Last year we gave a list of candidates for who the face of ESPN was after the departure of arguably their most prominent cross-platform personality: Bill Simmons. Just over a year later and three of those individuals (plus Mike Tirico) have all left for greener pastures as well.
In that timeframe, another development has occurred – Stephen A. Smith’s omnipresence at ESPN has only magnified. Smith not only now has the First Take as his domain, but he also dominates ESPN’s general NBA coverage, entire episodes of SportsCenter, and he was also jammed into the network’s Sunday morning NFL shows as well. That’s on top of the Event Horizon scenario where Smith appears simultaneously on both ESPN and ESPN2, which happens WAY TOO OFTEN.
Is (gulp) Stephen A. Smith really now the face of ESPN? And if not, who is?
Ken Fang: I will go with Scott Van Pelt. His midnight ET SportsCenter show has become what ESPN was hoping for – irreverent, fun, and more than just a highlights show. Van Pelt has taken elements of his old radio show and brought them to SportsCenter at Night. His segments with Tim Kurkjian are must see and he knows how to bring humor into an interview. And with him now on the anchor show of ESPN’s late night SportsCenter, I think it’s elevated him as the Face of ESPN. And it appears he’ll be there for a long time to come.
Phillip Bupp: It’s gotta be Stephen A. and it’s not even close. He’s the only person that seems like ESPN is willing to put on anything that he wants to be on and that’s something that seems like the kind of power ESPN doesn’t give with anyone else. If ESPN is putting Stephen A. Smith on for most of the day, he’s definitely the face of ESPN.
Alex Putterman: Maybe I’m being stubborn in refusing to accept Stephen A. Smith as the face of ESPN, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Yes, Smith gets cross-platform play in a way few other ESPNers do, but in the end his home is co-hosting a talk show on ESPN2 that airs while most people are at work or school. If Smith is the face of ESPN, you’d think ESPN would at least give him a show on its flagship network. First Take gets 400,000 viewers a day, which is impressive for a low-production daytime talk program, but not the type of draw you’d expect from the network’s supposed face. And it’s hard to know how many of those viewers even show up for Smith — until Skip Bayless left for FS1, SAS wasn’t even the most famous person on his own show. As for the radio, the so-called face of ESPN took his talents to SiriusXM two years ago.
ESPN is in a little bit of a transition period with so many marquee names recently departed, so I’m not sure there’s one standout “face” at the moment. That said, my pick is Scott Van Pelt, whom John Skipper and company have entrusted not only to host his own show on the main ESPN network at a prime time but also to advance and develop the ever-important SportsCenter brand. SVP’s SportsCenter draws respectable ratings (significantly higher than First Take’s) and has had success on WatchESPN and on social media. Unlike Smith, whose trademark is stream-of-conscious opinion-giving, Van Pelt thoughtfully blends news and analysis in a way that reflects ESPN’s wide range of content.
Calling Smith the face of ESPN is cynical. ESPN is imperfect, but it’s better than that.
Joe Lucia: Yeah, I feel that, for better or worse, Smith is the “face” of ESPN. He’s one of their most recognizable personalities, is on TV year-round, and shows up on a variety of platforms – he’s not pigeon-holed into just his show.
And that’s the thing that sets Smith apart from everyone else at ESPN – he’s not “just” an anchor or a host and he’s not a single sport analyst. ESPN can dispatch him to most of their major events and feature him on most studio shows, and while we can detest it as much as we want… it doesn’t seem all that out of place.
Sean Keeley: If we’re simply judging by the ESPN talent, other than Chris Berman, who the average person would know, you’d have to go with Stephen A. Smith. Just based on the work ESPN has put into promoting him, promoting First Take and letting him loose to say just about anything he wants without repurcussions, thereby ensuring he’s always in the news somewhere.
This makes sense since ESPN seems more than happy to continue down the Embrace Debate road it created. With Fox Sports taking that mantra to a whole other level, the Worldwide Leader will want to remind audiences that they did it first and they do it better, so I fully expect Smith to not only continue to do what he does but get even more access and awareness across the platform, if that’s possible.
Think of it in terms of the WWE. ESPN “smarks” want the face of the company to be someone like Scott Van Pelt or Jay Bilas. But SAS is like ESPN’s Roman Reigns, they’re going to prop him up and shove him down your throat whether you like it or not.