If there’s a hat within reach, please grab onto it because what I’m about to propose might blow that sucker directly into the next area code. What I’m about to present might be tough to stomach, but as crazy as it sounds, Stephen A. Smith might be good for the UFC and ESPN.
Hold on, take a breath and please put down the blood pressure meds. Slide the cudgel back into its hiding place and hear me out.
I will not deny that Smith made a fool of himself after UFC 246 when he appeared on SportsCenter and bloviated about how Donald Cerrone “gave up” during his 40-second knockout loss to Conor McGregor. Smith did come off the fool that night.
However, let’s not pretend that Smith’s job, and what makes him one of the highest-paid personalities at ESPN, isn’t to spew dubious takes and get people talking. How successful was he in that? Well, UFC 246 took place on January 18 and I’m far from the only one still discussing Smith’s comments as we head into February. That’s why Smith could be just what ESPN and the UFC need heading into year two of their broadcast deal.
Smith isn’t going anywhere. If ESPN wants him on a UFC broadcast, Smith will be there alongside whoever is working that event. With that, it’s best if everyone — and that includes Joe Rogan and Conor McGregor — try to find an upside in all of this. And yes, there could be a silver lining in having Smith do more, not less, UFC broadcasts.
Again, put down the pitchforks and pop some nitroglycerine. I’m not crazy.
Consider how the MMA world has circled the wagons since Smith appeared alongside Rogan after UFC 246. That’s what makes Smith such a hot commodity. His job is to bring attention to something for ESPN. For those inside the MMA bubble, he brought negative attention, but did he do the same outside the MMA bubble? I don’t believe he did. Why? Well, because those folks didn’t watch UFC 246, and they probably didn’t plan to tune into the next UFC event or the one after that either. But now they might watch because Smith has piqued their curiosity.
If Smith can get people to tune into a UFC event — for whatever reason — that’s a win for the UFC and the sport. And if those fans like what they see once they walk through the door, well, there’s a chance to turn those individuals into fans. I will not assume that UFC president Dana White has remained quiet on this “controversy,” because he sees potential new fans with Smith appearing on UFC broadcasts, but there’s a non-zero chance that’s why the ordinarily outspoken White has remained mum on the subject.
Chael Sonnen, who knows a thing or two about capturing eyeballs, said much the same a few days ago when he came to the defense of Smith, who he works with at ESPN.
“For Stephen A. to come out and commentate on this — which by the way, I’ll just share with you, the numbers go through the roof when Stephen A. comes to the microphone,” Sonnen said on his YouTube channel. “So many times in MMA I keep hearing that ‘we want to be mainstream. Why aren’t we mainstream? Why aren’t we being shown the respect of mainstream?’
“When you have the most mainstream guy in the sport come and talk on the desk live at the venue about your sport — that by the way, he sat in the front row and observed as a fan — when he comes and does that, and then you reject it, do you really want to be mainstream?”
It might be a reach to say that Smith is the gatekeeper to the mainstream, but if he can help convert even a handful of casual fans into rabid MMA supporters, well, that’s a win.