A quick glance at the stage light boxes on the set of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” reveals the passions of its new, early evening hosts Michael Smith and Jemele Hill.
Photos or illustrations of Prince, Michael Jordan, Tommie Smith and John Carlos - the track stars who protested at the 1968 Summer Olympics - the Notorious B.I.G. and Bob Marley are displayed alongside some personal and professional snaps, including one with former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. Smith mentions a few more he wants added on a break during a recent rehearsal at the sports network’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters.
“I really want the place to feel like our home, not just a studio,” the New Orleans native and former Boston Globe sports columnist said. “The inspiration was: ‘How would we decorate it if we were roommates somewhere?’”
The fact that Smith and Hill have input on the look of their “SportsCenter” – which, starting Monday, is known as “SC6 with Michael and Jemele” -- is also a statement about the evolution of ESPN’s signature news show. As game highlights and scores are instantly accessible on computers and mobile devices, “SportsCenter” has moved toward featuring distinctive personalities whom viewers will tune in for even if they know the results of events. The format shift has already worked on the midnight Eastern edition hosted by Scott Van Pelt, who gives the program a late night comedy feel with running gags and humorous intros. It’s regularly the most watched program in its time slot among men aged 18 to 34.
ESPN management has tapped Smith and Hill to lead the next iteration of that transition. Their partnership did not come out of a research department focus group or an executive retreat. Both are veteran newspaper sports columnists who joined ESPN as writers and became regulars on such discussion shows as “Around the Horn” and “The Sports Reporters.” As they became colleagues and friends, they started their own podcast in 2011 called “His & Hers,” identified by a stylized logo with Smith’s rectangular-framed college prof specs and Hill’s no-nonsense hair bun. They were not compensated for the podcast, but it gained fans internally and eventually paid off big time. By 2014, Smith’s previous ESPN2 show, the statistics-driven “Numbers Never Lie,” was renamed “His & Hers” and added Hill as his co-host.
In an era when vein-bulging, finger-pointing debates are filling hours of sports talk programming, Hill and Smith often agree and never take an opposing view just for the sake of creating provocative television. The approach hardly puts them at a disadvantage. They are powered by the wound-up energy that comes from years of turning out columns and stories under tight newspaper deadlines.
“The conversations they have on television are the same conversations they have when nobody is watching,” said Rob King, senior vice president of “SportsCenter” and news for ESPN. “They really talk with each other and they manage to surprise each other.”
People who discover Smith and Hill typically think they are a couple, have been a couple, or are secretly a couple. Check none of the above.
“If we were ever in a relationship this show would not work the way it does,” said Smith, a 37-year-old married father of three children. “She would have killed me, probably.”
“I’m the pettier person,” adds Hill, 41, who grew up poor in Detroit before starting her journalism career while attending Michigan State. “I would never have worked with him. There are plenty of exes that I’m cool with that I don’t want to be around.” (She is in a relationship with a man referred to only as “Ole Boy.” )
But the duo is aware that they are a rarity— if not a first— in TV outside of local news: a male-female African American co-host team on a national program where they determine the content. Along with a breakdown of the previous night’s games, they have used their platform to talk about diversity, social justice, domestic violence and other issues whether they are related to sports or not.
“We’re really in a comfortable, happy place because it’s not like we’re stuck in a sports box,” said Smith. “It’s not like we have a wandering eye and say ‘I wish we could talk about this.’ We do it here.”
Hill, who has shown up as a guest on cable news shows, believes the mix of politics and sports is unavoidable at a time when the media is saturated by the ramifications of the historic election of President Trump.
“If Donald Trump is bragging and boasting at every opportunity about his friendship with [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady, it has to become a sports story,” she said. “Tom Brady with a ‘Make America Great Again” hat in his locker — he has made it a sports story. Whether we want it to be or not — the figures in sports are dragging us into these conversations because they are reacting to what’s happening in our society.”
The political comments of Smith and Hill — on TV and in social media — have led the right-wing website Breitbart News to monitor their show and use it to promote the idea that ESPN has become a bastion of liberal bias.
“Yeah, this is where all the flaming liberals and hippies are walking around smoking weed in the hallways,” she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm at the notion, which she considers ridiculous.
Fans of “His & Hers” are well aware that Hill and Smith have a much lighter side. As pop culture obsessives, they have produced and starred in elaborate parodies of iconic films such as “Coming to America,” “Boyz n the Hood,” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”
In a spot-on takeoff of the hit TV drama “Empire,” Smith and Hill have a boardroom clash as Lucious and Cookie Lyon. Let’s just say if Fox executives ever need a backup for Taraji P. Henson, they should give Hill’s agent a call.
The spoofs will be crossing over to their new show. In the opening titles for “SC6 with Michael and Jemele,” Smith and Hill will be recreating their favorite 1980s sitcoms. They recently shot one of them in the lobby and hallways outside of their studio.
“You know what’s hilarious about this place?” said Hill, who asked that the show homage be kept a surprise. “I’m walking around in lingerie and nobody’s asking why.”
As the launch date for their new show got closer, Smith and Hill thought a lot about Stuart Scott and John Saunders, the veteran, black ESPN anchors who both died in the last two years. Both were big supporters of Smith and Hill and encouraged ESPN executives to increase the pair’s exposure.
“Stuart was once watching ‘His & Hers’ and he called Michael’s phone to say, ‘Man you two are going to do big things,’” Hill recalled. “Michael still has the voice mail. It will make me tear up if I hear it. Stuart would be so proud of us.”
‘SC6 with Michael and Jemele’
Where: ESPN and ESPN2
When: 3 p.m. Monday