearances on CNN.

It also would not be much of a challenge for him to continue radio somewhere if that is still a desire. AT&T already licenses out Dan Patrick’s and Rich Eisen’s radio shows to Fox Sports Radio on Premiere Networks. Surely a return to SiriusXM while doing television with Turner is a possibility.

Being the television draw that Smith is, taking his talents to a streaming service like DAZN or Amazon doesn’t make much sense unless there is a shockingly high amount of cord-cutters in the next two years.

Believe it or not, as powerful as ESPN is, they don’t have a person who can replace what he brings. A daunting task would exist in replacing him on First Take without seeing a drastic ratings decline. But ESPN wouldn’t use him literally everywhere if they didn’t see a positive impact on other shows. His loss would be damaging to Get Up‘s final hour, their radio network, and to a lesser degree, the many SportsCenters he appears on.

Now, ESPN is equipped to replace him as the “face of ESPN.” Scott Van Pelt, Rachel Nichols, and Dan Le Batard can all be that. And while some would argue their content is better quality, they do not, and cannot move the needle, create the discussion, draw the ratings, or fill the innings like Smith does.

Smith very well could be the most valuable talent in the business. There are counters such as Joe Buck, Van Pelt, Romo, and looking ahead to the digital impact of Big Cat and PFT Commenter. But there is no counter to the fact that he is ESPN’s most valuable asset and will be for the foreseeable future.

This all adds up to a $10 million salary suddenly looking well within reason. The biggest detriment this would cause would be the standard that it would raise. Not only for those on his tier, but also the tier below him. Many in the industry credit big deals for Mike Greenberg, Colin Cowherd, and Skip Bayless as the reason why those in tier 2 received major salary bumps in recent years.

With a few years left, the general consensus is that ESPN will get this done and not let their most valuable piece walk. But it is not a guarantee he stays, and as much as many don’t want to believe it, it would arguably be ESPN’s biggest talent loss ever.