It was a mere two years ago that Michael Smith was one of the franchise faces of ESPN.
He and his tag-team partner, Jemele Hill, had matching four-year, $10 million contracts and were out front on what was supposed to be a fresher, hipper 6 p.m. “SportsCenter.”
Today, Smith is in a gold-plated purgatory, nearly ostracized by ESPN.
He is rarely on-air and, according to sources, there is no current plan for his final two years at the network.
Smith’s situation is a touchy enough subject that he and ESPN declined to comment on it.
His four-year contract called for him to specifically host “SportsCenter,” according to sources, meaning if he were moved off it, he had the right to decline any assignments. But it seems as if ESPN has not given him many to decline.
In February, Smith started a weekly 12-3 p.m. ESPN Radio Sunday show with Michael Eaves. He occasionally appears as a fill-in on ESPN’s signature afternoon talk shows like “Highly Questionable,” “High Noon,” “PTI” and “Around The Horn.”
While still being paid like a starting quarterback, Smith’s role is more like a nickel back.
Meanwhile, Hill fled ESPN — “amicably,” according to both sides — and remains in the spotlight.
When SC6, the fancy name of the Smith-Hill “SportsCenter,” went under, it was Hill who was left not only unscathed, but possibly stronger moving forward in her career.
After all the attention paid to Hill’s scrape with President Trump, in which she labeled him a “white supremacist,” and then her suspension over a less explosive tweet about boycotting Dallas Cowboys advertisers, Hill has evolved into a sports/political commentator.
Smith, meanwhile, did not have the controversies and has been nearly forgotten.
When former ESPN president John Skipper left the company at the end of 2017 after admitting to an issue with cocaine, Smith and Hill lost their champion.
A month after Skipper exited, Hill stepped down from the show before she was told to go. Hill agreed to a buyout on her deal by late August.
She is now a writer for the Atlantic, doing voiceovers on Sports Emmy-nominated projects for LeBron James’ company, Uninterrupted. Hill also has a new podcast and recently appeared on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Smith stayed behind and even tried to continue as a “SportsCenter” anchor. Longtime ESPN executive Norby Williamson by then was in charge of “SportsCenter,” and he turned to a more traditional approach, moving from Smith to Sage Steele and Kevin Negandhi.
Whatever the circumstances of SC6’s failures, ratings have gone up with Steele and Negandhi.
When Smith left “SportsCenter,” sources said, ESPN did offer him a small variety pack of NFL coverage and fill-in work on the afternoon talk shows, which are the fiefdom of producer guru-to-the-stars Erik Rydholm. Smith did not accept the demotion, which was his contractual right.
Smith had moved his way up the Bristol ladder after joining ESPN from the Boston Globe in 2004. He predated Adam Schefter as an NFL insider, then transferred to the main “NFL Live” desk as an analyst before shifting to hosting.
He and Hill grew together organically, initially with a podcast before she joined Smith’s afternoon show, “Numbers Never Lie.” The show took on the duo’s personality with a new name, “His & Hers.” From there, Skipper entrusted “SportsCenter” and face-of-the-franchise status to the duo.
Now, Smith seems almost forgotten. With his versatility and ESPN’s endless opportunities, reason would say both sides would be able to find more value in Smith’s $2.5 million salary per year.
ESPN+, which is viewed as the future of the company, has a once-a-week program hosted by Katie Nolan. Could a show like that work for Smith?
If not Plus, Smith has been a reporter, a host, an analyst and opinionist for nearly 15 years. There are a lot places Smith could be used.
For now, though, he remains in ESPN, Gold-Plated Purgatory.