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Stephen A. Smith: ‘I Didn’t Want Industry to Wonder What Shannon Sharpe Did Wrong’

“This is a brother that I think has done a lot of good work on television that has helped our community. As a result, it’s incumbent upon me because of the perch I sit on to let them know he’s wanted.”

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Stephen A. Smith & Shannon Sharpe
Stephen A. Smith - Courtesy: Justin Ford, Getty Images | Shannon Sharpe - Courtesy: John Shearer, Getty Images

Starting next week, Shannon Sharpe will appear on First Take with Stephen A. Smith every Monday and Tuesday during the football season. 

Smith was a guest on the Club Shay Shay podcast hosted by Sharpe. He mentioned that one of the reasons he wanted to do something with Sharpe was that he wanted the rest of the sports world to know that Sharpe was wanted.

“I didn’t want you to be in the situation where the sports world looked at you and said ‘what did he do? He must have done something.’ I said if he ends up here, he ends up here. The honchos know I want him. More importantly than that, this is a brother that I think has done a lot of good work on television that has helped our community. As a result, it’s incumbent upon me because of the perch I sit on to let them know he’s wanted.”

Sharpe mentioned that he met Smith back in 2014 and that recently, they have become closer than ever.

“Over the last year and a half, I was going through some things and he was the one guy that was in this business I felt I could talk to. It would stay between us, but he would give me sound advice.”

Smith said that he knew that Skip Bayless was auditioning Sharpe for what would eventually become UNDISPUTED on FS1, while Bayless was still part of First Take. Smith got out of the way and let it happen.

“I knew back then Skip was auditioning you because whenever I took off, you would be there. What Jamie Horowitz wouldn’t tell anyone was there were extra days I would take off just so Skip can bring you on. If you are not creating opportunities for other people, what good are you?”

As for when Smith debates Sharpe, he believes that when it comes time to talk about football, he will never question Sharpe’s football acumen, but instead take a look at the information from a reporter’s lens.

“It’s like I’m going to argue with you about your points. We are going to agree, we are going to disagree. But, at the end of the day, we are brothers and we are going to sit up there and do what we can to make our product shine.”

As for what people should expect when Smith and Sharpe debate, Smith knows that First Take has become a close-knit community with the rotating cast. Since he became the executive producer, he wants people to shine and he knows what the audience of First Take wants to hear. 

Smith said it was clear his plan was working when Michael Irvin become part of the show last year.

“One of my proudest moments was when Michael Irvin came last year. The reason I was proud was I know what his name brings and the stature that it holds. You are thinking he comes and the others feel alienated. But, if you watch him when he was on the show with us, it was a brotherhood. Orlovsky, Ryan Clark, Marcus Spears, they wanted to be on-air with him. That’s how it’s  supposed to be. The NFL constantly talks about how a brotherhood exists. First Take is a platform for a brotherhood.”

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Venu Sports Announces Founding Leadership Team

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Venu Sports Leadership Team
Courtesy: Venu Sports

Venu Sports, the new joint streaming venture from ESPN, Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery, has announced the members of its founding leadership team that will report to Pete Distad, the chief executive officer of the entity. The team will be based in New York and Los Angeles and features executives with vast experiences in entertainment, media, technology, sports and sports betting companies.

Brian Borkowski has been named the chief marketing officer for Venu Sports and will be responsible for marketing, branding and growth strategies to help the brand launch and grow. Borkowski previously worked at FanDuel where he was the senior vice president of marketing for the company as it continued its expansion. Additionally, he has held various leadership roles with Hulu, including vice president of media and acquisition, along with head of subscriber acquisition. Over the years, he worked as the chief marketing officer of analytics firm Verikai and also had marketing leadership roles with Neilson Financial Services and Farmers Insurance.

Jessica Casano-Antonellis will serve as the senior vice president and head of communications for Venu Sports. Casano-Antonellis previously led communications at SiriusXM and also worked as the vice president of communications for Disney+ and Hulu at The Walt Disney Company. Among her responsibilities were overseeing communications initiatives for streaming propositions, including launching and rolling out Disney’s flagship streaming service.

Tim Connolly is the chief business officer of the company, possessing responsibilities pertaining to strategic initiatives for the sports streaming platform. Some of these areas of focus include content rights and licensing, distribution and strategic partnership and subscriber growth and retention strategies. Connolly previously helped lead subscriber growth for Apple TV+ and MLS Season Pass at Apple, along with serving in senior leadership roles at Hulu and The Walt Disney Company.

Amit Dudakia will be responsible for product management and design, along with programming and editorial for Venu Sports in his new role of senior vice president and head of product. Dudakia most recently worked as the senior vice president of product management for Fox Technology and Digital where he led product and design for the FOX Sports division. Dudakia started working with the Fox Corporation at FX Network where he helped launch a variety of entities under its umbrella.

