Loud is the new normal in sports talk, and Stephen A. Smith is master of the art.
Smith is loud-louder-loudest, and that approach has made him a millionaire many times over. He delivers his takes on multiple platforms – radio, television, the Internet – and he is now so famous he does commercials selling beef jerky and Topps put his portrait on a trading card.
Not bad for a former bench-warmer on Winston-Salem State’s basketball team (he had multiple injuries, including a cracked kneecap). Smith started in sports journalism as an NBA beat writer, became a columnist in Philadelphia, then exploded as a bombastic phenomenon. Now he pontificates (his word) five days a week on ESPN’s “First Take.”
Smith was the featured speaker at the Charlotte Touchdown Club Wednesday. Before his speech, he chatted with Charlotte media at the uptown Sheraton. The word “chatted” applied. He was understated compared to what “First Take” viewers would expect.
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I’ve known Smith since he was covering the 76ers for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1990s. I asked him how he thinks sports talk has evolved in his time in the profession. His answer was detailed, reasoned and articulate.
Paraphrasing, Smith said there is such a flood of information and commentary these days – exclusive news has the shortest shelf life ever – that it’s hard for any one outlet to separate itself. Smith was a terrific reporter – he broke a slew of stories on both the NBA and the NFL – but now he’s more a talking head.
Smith said he respects what beat writers do as the foundation of any sports publication. But he moved in another direction, and it’s easy to see why: The big money these days is in opinions, particularly if you shout effectively. He reportedly makes more than $3 million a year.
Smith is a product of the times - of Twitter arguments, hot takes and what the radio profession calls “flamers,” – as in taking a position on a given issue that is most likely to inflame a portion of your audience. That might not endear you to listeners, but it grabs attention.
I couldn’t be Smith; I wouldn’t try. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect his talent.
Call him a blowhard or a lout if you choose, but he does his homework.
When he was asked Wednesday about the Carolina Panthers firing general manager Dave Gettleman, he knew the nuances, particularly the odd divorce from Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman. When asked about the Charlotte Hornets trading for center Dwight Howard, Smith noted this will work only if coach Steve Clifford is successful in convincing Howard to focus first on defense and rebounding.
Then, Smith was asked about the hype preceding the Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather bout, and particularly comments McGregor made that are widely viewed as racially insensitive.
“This notion that Conor McGregor was racist? I don’t want to hear that,” Smith said, adding he takes no offense as an African-American regarding McGregor’s pre-fight banter.
Listening to Smith, I found this a “Takes-one-to-know-one” approach. On command, he can assume the “Screamin’ A” persona on television or radio. It’s performance art and it’s lucrative. Why would he rip McGregor for a similar shtick?
Smith has said things publicly that I found sexist and insensitive. He offends people. I don’t think he cares. He has a relatively thick skin and expects the same from those he pokes.
That pugnaciousness sells. Take a glance at any of Smith’s custom suits You’ll know just how well it sells.