Stephen A.’s $18 Million Offer

Stephen A. Smith
In many respects, ESPN has made Stephen A. the face of the network over the past several years. Photo: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images
John Ourand
June 20, 2024

A generation ago, when he was just a rake in his progress on the set of The Sports Reporters, no one would have guessed that the New Yorker turned Philly sportswriter Stephen A. Smith would one day become the biggest name on ESPN—the heir to Schaap and Berman, Patrick and Olbermann, Mike and Tony, etcetera. But Smith has undeniably become that star, volubly manifesting his talents from First Take to the network’s NBA coverage. As David Zaslav knows from the success of Inside the NBA, it is hard to make a studio show stand out. And Smith has proven that he can help differentiate a TV show in a way that boosts ratings and captures sponsorship dollars. In the process, Smith has become that rare talent who is more famous than most of the athletes he interviews, the sort who can gas up a jejune studio show into performance theater.

ESPN, which has parted ways with a lot of its signature on-air talent during the past few years, knows this. Stephen A., for better or worse, is their Rachel Maddow: homegrown, polarizing but beloved, beyond parody. And probably one of the only remaining sports media talents worthy of old-school dough. ESPN has been working hard to re-sign Smith, whose contract ends in a year; last week ESPN made its initial offer of $18 million per year for five years. I’m told ESPN execs pitched Smith’s WME agents that he would be their highest-paid star, earning more than Monday Night Football’s Troy Aikman or Joe Buck.