In the off-season of 2000 New England Patriots fortunes changed forever.
Nearly every day in the United States, news of yet another multi-million-dollar sports contract hits the news. The most recent contract news broken by ESPN was a five-year deal worth tens of millions of dollars.
So was it a contract extension for an NFL football player? Nope. The NBA? Not quite. Well surely someone in Major League Baseball? Not even close. This five-year, $40 million (USD) deal was for a sports journalist – a radio and TV talk show pundit, Stephen A. Smith.
Ironically, Stephen A. Smith now earns (and has for some time without this pay increase) more money than many of the NBA and NFL stars he commentates and reports about daily.
However, Stephen A. is not alone. Many of the elite sportscasters and talk show hosts on ESPN, FOX and other sports networks in America earn millions of dollars a year as well.
Having lived in the US for 14 years with the talking heads of ESPN or FOX Sports constantly on in the background, I have absorbed a lot of this coverage and decided to rank my top ten sports talk show personalities. Actually, it’s going to have to be a top 11 – I had trouble culling one of the two icons at the bottom of the list.
11. Jim Rome
When I first saw Jim Rome talk over a decade ago, I was blown away. Jim was like a 60 Minutes, A Current Affair, 20/20, and National Enquirer reporter all rolled into one cocky sports video jockey that makes you hang off every word.
Rome’s cavalier and unapologetic approach to reporting and interviewing was so engaging and often led him into very controversial situations such as in 2012 when he asked then NBA Commissioner David Stern whether the NBA Draft Lottery was rigged.
After years of relishing Rome’s provocative takes on sports, it seems like he’s just dropped off the radar. He was given a boatload of money from CBS appearing on the CBS Sports Network and Showtime and simply lost his mainstream exposure and relevance.
He was no longer part of the competitive duopoly of ESPN and Fox Sports. I recently stumbled across his current show and I couldn’t watch more than fifteen minutes. He came across as an older, more tired version of his former self.
Also, without the copyright capabilities of Fox and ESPN, Rome is limited when dissecting the previous night’s game. *He’s limited to audio commentary as he sits there and waits for it to play*, which is sad to see.
10. Mike Greenberg
Greeny talking about sports and dissecting Sunday football on a Monday morning is like watching and listening to a great doctor talking about medicine or reviewing a dramatic heart surgery. You’re blown away by the knowledge and perspective.
But, after a few minutes, his monotone delivery makes you want to change the channel. Mike had a long-running morning show with co-host Mike Golic for many years called Mike and Mike in the Morning which I never really cared for.
Many who watch US sports shows may be surprised that I omitted Golic from my list but I’ve just never been a fan. I’ve included Greeny only because of my respect for his knowledge, perspective and sustainability on ESPN over the years.
Greeny is interesting to watch, has insightful takes, and a great ability to break down games. Golic I just find unwatchable for reasons I won’t go into so I wasn’t sorry to see them get broken up when Mike and Mike in the Morning ended.
9. Skip Bayless
Bayless has seemingly been around forever in American sports. I used to watch Skip religiously for many years when he was Stephen A. Smith’s sparring partner and co-host on ESPN’s First Take.
Skip jumped ship from ESPN to Fox Sports when Fox threw money bags and a new show at him making him one of the top earners in the sportscaster world in 2016. But this show called Undisputed is a literal carbon copy of First Take.
I have never been a fan of Undisputed. Where the sometimes-heated debates and interactions Bayless had with Stephen A. Smith on First Take were often highly engaging and entertaining, the similarly fueled debates he now has with Shannon Sharpe look contrived.
I do get a kick out of Bayless’ posts on Facebook Live after a Dallas Cowboys loss where you can rely on an emotional rant via the selfie camera on his phone.
These losses will also often see him making outlandish comments and Tweets about the team he calls “my Dallas Cowboys” as if he is the team’s owner and not Jerry Jones. A recent article on Skip painted him as being more than just a contrarian saying he “got paid to spout nonsense.”
8. Tony Reali
If you’ve ever watched Around the Horn on ESPN hosted by Tony you may have, like I did at first, scratched your head at the format and purpose of the show. You may even question the validity of it due to its game show themes and quirky nature with a host who can award and deduct points from panellists or can mute and mock them at any time.
The panellists are seasoned sportswriters and commentators competing with each other to convey their perspective in a bid to gain credibility, which Reali leverages, to determine a winner.
But they don’t get to drive off in a new car. Instead, they collect rather a nice appearance fee check from the Disney Corporation, who of course own ESPN.
Format aside, Reali is a charismatic, evangelistic preacher-type personality who oozes arrogance and cockiness that he is not afraid to project. He is highly entertaining and his ever-present smile is genuinely infectious.
I love watching him exude all of that while managing, prodding and controlling his performing panellists like a ringmaster does with his circus acts.
7. Michelle Beadle
Michelle’s tagline description on her Twitter account reads, “I’m known for my great and unmatched wisdom.” I agree with her.
I have loved Beadle’s on-screen presence, knowledgeable and insightful perspective on pro-sports since I first saw her on SportsNation which I watched religiously during its run on ESPN.
She has an aura and a take on sports that is astute. Whether it is breaking down a game or a highly sensitive subject matter, she never disappoints in terms of hitting the nail on the head and often making you think about her viewpoint in a way you never thought possible.
Beadle can mix it with any sports personality or commentator and not only hold her own but make them look narrow-minded in comparison. In 2014 she criticised Stephen A. Smith for his stance and comments on the highly sensitive issue of domestic abuse as it related to NFL player Ray Rice which got Smith suspended from air for a week.
This year has seen Beadle on the outer with ABC and ESPN and it’s a shame but I have no doubt that she will be back better than ever whenever and wherever she returns.
