Dan Le Batard left ESPN and became his own boss seeking freedom from the establishment, but Stephen A. Smith has found the same freedom Le Batard previously sought from ESPN.
Le Batard joined the latest episode of Jimmy Traina’s Sports Illustrated Media Podcast. During the interview, the former ESPN radio host was asked about wrestling with the Worldwide Leader over content. For a content creator like Le Batard, who prioritizes the ability to build a show with freedom of expression, one headbutt with ESPN bosses was too much. Eventually, Le Batard found content freedom by leaving ESPN to launch Meadowlark Media, where he’s built a podcast network and a massive platform for his own show.
“They’re in the business of customers, and many of the customers are tired of their analysts slanting things with whatever their politics are,” Le Batard admitted of ESPN. “So I understand why Disney specifically would say ‘No, thank you, do not want those headaches, not worth it, you’re disposable. We’ll find somebody else who does it without the headaches because we can put on anybody here and make them famous because we’re still the four letters that matter in sports.’”
Stephen A. Smith, however, appears to supersede the stick to sports mandate ESPN has attempted to impose on its talent, the same mandate that encouraged Le Batard to be his own boss.
“He is somebody that they view as indispensable,” Le Batard said of Smith, citing his value and power within the company. “My agent told me two or three years ago, ‘ESPN is gonna get rid of all its middle class. They’re gonna just have five, six or seven people that they pay millions and millions of dollars.’ And in the time since, by the way, Stephen A. is now underpaid because they’re giving Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and all these people more money.”
“What’s happened with me, with [Pat] McAfee, with people who leave,” Le Batard continued to Traina on his SI Media Podcast, “is that you have enough name and enough brand power from being at ESPN, that we are now strong enough that Stephen A. can within the establishment, change some of the rules because they realize that they have to give him freedom cause of the precedents being set everywhere else.”
Le Batard has admitted Smith was better at dealing with Disney executives than he was during his time at ESPN. (At least, in Smith’s second run at ESPN; Smith himself has discussed the problems he caused for executives in his first run.) Le Batard will also admit that Smith is more valuable than he was to ESPN as the face of the network and the architect of their premier studio show. While Smith prioritizes sports on First Take, he also has the freedom to address the social or political topics that are important to him.
Le Batard sought freedom, Smith seeks building himself into a brand that transcends sports. A journalist, author, radio, TV and podcast host, an actor (using the term lightly), premier sports voice, and now, Smith seems hopeful that he can simultaneously become a political pundit. ESPN has interestingly allowed its top talent to partner with Cadence13 for a political podcast, the likes of which have already seen Smith appear on Fox News several times promoting his new venture.
“ESPN can’t keep Stephen A. there exclusively,” Le Batard said. “He’s got too much power, too much leverage, he’s made First Take his own show. He’s doing what he wants with First Take. And he’s a signature personality there who has done too much for them publicly, where you can’t help but give him anything he wants.”
Throughout his seemingly never-ending media tour since launching his podcast and announcing his upcoming memoir, the question Smith has not been asked is whether he pitched the political venture to ESPN, or if it was always planned for a platform outside the Disney umbrella.
“That’s a new thing and I think it’s a new thing only for him,” Le Batard said of Smith’s ability to launch a political podcast. “I don’t know that they’re gonna allow some second person to do it.”