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During the first two to three decades of ESPN, it served as a vehicle for quickly sharing sports scores and stories with a wide audience. Audiences knew anchors like Stuart Scott, Chris Berman, Rich Eisen, Linda Cohn, Kenny Mayne, Dan Patrick, and Charlie Steiner because they showed their personalities while telling sports news and reading highlights. However, the past 10 to 15 years have seen a shift. We can get sports scores just about anywhere; highlights are rampant on YouTube, X, and other platforms. So, ESPN has shifted its focus to highlight various sports personalities. And none is bigger than Stephen A. Smith.

Smith, who began his career in print journalism and eventually moved to radio, always had his sights set on television. He first joined ESPN in 2003 and left for a spell before returning in 2011. Along the way, he’s written columns, hosted multiple radio shows, and been a larger-than-life personality onscreen. His daily debate show, First Take, is the perfect vessel for him, offering a platform to share takes on any number of topics. Audiences seem to appreciate it, too: First Take has gained audience share in 22 consecutive months. That would be impressive in the heyday of cable television. It’s essentially unheard of in the streaming era.

Of course, Smith knows he’s a big draw, having become one of the faces—if not THE face—of ESPN. With his contract up next year, he’s currently negotiating with the network. Their first offer? $90 million over five years—an $18 million salary. And Smith turned it down.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

He’s reportedly seeking something in the area of $25 million per year. His agency, WME, has pointed to other massive ESPN deals as a comparison. Pat McAfee is making about $30 million per year for his studio show and College GameDay appearances, and Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions has a $700 million deal.

The difference is that both McAfee and Manning’s deals are production contracts, not salaries for individual personalities. While plenty of money is going into the athletes’ pockets, they’re also using it to produce their various shows and pay their staff. Aside from an agent cut, Smith wouldn’t have to share his earnings with anyone.

Now, the ball is back in ESPN’s court. Smith is certainly a major personality, but is he worth that much money? When Bob Iger returned to head Disney, ESPN’s parent company, he expressed a goal of laying off 7,000 jobs to save $5.5 billion. ESPN is a huge performer for Disney, earning $3.5 billion in revenue and $987 million in profit during the fourth quarter of 2023. It’s unclear how much of that can be attributed to Smith or if there’d be a significant drop-off if he was replaced by, say, Shannon Sharpe, who Smith recruited to ESPN last August.

That’s a decision ESPN will have to make. Good for Smith for betting on himself—we’ll see if ESPN bets on him, too.

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