In January, embattled ESPN host Jemele Hill announced she was leaving the network’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter to take on more “writing and reporting” at the Undefeated, which explores the intersection of race, sports and culture. Since then, her former co-host Michael Smith has dutifully (if not begrudgingly) anchored the show on his own.
Now, Smith is following her off the set.
ESPN has confirmed that Smith will host his last SportsCenter Friday night. Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch was first to report the news.
“Michael is a talented commentator and we greatly appreciate and value his contributions and creativity,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president and executive editor, studio production. “We are in the process of discussing with him potential next ESPN assignments.”
Like Hill, Smith still has several years left on his contract with ESPN, but it’s unclear where the former ESPN2 host and frequent Around the Horn guest will land. As for replacements, ESPN hasn’t made any decisions on a permanent team, but Sportscenter: AM host Sage Steele and 11 p.m. SportsCenter anchor John Anderson have been floated as possible replacements.
Until permanent replacements are decided, ESPN will staff the show with variety of anchors from the SportsCenter team. Next week, Matt Barrie and Michael Eaves will host the show on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Temple grad Kevin Negandhi will pick up hosting duties through the rest of the week, and will be joined by Eaves on Thursday and Elle Duncan on Friday.
Jasmine Alexander, a Philadelphia native and one-time Daily News intern, will remain the producer of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, whatever form it ends up taking, according to an ESPN spokeswoman.
The show, which ESPN dubbed SC6, was one of the network’s largest content initiatives last year, touted as an attempt to reinvent the flagship program for an audience that gets news and highlights immediately on their phones. Smith and Hill were also the first African-American duo to host SportsCenter on a regular basis, and the network promised the show would go beyond sports to discuss “news, culture and social issues.”
But Hill became the center of a political controversy for the network, calling President Trump a “white supremacist” and “an unfit, bigoted incompetent moron” on Twitter in September. Hill was later suspended for two weeks after suggesting fans should consider boycotting Cowboys’ sponsors following comments owner Jerry Jones made about players who protested during the national anthem.
Around the same time, management at ESPN began to convert the show back to a more-traditional version SportsCenter, stripping the show of its personality and irreverence, and returning it to more of a nuts-and-bolts version, centered around sports highlights and analysis. ESPN executive Norby Williamson told James Andrew Miller, an author who has written about ESPN, on Miller’s “Origins” podcast that the network immediately pushed the panic button, something Smith discussed with Miller on the podcast in February.
“There was a time we weren’t even talking to each other [on air] anymore,” Smith told Miller. “Like no more Michael and Jemele, not less, not here and there. No more Michael and Jemele talking. No more of their commentary. It’s just strictly live shots and analysts.”
Would NBC be willing to share Mike Tirico with Fox?
It’s no secret every network would bend over backwards to land Peyton Manning as their lead NFL analyst. But Fox Sports is so interested in having the two-time Super Bowl champion become the face of its new Thursday night NFL package that it’s exploring the idea of convincing NBC Sports to share play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico.
Why Tirico? According to the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand, Manning likes the idea of working with Tirico, a solid broadcaster who replaced Al Michaels as NBC’s play-by-play announcer during the network’s Thursday Night Football broadcasts. SportsBusinessDaily also reported that the arrangement is being considered.
Fox has shown it’s willing to share talent. Last month, ESPN announced that former Yankees third baseman and Fox Sports analyst Alex Rodriguez would replace new Yankees manager Aaron Boone as an analyst on Sunday Night Baseball. ESPN will get A-Rod during the regular season, and during the postseason he’ll continue to offer pregame and postgame analysis for Fox Sports.
With NBC losing the Thursday night NFL rights and Al Michaels showing no signs of retiring, a partnership would offer Tirico the opportunity to call NFL games next season. Plus, as Marchand notes, Fox could pick up part of Tirico’s salary while still enabling him to remain Michaels’ Sunday Night Football successor.
Meanwhile, Manning certainly has options. Other than CBS’ top analyst spot, which the network filled last year with former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, Manning could go anywhere he wanted. ESPN is also reportedly interested in landing him to fill the Monday Night Football analyst spot vacated by Jon Gruden, who took a monster deal to become the coach of the Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders.
Mixed bag for NFL Combine ratings
Ratings of the NFL Network’s coverage of the NFL Combine declined slightly compared to last season, but were up big compared to 2016.
According to Nielsen numbers obtained by SportsMediaWatch, coverage of the NFL Combine averaged a 0.17 rating and 267,000 viewers, which is down 3 percent from the 276,000 viewers who tuned in last season. But compared to 2016, ratings were up 19 percent, a not-insignificant shift considering the trend of declining television ratings.
The top draws this year were the quarterback, wide receiver and tight end workouts that aired on Saturday. That window garnered the NFL Network a 0.24 rating and 389,000 viewers.