Stephen A. Smith at a live taping of "First Take" in 2021. Stephen A. Smith at a live taping of “First Take” in 2021. (Tori Lynn Schneider/The Tallahassee Democrat, via USA Today Sports.)

One of the biggest questions of the “embrace debate” era has been the degree to which Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless, and other pundits actually hold their bold opinions, and the degree to which they’re just dropping the hottest takes that they think will resonate with viewers most. Without being inside their heads, we can’t know what these figures actually believe.

But we can analyze their public comments for clues. And Smith, in particular, has revealed a lot on that front this past week. And he’s done so in a way that doesn’t look great for him.

Smith’s discussions on the WNBA, Caitlin Clark, and the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team not selecting her have seen him both revealing how marketing-first he is and lecturing his female colleagues for not thinking the same way. The latest and most blatant example came from him ranting about Clark’s omission on First Take Monday because it wasn’t a smart marketing move, and then telling Andraya Carter she needs to value marketing more or she’ll always be underpaid:

But last week saw this too. That was particularly true with Smith’s lecturing of Monica McNutt for her discussion of the WNBA being about more than Clark, with his “How about being a Black man?” response to her comments on being a female analyst, and with his pushback on her challenge that he could have used his platforms to cover the league earlier:

As noted in our discussion of the McNutt-Smith incident (which produced many further follow-ups from both), McNutt was correct that Smith has the personal leverage to cover anything he wants. But expecting that from First Take was questionable. That show has made it very clear throughout its history that it’s there not to discuss the biggest news of the day, but to provide a platform for Smith and others (including Bayless before his 2016 departure for FS1) to get off takes on subjects executives’ data suggests viewers want to hear from them on, and that’s an approach Bayless is also still taking over at Undisputed. And that’s a big part of Smith’s overall marketing approach.

To his credit, Smith has been quite honest about this over the years. He has not admitted to manufacturing takes. And if he does or does not manufacture takes (and if so, the degree to which he does) remains up for debate. But he has regularly cited ratings as a defense against criticism and as proof of his value to ESPN. And he’s spoken about how business-oriented he is, and why he should be ESPN’s top-paid talent soon.

Two past interviews of Smith’s in particular stand out there. Those illustrate how different his perspective on marketing, money, and business is from Carter, McNutt, and others. To start with, here’s some of what Smith told New York radio host Miss Jones on his exit from ESPN in 2009 and return in 2011 (he got a regular First Take role the following year) in a remarkably candid 2022 interview around the launch of his podcast:

“I had to sit at home and reflect on the decisions that I made and how I was just a pain in the ass. Because I had a firm belief in what I was doing. And the level of muscle that they placed down upon me made me feel strapped at times, and I was upset about that when I didn’t realize why they were doing it. They were doing it because I didn’t earn their trust. And when I didn’t earn that trust, they were like ‘Wait a minute now, you work for us, not just for yourself, and we have to protect our brand. So when they made that decision [to not renew his contract], I had to be mindful and cognizant of that and act accordingly.”

“…At the end of the day, you have to be mindful and cognizant of the fact that you’re in business with other people.”

“And so when I got focused on that and on mastering my craft, all of a sudden I learned what popularity was. Popularity wasn’t your name in the streets, somebody saying ‘Stephen A.’ Popularity wasn’t myself on billboards. Popularity was the ratings and the revenue I brought in, and how I was able to get that information and thereby monetize myself, me recognizing how much I was truly worth rather than using popularity to determine that. And once I had that informational muscle to support what I believed about myself, suddenly I sat up there and I changed my attitude, not just because of what I learned about me, but that same knowledge I learned about my bosses.”

“This information about ESPN changed my whole thinking. My approach suddenly became, number one, how do I make my bosses more money? And number two, how do I get some of that for myself? And once I had that mentality, all the floodgates opened, because now when I come to the bosses, they know I’m trying to make them money, just like I’m trying to make money myself. So even when they disagree with me, they’re open-minded and they’re willing to listen. And they’re willing to say, at least at times, in my case at least half the time, ‘Okay, let’s try it, because he’s trying to make us money too.'”