Skarpi Hedinsson has been named the chief technology officer of Venu Sports and will be responsible for technology strategy and execution for the streaming service. Hedinsson was previously the chief technology officer of the Los Angeles Rams and played an integral role leading the team envisioning, designing and implementing technology within SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park. Hedinsson is the former chief technology officer of Disney/ABC Television Group, working in the role amid the launch of the WATCH ABC and WATCH Disney services.

David Hillman will oversee legal matters for Venu Sports in his new role of chief legal officer. Before joining Venu Sports, Hillman worked on the corporate legal executive management team at Paramount Global, recently serving as executive vice president and general counsel for CBS Sports, CBS News and Stations and Broadcast Operations. Within his position, he observed negotiations for strategic content agreements across several genres. Hillman previously held similar positions at Simon & Schuster and Westwood One.

Gautam Ranji will serve as the chief financial officer for Venu Sports, having purview over financial operations for the joint streaming venture. Ranji is the former chief financial officer and treasurer for Sphere Entertainment, involved in fiscal functions and within the management team that launched the Sphere in Las Vegas, Nev. Before this endeavor, he was responsible for strategic planning and business development at CBS and was a co-leader for the integration following the merger between Viacom and CBS, currently known as Paramount Global.

Judy Schwab is the senior vice president and head of people at Venu Sports, overseeing workforce planning, organizational effectiveness and talent acquisition along with the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Schwab previously worked as a leader in human resources within the Apple Services division, and she was also a member of The Walt Disney Company leading human resources for its direct-to-consumer businesses. She was a key member of the leadership team that helped launch Disney+ and integrated Hulu as well.

In addition to the leadership team at Venu Sports, more than 150 engineers and executives are working to build the product that will look to serve sports fans without a traditional cable subscription. The service will combine several linear television networks owned by The Walt Disney Company, Fox Corporation and Warner Bros. Discovery that broadcast sports programming. Pricing and a launch date for the service have not yet been announced.

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FOX Sports Draws 1.59 Million Viewers for UFL Championship Game

This year’s championship game, which was called by Curt Menefee and Joel Klatt and also featured a visit from Tom Brady in the booth, peaked at 1,723,000 viewers from 6:15 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. ET.

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Photo of the UFL Championship game on FOX Sports
Photo Courtesy: FOX Sports

If television viewership is the barometer, spring football had a heck of season. It all culminated with FOX Sports drawing 1.59 million viewers for the United Football League championship game between the Birmingham Stallions and the San Antonio Brahmas, which the Stallions won 25-0.

The Stallions’ third consecutive championship was up 38% over their second championship a year ago when they played Pittsburgh in the USFL championship game. It was also an increase of 11% over the XFL Championship game from last year between Arlington and DC.

This year’s championship game, which was called by Curt Menefee and Joel Klatt and also featured a visit from Tom Brady in the booth, peaked at 1,723,000 viewers from 6:15 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. ET.

The UFL regular season was split between FOX and ABC/ESPN this year. The regular season average television audience of 816,000 was more than 30% higher than the pace from the previous year and the recent conference championship games were up 57% over the averages from the USFL and XFL last season. According to SI’s Mike Mitchell, the league saw a large increase in the 18-49 demographic on FOX compared to USFL programming in 2023.

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Report: Pat McAfee Does Not Currently Have an Agreement to Return to ‘College GameDay’

“With the start of the season a little more than two months away, Pat McAfee remains unsigned with ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

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Screengrab of Pat McAfee on College GameDay
Screengrab: ESPN College GameDay

College GameDay, the beloved college football pre-game show on ESPN, has a big change in store for it this coming season with the addition of former Alabama head coach Nick Saban joining the team. According to a report today from Andrew Marchand of The Athletic, there is no guarantee their most recent addition prior to Saban will be back. Marchand says that Pat McAfee remains unsigned as far as returning to the show.

Marchand wrote, “With the start of the season a little more than two months away, Pat McAfee remains unsigned with ESPN’s “College GameDay,” sources briefed on McAfee’s contract talks told The Athletic.

“McAfee, the 37-year-old talk show host, wrestling analyst and firebrand, said late last year that he would return to the program, but a deal to make that official is still not completed. McAfee has a separate contract that allows ESPN to license his daily “The Pat McAfee Show” on its network and YouTube.”

Marchand reports the two sides are continuing to talk but no agreement has been reached as of yet.

McAfee spent college football Saturday’s last season with host Rece Davis and co-hosts Desmond Howard, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso. In October, a survey done by The Athletic showed that of 3,100 respondents, only 30.1% said they like McAfee on GameDay, with 48.9% saying they do not like him on the show. Another 21% said they had no opinion.

In response the survey, McAfee posted on X at the time, ““I have heard you all very loud and clear since the beginning of my stint with GameDay. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I have not resigned a contract with the legendary show,” he said. “I’m not right for some crowds and the ‘distinguished’ College Football folks are definitely one of those. Excited to enjoy the rest of this year, that’s shaping up to be a GREAT one, and then see what the future holds.”

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