Ryan Smith is working at ESPN today because of legendary Phillies announcer Harry Kalas.
Smith, a Philadelphia native born and raised in Mount Airy, is filling in as host of ESPN’s long-running news program Outside the Lines while Bob Ley remains on a sabbatical (the network said Ley’s expected to return sometime this month). Growing up, Smith was obsessed with the Phillies, scoring games at Veterans Stadium and listening to Kalas call games on the radio.
Smith said he “worshipped” Kalas and grew up dreaming of becoming a sports broadcaster, a lofty goal his mother was keenly aware of when she ran into the Hall of Fame announcer at an art show when Smith was about 10 years old.
“She said, ‘Look, you don’t know me. My son listens to you all the time. He dreams of being you one day. How can he get there?’ And Harry Kalas said, ‘Go to Syracuse,’" meaning the university known for its journalism and broadcast programs. From then, Smith said, “the only place I ever wanted to go was Syracuse,” which he ultimately did.
Smith has worked for ABC and ESPN as an anchor, legal analyst, and correspondent for the past five years. But for the past two years, Smith has spent the bulk of his time on Outside the Lines, as an investigative reporter and, lately, the show’s main host.
“The one show I grew up loving — I kid you not — the one show I never missed was Outside the Lines,” Smith said. “So when ESPN told me I was going to work on the show with their investigative unit, I was like, ‘Holy crap, this doesn’t happen to guys like me.’ “
David Sarosi, coordinating producer of Outside the Lines and E:60, said he’s been impressed with Smith’s willingness to make the show his own while honoring the reputation it’s developed over the years.
“It’s not an easy seat to fill — I mean, it’s Bob Ley. He’s been here since day three of ESPN’s existence,” Sarosi said. “But I’ve never felt that Ryan saw it as a daunting task. He is fully cognizant of what we’re trying to do every day and what his role is, but he’s also very eager and excited to try new things.”
Over the years, Outside the Lines has become known for its willingness to cover difficult subjects in the sporting world, a trend that has continued over the past six months with Smith leading the show. In recent days, topics have included the stunning collapse of the Alliance of American Football League and the Trump administration’s controversial decision to defund the Special Olympics (a move that was protested by several of Smith’s ESPN colleagues and ultimately reversed).
“In today’s sports world, we spend a lot of time going, ‘What’s LeBron doing? What did this athlete say?’ " Smith said. “We need more depth in television."
Smith also hasn’t been timid about weighing in on controversial topics. During a broadcast earlier this week, Smith laid into the NCAA for giving Final Four participants “swag bags” while refusing to pay college athletes.
Part of what makes Smith an unusual broadcaster is his legal background. After graduating from Syracuse, Smith earned a law degree from Columbia Law School and served as a lawyer for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He eventually settled on practicing sports and entertainment law in New York City, and was on the partner track before deciding to pursue his dream of becoming a sports broadcaster.
One day, between meeting clients, Smith booked a film crew and started interviewing people in New York City. He also interviewed some of his entertainment clients, cut a video, and sent it around town to booking managers at various networks.
“Within weeks, I was doing one show, then another. Then I got booked on CNN and it just kind-of took off from there,” Smith said. He worked as a legal analyst and HLN host and anchor for several years before landing at ABC and ESPN in January 2014. Smith remains the go-to analyst at both networks when sports and the law intersect, as it recently did when Patriots owner Robert Kraft was arrested and accused of soliciting prostitutes at a spa in Florida.