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Inside Beat

ESPN's $10 M. man: Inside Stephen A. Smith's meteoric rise

 – Photo by Twitter

By my very unscientific estimation, the actual athletic feats on display only account for roughly 30 percent of the near-religious fervor surrounding the world of professional sports. The other 70 percent is the never-ending editorialization, narrative-building and dialogue that surrounds the various leagues. The world's greatest athletes, in order to sustain their place in history, need a character arc, a story. 

The media, players and fans themselves all contribute to weaving this tale, but there are a few non-athletes who manage to carve out a space of their own in the collective story of sports. Today, the most infamous, infuriating and irreplaceable voice belongs to Stephen A. Smith, the man “in line” to become ESPN’s highest paid on-air talent in history, according to Sports Illustrated

Smith has permeated culture in ways previously deemed impossible for a sportscaster, in large part due to social media. He’s amassed 3.99 million followers on Twitter, 1.5 million on Instagram and is undoubtedly the most meme-ified sportscaster on the planet. The reason his likeness is reproduced over and over, is because of his hallmark feature – extreme emotion, often worn on his face or evident in his expression. He can offer a face of exasperation, sardonic wit, clear contempt and much more, covering a ridiculously wide range of reactions. Of course, reaction is his job.

Starting out as a beat reporter, Smith eventually started covering the Philadelphia 76ers for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-90s. After a string of successful years in Philadelphia he expanded to radio, getting his first national platform. With continued success, he made the leap that served as the fuel to his meteoric rise, joining ESPN’s “First Take” in 2012, a sports debate program that was the perfect format for Smith’s raucous, no-holds-barred style. The captivating program, equal parts entertainment and analysis, produced sound bites for the ages as his co-host, Skip Bayless, always found a way to whip him up into a righteous anger. 

Smith’s tendency to play up the baseline narrative of a story has led to many considering him to be a jester of sorts, not serious in his reportage of the many sports he covers. There are some cases where he seems a bit out of his depth as well, but it’s quite clear he’s most comfortable talking about basketball. The fact of the matter is, though, even if one believes him to be a joke, it doesn’t stop them from tuning in. 

It’s indicative of the moment we’re in socially and politically – an era that’s decided that facts don’t matter, or at least that our desire for some objective truth is tenuous at best. In the same vein, it doesn’t matter whether Smith’s read of a situation is right on the money, that’s not why he’s nationally syndicated. It’s because he’s the live representation of the beating heart that exists inside every sports fanatic. 

This isn’t to say that Smith is a yellow journalist by any measure – he still remains grounded in facts. What pays his rent is his interpretation, and more importantly, his delivery. His mode of communication is an abrasive amalgamation of sports jargon, street smarts, Baptist preacher zeal and all-around smart aleck. It’s wholly captivating, and it’s why ESPN will reportedly be paying him $10 million on a yearly basis. It’s a lesson for anyone looking to work in today’s omnipresent, increasingly digitized media, especially on the air or on camera: don’t just create content, be the content itself. 

Smith, for all his mishaps, is the emblematic sportscaster of our generation for a reason – he’s a reflection of his audience. Overbearing, disgruntled, euphoric and absurd, he brings the national attitude into the realm of sports, just as sports often impact the national attitude.

Looking past the haters and the fans, to say that Smith doesn’t contribute a spirit of mischief and wonder to the wide world of sports would be, quite simply, blasphemous.   

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