6. Max Kellerman
I first saw Max Kellerman ply his trade on the ESPN daily show SportsNation with Beadle and Marcellus Wiley and it was one of my favourite fun sports shows at the time.
Kellerman immediately came across as a highly intelligent, knowledgeable and insightful sports talk host with a quintessential New York cut-through-the-BS, down to earth attitude.
He often blows me away with his very relatable and pragmatic insights that really resonate on many levels. He’s also been the perfect replacement of Skip Bayless on First Take.
I was surprised when I first heard Max would assume Bayless’ role as he was not a dominant host on SportsNation, and often the third voice behind Beadle and Wiley.
So how would he go head-to-head with the Stephen A. Smith? Turns out quite well. Max conveys highly intellectual arguments.
If I had one gripe it would be that he’s so politically correct to the point where he continually comes across as an idealistic Millennial as opposed to his actual generation X tag.
5. Keith Olbermann
I would categorise Keith as the sporting version of Anderson Cooper crossed with David Letterman. He has a heightened view on sports and basically anything related to human nature whether it involves a ball and game or not.
He’s is a very politically wired mind who has worked with the world’s elite news media entities such as CNN and MSNBC so his viewpoint is fueled by his incredibly broad perspective on professional sports that many people may struggle to grasp.
Olberman is probably the most complex and multi-faceted sports pundit on this list and has been involved in many political events, such as the Monica Lewinsky scandal, that put his professional career in sports media in jeopardy regularly.
His insights are brilliant, insightful, entertaining and thought-provoking, and he is a talent I would like to see settled into a role which truly encapsulates the essence of his bright, sarcastic and witty mind.
4. Scott Van Pelt
It’s hard to categorise SVP. He is truly one of a kind and nobody can host a newscast that delivers game scores like him.
Infusing personalities to convey teleprompter dialogue about games is one thing, but Van Pelt takes it to another unique level. He conveys his news with humour, incredulity, sarcasm, astonishment and pure appreciation in a way that is so authentic, you often feel a step behind not knowing if he is being serious or ironic.
SVP is the only person on this list who doesn’t have his own sports chat show that revolves around opinion and interviews, and the luxury of extensive planning and scripting.
Van Pelt is a late-night ESPN SportsCenter newscaster, commentating on games that often finish minutes before he goes live to air. Despite this lack of preparation, he makes up for it with his organic, creative and fun energy that nobody can deliver the way he does.
3. Dan Le Batard
Can you imagine being a highly respected sportswriter for the Miami Herald, the son of immigrant parents, and hosting a daily sports show with your rambunctious dad who speaks broken English and often stands up and lifts his shirt to flash his beer belly?
Welcome to Highly Questionable hosted by Dan Le Batard on ESPN. Dan has an intelligent perspective on mainstream sports that he delivers with a passionate, engaging, fun and often sarcastic aura which his father Gonzalo brilliantly fuels whenever he chimes in.
HQ is a succinct but provocative tongue-in-cheek show that is filmed in a hotel in South Beach, Miami of all places.
Le Batard is a brilliant sports mind and exudes an incredulous flavour with many of the charged sports topics he conveys. When LeBron James departed Miami and returned to Cleveland, Le Batard took out billboards in Ohio which read “You’re Welcome LeBron, Love Miami” and was subsequently suspended by ESPN for two days.
A show’s format is pivotal, and while I love watching him and his father Gonzalo on HQ, I am not a fan of his three-hour-long televised radio show with Stugotz. Go figure.
2. Stephen A. Smith
For over a decade, and long before his current reach, popularity and $40 million contract, I knew this guy was the Michael Jordan of his profession, especially when it came to basketball – his foundation and forte.
Smith has come a long way since his beginnings at The Philadelphia Inquirer where he was an NBA columnist.
He has thrived in his role on First Take both opposite the older and seemingly wiser co-host Skip Bayless, and with his current, younger sparring partner Max Kellerman who he loves to belittle.
Stephen A. continues to expand his on-screen and on-air footprint. He does NBA pregame appearances, has his own radio show, and will be expanding his reach even further with this new deal by hosting SportsCenter each week ahead of NBA games.
Smith is the real deal. He’s the most passionate, exuberant and always articulate sports pundit that many sports fans cannot get enough of. Well, that is until he overdoes it with his yelling and screaming theatrics which can be a little too much to handle at times.
1. Colin Cowherd
Colin is the benchmark of sports talk hosts on every level.
Not only is his perspective on sports unique and accurate in a way that very few could replicate, he has a way of conveying every situation, subject matter and description of his topics that is just fun and enjoyable to absorb.
Cowherd’s entertaining metaphors make his viewpoints even more relatable and palatable. Add to this his soothing and relaxing voice and tone, and it is no wonder that he has a successful show that runs for three hours without needing a sparring partner or co-host.
He’s the only sports pundit that I can consume without needing to see. I’ll often listen to him via his podcasts of his TV show The Herd. He’s personable, modest and down to earth.
The Fox host speaks like the world-class sports expert he is with the humble energy of the regular sports fan who goes to a game for the love of being a spectator. This is evident when he describes his Sundays relaxing at home, making his chicken nachos, and taking the time away from his wife and kids to watch his beloved NFL.
Cowherd is the man, and it won’t be long until Fox do their own press release revealing a new contract for him that will eclipse Stephen A. Smith’s, and that of many more pro athletes he commentates on day in and day out.
Okay, of course, everybody has different opinions and preferences about how we digest our daily sports news, views and opinions.
So, while all the aforementioned millionaire sportscasters have the luxury of their own platforms, wouldn’t it be great to have them square off once a year in a US presidential election-style winner-takes-all debate to determine the best of the best?
Surely that would generate many more millions of dollars for the members of this elite sportscaster club. Perhaps Tony Reali could moderate, much like his show.