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ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith Spills the Tea on Career Setbacks and How Much He Lost

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, leading host of “First Take,” recently made an appearance on the “Earn Your Leisure” podcast, shedding light on a significant chapter of his career. Despite his current stature, he said he once faced adversity at the Disney-owned network.

Stephen A. Smith
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – MAY 08: Stephen A. Smith attends a playoff basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors at Arena on May 08, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)

During the podcast on April 24, hosts Rashad Bilal and Troy Millings delved into Smith’s journey from radio to television. Having transitioned from hosting ESPN Radio shows from 2005 to 2008 to hosting local programs on ESPN Radio 98.7FM in New York City and ESPN LA 710AM in Los Angeles, including the “Quite Frankly” show, Smith’s path was not without its challenges.

Pay Cut Drama

As his contract with ESPN approached renewal, Smith found himself in a vulnerable position. As the network sought to trim costs, Smith, as an exclusive radio personality, became a prime target for salary reductions. Ultimately, he faced a significant pay cut, losing nearly $600,000 compared to his previous earnings. This episode serves as a poignant reminder of the ups and downs that even the most prominent figures in the industry can face.

“All I had was radio, which was expendable, and SportsCenter appearances,” he told EYL. “You didn’t have a definitive place where you knew to catch me. So what did they do under the old regime? They sign me to a contract in 2008. They give me $600,000 less than what I had turned down and less than what their initial offer was. Then, on top of it all, they kept me off of the air. All of a sudden, y’all didn’t see me. You didn’t hear me.”

By the end of April 2009, Smith left ESPN, and for the next few months until joining Fox Sports Radio in December he was unemployed, living off his savings. In his break from media, which was also recalled on the “OutKick the Show” in December 2023, was described by him as “dark” due to the uncertainty and inconvenience of being a new father with no income, which caused him to worry, The New York Post reported.

As reported by the NY Post and in an interview with “EYL,” Smith, 56, used his absence and available time to learn more about the industry and develop 

During a hiatus from media, Smith delved into industry nuances, preparing for future negotiations, and forming a strategy to renegotiate his contract instead of solely relying on his emerging popularity at the time of his termination.  He later accepted a significant pay cut while working at Fox Sports Radio.

During his tenure at Fox Sports Radio, he navigated a substantial decrease in pay. It was during this stint at FS Radio that Smith’s astute announcement regarding LeBron James’s transition to the Miami Heat highlighted his expertise in the industry. Eventually, ESPN exec Dave Roberts orchestrated Smith’s comeback to ESPN, persuading others to give Smith a second chance, as reported by the NY Post.

According to Sports Media Watch, Smith returned to the network as a local ESPN Radio host and columnist on its East and West dedicated blogs in 2011. Subsequently, he leveraged his popularity to become the co-host of “First Take” alongside Skip Bayless.

Thanks to the five-year deal he signed with ESPN in 2019, reportedly worth $60 million in total, Smith, who also has a popular YouTube channel, currently earns a salary of $12 million per year from ESPN, which includes an $8 million base salary and a $4 million production contract, as reported by The Street. 

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