Even if you aren’t the biggest sports fan, you may have heard of Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. His & Hers, which began as a podcast conceived and hosted by Smith and Hill, proved so popular that in 2014 it replaced the ESPN2 show Numbers Never Lie, which Smith began co-hosting with Charissa Thompson in 2011.
Since then the duo have scored with many nonsports bits, like their spoofs of Empire, Anchorman and Boyz n the Hood, as well as relationship debates like whether women who reach for their wallets ever really intend to pay on dates.
And while Hill and Smith have individual sports acumen that is undeniable, it’s hard to ignore that their status as a male-female duo makes them all the more formidable. Even as sports broadcasting has actively beefed up its female ranks, the relationship that Hill and Smith enjoy is extremely rare. And now ESPN is rewarding that uniqueness with its ultimate prize: the 6 p.m. SportsCenter slot.
“I think for most [sports] people, you grew up watching SportsCenter, and it’s ESPN’s baby,” says Hill, explaining the flagship’s significance. “I think for us, thinking about not only the position and the reverence it holds within the company is one layer to it, but another layer to it is all the prominent, legendary broadcasters that have come through the 6 p.m. SportsCenter—somebody like Stuart Scott, Keith Obermann and Dan Patrick. So to follow in those footsteps is very meaningful.”
It’s more than meaningful. It’s also historic. Hill and Smith’s SportsCenter takeover is the first for a black sports duo. Of course, individual black SportsCenter anchors in the 6 p.m. slot have not been an anomaly. In the early 1990s, Robin Roberts, who joined ESPN in 1990 and enjoyed a 15-year career there, became the first black woman to co-anchor the coveted SportsCenter slot.
But the transition for Hill and Smith is noteworthy in that they both initially chose print as their primary medium and enjoyed successful stints at prominent papers like the Detroit Free Press and Orlando Sentinel for Hill and the Boston Globe for Smith, at a time when black sports professionals were much rarer. That shared background, however, is largely responsible for their personal and professional chemistry.
“Jemele and I may be on the younger side [Editor’s note: Hill is 41, Smith is 37] relative to some of our colleagues at ESPN, but we’re dinosaurs in that we came up through the newspaper age, where it was like, either you were on newspaper and radio, where there was damn near no black people, or on television, which had mostly black people that were former athletes,” says Smith, a New Orleans native.
“Because we were so like-minded,” recalls Hill, who hails from Detroit, “and we had kind of very parallel careers, it just built an automatic kinship. Plus, we were at a point where we were coming to Bristol a lot. Neither one of us was based in Bristol, Conn. [where ESPN is based], and we were coming a lot, and so we started to hang out and go to dinner and go to movies together, and it just kind of established itself that way.”
SportsCenter may look a little different, with its updated look, but it plays no significant role in Smith and Hill’s grand scheme of making it uniquely their own. Instead, the pair promise that they are not deviating far from what has brought them to the dance in the first place.
“We make [SportsCenter] ours the same way we did His & Hers—just by being our unapologetic selves,” vows Hill. “Throughout this entire process and our journey together, the one principle Mike and I have always stuck to is: No matter what, we’re going to go down swinging as ourselves. We’re not going to sit there and use somebody else’s idea of what television is.
“There’s going to be a sort of period of where the audience has to get used to what we bring,” Hill admits. “We’re a pair that, while we can be serious, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re bringing a lot of fun and spontaneity to this brand. This is what the ESPN brass wanted. They wanted us to be us. They didn’t want us to come and try to be anyone else than what we’ve already been. So it’s going to be our own from day one because that’s the only way that we know how to approach anything.”
Both of them are very much aware that their “be us” approach and ESPN’s embracing of it owe a lot to legendary SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott, who brought hip-hop culture to the center of the network’s sports coverage long before losing his battle with cancer in 2015.
“Stuart had a lot of conversations and took a lot of bullets so we didn’t have to,” says Smith. “He made it OK to be you, to take risks and be outside the box.”
Still, that “brand of me” doesn’t work on everyone. “There are people from a viewership standpoint that’s just never going to feel us. We’re not going to be certain people’s cup of tea because they are not even willing to taste it, and that’s fine,” says Smith.
For Smith and Hill, SportsCenter is their Cavs championship. “It’s like validation for all the sacrifices we made, all the hustle, all the grind,” Smith explains. “It just goes to show that, if you stay true to yourself, the rest of the world, or the rest of the industry, will eventually catch up. They’ll learn to like it, and they did.”