ESPN’s fiery Stephen A. Smith breaks the bank: Lofty pay triggers crisp questions and trenchant comments

NY Post: Smith will be highest paid ESPNer, $8-10 million yearly; Will he make more than all 3 NYC daily sportswriters combined?

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Anyone who’s witnessed  ESPN since its birth 40 years ago should have great respect for what it achieved. Pioneers often get arrows in their backs. During the network’s incipience there were more naysayers than rats in the New York subways. The industry had more questions about ESPN’s long term sustainability than Michael Jordan’s high school coach had about his future career.

How it ballooned from its penniless roots to its explosive success is a classic case-study of best business practices. Cord cutting, the internet, mobile phones; ESPN has weathered it all. It’s the juggernaut. Moreover, management has found a way to blend its programming into every platform and tentacle imaginable; those continually spawned by today’s technology.

The acronym ESPN is still the biggest brand in sports. Financially, it runs a solid ship.

According to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post,  Stephen A. Smith will become the highest paid ESPN on-air employee, earning between $8-10 million a year. Good for Stephen A. ESPN has hired talent through the years and has a sense for  the ROI.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in America. But in the 21st century’s version of the roaring 20s, Smith has proved the great novelist wrong. Considered a blowhard by many, particularly early in his career, Stephen A. was humbled in 2009 when he and ESPN couldn’t agree on contractual terms of his renewal. After four years, he was gone. He returned to ESPN in 2011 and has been there since.

He’s polarizing and disliked by many. In fact, the most powerful basketball columnist of the last two generations Peter Vecsey, hardly ever shy with  a word, called him a ‘multi-media fraud.’

So now the Queens native broke the bank.  If Marchand’s report is close to accurate, I would venture to say that the former  newspaper writer, will make more than all the sports scribes combined who toil for the NY Post, Daily News and New York Times. And if I’m wrong, it’s not by much.

For a man who had to win back his gig at the Philadelphia Inquirer through arbitration, it’s apparent that setbacks in his career have never tempered his resolve to make it big. For that alone, he gets my respect.

For some fun, let me share these caustic if not humorous and fabricated questions and comments:

  • Will Stephen A. tweet a thank you to President Trump for lowering the taxes on the rich?
  • What does ex-ESPNer Dan Patrick think of Smith’s compensation?  When asked, Patrick said he was unaware of it because he was out golfing with Adam Sandler.
  • With increased income tax revenue, the city of Bristol plans to add five more traffic lights, one of which will be named in Stephen A.’s honor.
  • Has Tony Romo resubmitted his demands for a new contract to exceed $10 million?  Rumor has it that CBS sports boss Sean McManus sent Marchand’s article to the company CFO Christina Spade with an FYI on it.
  • Didn’t Marchand also report last week that ESPN under Jimmy Pitaro is looking at salaries. He’s right. He looked at what they’ll pay Stephen A. and figured he has to get the dough somewhere else.
  • Did I hear right about a rowdy party in Manhattan last night? Broadcast agents were popping champagne, celebrating the escalating market. They were using the calculators on their Smartphones to count their anticipated commission increases.
  • Between helpings of bratwurst, John Madden, 82, bawled out his agent, Sandy Montag, “Hey, I was bigger than this Stephen A. guy or Stephen B. or Stephen C., whatever the hell his name is. Why didn’t I get that kind of dough.”
  • There were Marv Albert sightings. Apparently, he opened the window in his Manhattan apartment and yelled, “Yess, I’m next!”
  • Uncle Verne Lundquist in Austin, “Why in the world did I retire?”
  • When Warren Buffet was told he said, “Who?”
  • Was it Vin Scully who said,  “What did I tell you about Venezuela, socialism never works.”
  • Was that Smith’s nemesis, Skip Bayless who muttered under his breath, “What the heck did I do wrong? Why am I at Fox?
  • Did Smith tell a buddy: “Hey you see I got $10 million even though I thought Mike Scioscia still manages the Angels. Details, details, details. Who cares?”
  • Is Sal Marchiano shaking his head and asking himself, “Did I really say, ‘Happiness is Bristol in my rear view mirror.’”
  • Did Chris Berman say, “Hey, Dickie V has a lifetime contract. Stephen A. has a contract worth five lifetimes. Forget about the money. All I want is my Sunday NFL chair again.”
  • How about Dickie V, “Hey, Chris, you’re too nice. I’ve got to tell you, I love Stephen A.!”
  • How about Bob Ley? Was he seen scurrying around the studio?  “This is crazy $tuff. Well have to investigate it for Outside the Lines
  • Did I hear a Howard Cosell impersonator bellow an impromptu reaction? “The contract of this reporter was carefully crafted by the best attorney in New York, yours truly! It is a private and classified matter. If this bombastic Smith  fellow would like to debate me, I would welcome it. I tell it like it is. He is haughty, incorrigible and has an inflated value of his self-worth. Let me assure you that my command of the language alone is richer than his bloated and ballooned contract.”
  • When he found out, pioneer Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber fell out of his catbird seat. “Friends, FOB no longer stands for ‘Full of Brooklyns, it’s become ‘Full of billions.”
  • So what are the poor folks who were let go by ESPN thinking?  Sorry, they couldn’t be reached. They were at the unemployment office.
  • Is Colin Cowherd saying to himself, those curmudgeons at ESPN never paid me that kind of money?
  • What about SiriusXM’s Chris Mad Dog Russo? “$8-10 million. ‘Wow! I’m leaving, I’m going to Bristol. Hey, I live in Connecticut. I’ll never have to get on that damn 59th Street Bridge again.’”
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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