As first reported by Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, Jemele Hill is leaving the 6pm ET SC6 edition of SportsCenter on ESPN. Hill will leave the show February 2nd to take on a role with The Undefeated, ESPN’s website dedicated to the intersection of sports, race and culture, and as an on-air commentator on programs such as SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, Around the Horn, Highly Questionable, Pardon the Interruption, E:60 and various radio programs and podcasts produced by ESPN Audio.
“There is an old adage that says, the heart wants what it wants,” said Hill. “I started at ESPN 11 years ago as a columnist and while I have worn many hats in the time since, my true love always has been writing, reporting and commentary. While I have grown in every way imaginable this last year on the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, deep down I knew it wasn’t my calling. I approached (ESPN Executive Vice President, Content) Connor Schell recently and asked if they would consider re-thinking my role. And as has been the case throughout my 11 years at this company, ESPN graciously worked with me to determine the best way for me to continue to do meaningful work.
“My first choice was to work with The Undefeated, a site that covers the intersection of race, African-American culture and sports in creative and compelling ways,” she added. “I admire, trust and have unconditional respect for (ESPN Senior Vice President & Editor-in-Chief) Kevin Merida and The Undefeated staff. I have no doubt we will create amazing content together. I’m also thankful to Connor for not only hearing my request, but being immensely supportive throughout this process. I have longed for some time to return to my roots, so to speak. I’m ecstatic to be in such a supportive environment to explore the next phase in my career.
“I’d also like to thank my co-host Michael Smith for his encouragement, generosity and support,” she said. “I will be cheering him on as the 6 p.m. SportsCenter evolves with him as lead anchor. The SC6 staff also has my utmost gratitude and affection. Thank you for your hard work and contributions.”
Although the narrative being pushed by ESPN suggests Hill requested the role change, others aren’t buying it. FOX Sports Radio host Clay Travis, who’s broken numerous stories on ESPN, has been saying on the air for weeks that Hill would be gone from SC6 after the Super Bowl because the show’s ratings were abysmal.
It’s well documented that Hill put a massive bullseye on ESPN’s reputation when she took President Trump to task on Twitter, labeling him a white supremacist. That was followed up by encouraging Dallas Cowboys fans to boycott sponsors of America’s team, an act which earned her a suspension.
Complicating matters even more was that Hill and Smith’s former program, His and Hers, was drastically different than SportsCenter. When the network attempted to mesh the two together and develop SC6, it left a bad taste in the mouth’s of many traditional viewers, leading them to reject the program. That approach also placed Smith and Hill in a box to deliver a stylistically different version of their show, rather than the one which they were most comfortable executing.
The decline of the program’s ratings, coupled with the dissatisfaction of the show from many involved, led to internal role changes for ESPN managers Rob King, Dave Roberts and Norby Williamson. The Big Lead pointed out that turmoil had existed behind the scenes for quite some time, but there was a possibility of Hill and Smith returning to the daytime lineup to reprise their His & Hers program. Once Smith parted ways though with the duo’s mutual agent, Evan Dick of CAA, it became clear that the pair would soon be heading in different directions.
While Hill may be pursuing a new challenge, the network is counting on Smith to become the lead anchor of the 6pm ET SportsCenter.
“The telecast continues to evolve as our primary mission is serving sports fans no matter the time of day,” Williamson said. “We have clearly learned that viewers expect the most comprehensive news coverage and compelling analysis during the 6 p.m. hour. Michael Smith is an experienced journalist and seasoned commentator and I’m confident that his talents can help us achieve our objectives as we move forward.”
What will be interesting to follow is how Hill adjusts to her new role and if it’s enough to satisfy her long term. It’s certainly possible she could become a permanent fixture on The Undefeated, but her passion for discussing topics beyond sports, and the growth of her profile are likely to earn her future attention from outlets such as CNN or MSNBC. Her current employer could also pursue utilizing her on ABC if they feel a fit makes sense.