A fascinating sports media subject over the past few decades has been the evolution of Stephen A. Smith. Perhaps the biggest and most notable change there came between the end of his first stint at ESPN in 2009 through his return to that network in 2011 in a mostly-radio role, and then his elevation to a regular co-host of First Take in 2012. And he himself offered some interesting perspective on that this week.
Since 2012, Smith has taken on a wide variety of other roles and projects. And even his First Take role has seen him working with several different hosts and debate opponents. But what he’s been doing on First Take during that period has largely been the same. He’s offered extremely passionate takes on everything, to a point where even a colleague called him “an absurd character,” in a discussion of David J. Roth’s viral Crab Rangoon tweet that illustrated Smith’s willingness to debate anything.
But while there have been some cases of Smith crossing the line into actual controversy since 2011, the vast majority of what he says spurs disagreement, but not serious actual blowback for his employer. (Which is saying something given his tremendous amount of TV tonnage.) He’s very good at finding ways to rile people up with sports takes while getting them to continue to tune in. And while he has had slip-ups in other areas, such as who’s playing and who’s alive, those draw more mockery than serious repercussions.
Whether Smith’s role at ESPN is a good thing for the overall sports landscape remains a matter of debate. But his since-2011 approach has been significantly different from a good part of his first tenure at ESPN. And it’s turned into a Smith-ESPN relationship that seems to be far more profitable for both sides than the initial one was.
So with that context in mind, it’s quite notable to hear what Smith said Tuesday on what he changed about his approach after that 2009 parting with ESPN. On Tuesday, he appeared on Jonesy In The Morning on Audacy’s 94.7 The Block in New York to promote his new ‘Know Mercy with Stephen A. Smith‘ Audacy Cadence13 podcast on cultural and social issues. And part of that interview with host Miss Jones saw him quite frankly addressing that 2009 parting with ESPN:
Here’s a transcription of the key part of that, starting from what he says starting at the 1:12 mark:
“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.”
“And so when you’re home and unemployed, and other people who you believe are inferior talent to you is getting the bag, and they’re getting the shine, all of a sudden you start realizing, ‘Well, wait a minute now, why the hell are they in this position and I’m not?’ Well, they knew how to play the game better. Well, what does that mean? What that means is, 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. So I went from being off the air to being on the air, from being on the air to being a part and having the number-one show, from having the number-one show for a year to having the number-one show for 10 years, from being just a talent to being an executive. Because the bosses know, even if I make a mistake, it ain’t intentional, it’s not selfish. I thought about everybody, and I made a judgement call that I thought would be in the best interests of everybody.”
“And they trust that I think about them just the same way that they trust me. And that’s how I translated that relationship to Cadence. Cadence knows we’re in business together, that even though I might make my own decisions, I’m never going to ignore them, I’m always going to listen, because they want to be successful just as much as they want me to be successful.”
This is interesting on a few levels. For one, this is Smith talking very openly about his failures in his first stint at ESPN, which we haven’t often seen. He’s done a ton of interviews over the years, but many of those have focused on his successes and his future ambitions. But it’s also fascinating to hear how he’s changed his approach in his second ESPN stint, and how he’s now focusing on trying to make the company money as well. Smith actually elaborated more on that particular philosophy, and how that relationship with management works in practice, earlier in this interview:
Starting at 0:30, Jones asks Smith “What if the powers that be disagree with what you say? Are you comfortable speaking with heart and passion because you’re fiscally set, and if they decide to walk away, you’re good? You’re set for life?”
Smith responds: “I wouldn’t say I’m set for life, but I’ve got money in the bank. None of us are set for life, not with Uncle Sam taking more than 50 percent of our money, considering I live in New York or LA and I’m paying federal and state taxes. Trust me, I don’t see 50 percent of my money, so I’ll be damned if I’m set for life. But having said all that, what I would say to you is this, I don’t concern myself with that either.”
“I’m a businessman. You come to me and you tell me that something is affecting the bottom line, I’m all ears. Because we’re in this together, and it’s a business relationship and I understand that. That doesn’t mean you own my thinking. That doesn’t mean I’m going to march lock-step with you 100 percent of the time. But what it also means is that I’m not going to do stuff to alienate the relationship. If we’re in this together, I have an inherent obligation to help you win just as much as I’m helping myself win.”
“You have the same obligation as well. So I’m going to be true to myself. And if upper management has a problem with what I’m saying or whatever, I’m going to listen. But as it pertains to this podcast, to be clear, Miss Jones, I’m 100 percent in control of the content. Nobody tells me what to do. You can suggest, but nobody’s telling me anything. You can tell me what you feel, but I make those decisions. But I respect the fact that I was trusted enough during the negotiation to reach that accord. So I’m always going to be listening to what other folks have to say and hearing where they come from.”
“And with ESPN, my bosses when it comes to sports, of course I have to listen and to some degree capitulate to what they want. But I usually get my way. They usually listen to me. Because they trust me, and they trust that I’m thinking about them as much as I’m thinking about myself when it comes to business. That’s respect that I hope I have with anybody I choose to do business with, because I never think about just myself as I’m conducting business.”
And that really shows how Smith has evolved. 2005 Stephen A. Smith wouldn’t say that, and even 2012 Stephen A. might not say that in quite these terms. But there now does seem to be a fair amount of consideration from Smith into how what he says and does might affect ESPN overall. And that’s a big part of what’s led to him becoming such a face of the brand, and to him getting that trust he references.
And it’s notable to hear that Smith is bringing a similar brand-conscious approach to Audacy and Cadence13 with ‘Know Mercy.’ While sports has plenty of potential landmines of its own, there are perhaps even more out there for a podcast looking to address politics, entertainment, social issues, criminal justice, business, and more. But Smith certainly seems to be thinking about those, and it will be interesting to see how he deals with them. We’ll see how this podcast works out for him and for Audacy, but at the very least, this interview on it led to some of the most significant comments from Smith in a while.
Clips and art provided by Audacy. Their blurb on the podcast follows: “Stephen A. Smith is the host of Know Mercy with Stephen A. Smith, a new podcast from Audacy’s Cadence13, on which he offers his trademark unfiltered commentary on broad cultural and social issues, and the day’s headlines around politics, entertainment, social issues, criminal justice, business, and more. Know Mercy launched this past Monday; new episodes are released Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays on the Audacy app and everywhere podcasts are available.”