“And when they realized that, the trust elevated.”

On a similar front, here’s some of what Smith told Clay Travis last year on how he views himself as a business, and as ESPN’s top business partner:

“I’m not just a talent. I’m a business. I’ve got 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 and see that they’re making more than me when I’m producing superior ratings and revenue.”

This has long been obvious with some of the things around Smith. It’s the reason the Crab Rangoon and Holocaust tweets of his imaginary debates went viral, and led to him being called “an absurd character” by a colleague. And perhaps the defining line on him came from ex-Deadspin editor-in-chief Tommy Craggs, “His one skill is he can be emphatic on command” (Will Leitch relayed that to AA in our oral history of the Stephen A. Smith Heckling Society of Gentlemen). And Smith even got into that a bit himself alongside then-First Take co-host Max Kellerman in a 2016 interview with Michael McCarthy at The Sporting News (the piece isn’t online anymore, but the key quotes are preserved in our writeup here).

There, Kellerman insisted “all the positions are genuine,” and the show’s debates came from pre-show prep to find places where he and Smith disagreed. But Smith responded with “What I care about is, ‘What is my position? Is it valid? Is it informed?’ Once it’s valid and informed and rife with the necessary facts, that’s all I care about.” (And that maybe illustrates why he and Kellerman didn’t work out in the end.)

To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, the chief business of Stephen A. Smith is business. And that’s a fair approach, and one that’s certainly worked out well for Smith financially. And it’s made him a big personality, to the point where his network even posts videos of his arena entrances (although they often get made fun of for that):

But Smith’s approach is a sharp contrast to how many others approach sports media. There are lots of people in this business who are more concerned with remaining authentic to themselves than with a single-minded focus on reaching the top tiers of ratings success. And that can be rewarded too.

Everyone from Marcus Spears to Tony Reali has spoken about how important it is for them to be themselves on air. And Carter certainly added to that with “I will not sacrifice my basketball knowledge and my integrity in terms of the game for marketing. My marketing is doing just fine.” And as Uproxx’s Robby Kalland noted, that shows a larger divide in Smith’s coverage of the WNBA and Clark from the approaches on speaking their honest perspective that many of his female colleagues have taken (which he’s chided them for):

This interaction perfectly illustrated the disconnect between Smith’s approach to sports and the way most everyone that covers the WNBA approaches them. For Smith, everything is about seeking out the most eyeballs to drive his value to the company so he can have more leverage in his next contract negotiation. That has always driven what he talks about on First Take, as he religiously pours over the viewership numbers, tracking what topics engage the audience the most — if you listen to an interview with him, there’s a good chance he’ll bring up how the show has been “number one” for a very long time. He will hammer those topics until the actual audience (not just annoyed people on social media) starts to tune out. Everything is a business decision, with the bottom line in mind.

…That runs almost entirely contrary to how anyone that covers women’s basketball has had to operate for their entire career, and it’s partially why they are less like to play Smith’s game on First Take. Women’s sports have long been viewed as a stepping stone for those in the media, and those that have chosen to make it their career to cover women’s basketball care deeply about the sport and bristle at the notion it can’t be the pinnacle. They also want to cover it with a certain level of respect that isn’t always the case in the sports media. Those that cover the sport on a day-to-day basis are some of the best in the business at making sure they’re approaching their subject matter with a certain degree of professionalism and with a deep, nuanced understanding of every element of the league. This goes beyond just the players and the Xs and Os, and includes things like the cultural and societal issues that women in sports must navigate.

None of that is to say that Smith’s approach to his career is incorrect. As noted above, it’s certainly had a lot of benefits for him. But where he goes wrong is in thinking that it’s a universal approach, and the only way to succeed in media. And that’s especially rough to watch when it leads to him lecturing female colleagues for taking different tacks. Stephen A. Smith is good at being Stephen A. Smith. But that doesn’t mean that everyone wants to be him, or that they’re wrong for not wanting to approach sports media that way.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.