Shannon Sharpe Has Your Undivided Attention

Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Shannon Sharpe has lived several lives during his 21 years as a media personality. He was the spark plug on CBS’s The NFL Today, then hit his stride on FS1’s Undisputed, leaning into his avuncular charisma en route to becoming one of the most outspoken figures in sports media. Last June, Sharpe exited Undisputed after his relationship with his co-host, Skip Bayless, soured, and the Hall of Famer and three-time Super Bowl champion jumped over to ESPN’s First Take that September, where he’s teamed up with friend Stephen A. Smith and Molly Querim for the show’s unique brand of high-volume debate.

Like some of his peers at ESPN, Sharpe’s profile has grown beyond the confines of his on-air job since launching a podcast, Club Shay Shay, in which he interviews various celebrities and athletes. He began the show in 2020, but it rocketed to the forefront of the pop culture conversation at the top of this year, when his now-infamous sit down with comedian Katt Williams went rival, racking up 70 million views to date and counting. He also hosts Nightcap, a podcast with 11-year NFL vet and six-time Pro Bowler Chad Johnson (and, once a week, the strategically unfiltered Gilbert Arenas). The exposure has given Sharpe a new level of visibility—one he says he wasn’t remotely prepared for.

Sharpe’s success away from a network highlights the increasing cross-pollination of sports media and pop culture. Our sports analysts—the biggest ones, at least, are also cultural figures, expected to weigh in on bigger debates about music, politics, race, and gender.

His extracurricular success helped Sharpe, 55, land a new multi-year contract with ESPN, which will include a larger role on First Take and see him appear across other ESPN programming. The specifics of his new responsibilities are still being ironed out, but Sharpe offered a glimpse of what they might look like. “My role with First Take doesn’t change, but there’s a chance you might see me at the SEC Championship Game or the National Championship Game,” he tells me. “You might see me at the Super Bowl at the desk or things like that.”

He and ESPN have the summer to figure it out. During a lengthy conversation with GQ, Sharpe talked about his journey in media, understanding internet culture, criticism of his interview style, and much more.

I was reading this New York Times profile of you from 2007 in which you said that you often watched games on mute so you weren’t influenced by anyone else’s analysis. You’re over 20 years deep into this profession and have your own niche as an analyst, so have you changed that practice at all?

Nope—it’s gotten so bad that I damn near watch everything on mute [laughs]. I know what I’m looking for and don’t want to be influenced by what someone else has to say. Just watch, observe, and draw your own conclusions. That’s your opinion, and then people are obviously going to agree or disagree accordingly, but that works for me and I don’t see any reason to change it.

Going viral helped you become more popular during your time on Undisputed, and it’s still very much a thing, but more recently you’ve displayed an awareness of it. You wore the goat mask, you broke out the Black & Milds, you had the Hennessy on set with you. But internet culture changes so quickly. Does that factor into the way that you approach what you do?

It doesn’t. I get that people want to be entertained, but they still want information. What does this guy think about this game? What did he think about this play? Why didn’t this play work? Why was this team successful? Why was this team unsuccessful? So for me, I try to be entertaining, but I also try to be very informative. Honestly, I had no idea the Black & Milds, the stocking cap, or the goat mask would go. Then one day, you wake up and say, “OK, I’m gonna start calling him GOAT James.” Then it just takes off. When I called Patrick Mahomes “Mahomeboy,” State Farm did a commercial and called him “Mahomie”—where you think they got that from? [laughs]

I didn’t know that I was going to have this kind of influence on the culture. I relish it, but I understand that I have to keep redefining myself. I can’t be the same person I was in 2016 or 2018, I’m not the same person I was in 2020 or 2022. And after this year, I’m going to have to evolve and become something different, and that’s OK. But without losing the roots of what I am.

This is TV—entertainment, specifically. There’s a level of performance to shows like Undisputed and First Take which more discerning viewers are privy to. How do you avoid becoming a caricature?

I’ve been able to do a very good job of being a lot of different people while still being Shannon Sharpe. So I can be the guy that you see on Nightcap, I can be the guy that you see on Club Shay Shay, I can also be the guy that you see on First Take. There’s a nuanced approach to understanding where I am and what that calls for. If you look at Will Smith, he did Bad Boys, Men in Black, I Am Legend, and The Pursuit of Happyness. He’s still Will Smith, but each character called for something different. Each show calls for me to be something different, while still giving out information.

You’ve gotten bigger opportunities on larger platforms. Now you’ve built your own. Do you ever worry about overexposure?

I do, but I think for me, the role that I play on First Take is perfect two days a week and Club Shay Shay one day a week. But I’m pleasantly surprised by how Nightcap has taken off, considering the time we come on. Like man, people are up at 11pm, 12am, and 1am in the morning watching us? Wow. But at the end of the day, if you produce good content…how many times have people seen Beyoncé or Taylor Swift? They keep going because they give you great concerts. So I think, as long as Ocho and I on Nightcap, and my team that we’ve assembled for Club Shay Shay, can keep providing good content, then I think the people will appreciate that and continue to tune in.

When you started at CBS, they had you traveling to do interviews. What did that experience teach you about the process?

Man, I loved it. Because I knew I wanted to do something besides sit at a desk and have eight-minutes of total talk time in a one-hour show. In order for me to get that, I needed to hit the road and interview people. So I would go out and take a flight at 10 a.m. traveling to California, get there, and the team would already be set up. I’d sit down, do an interview, and then jump on the red eye and come back. At the last minute, they’d say, “Hey, can you go to Detroit on a Wednesday and interview someone for the Thanksgiving Day game?” I’m there.

And what helped is that I told my producer at the time, Eric Mann, that I needed him to do me a favor: getting me as many hours as he could of [60 Minutes correspondent] Ed Bradley interviewing. I loved his style, his calm demeanor, and the way he got the guest to open up. I’m asking questions that I think my audience wants to know. If somebody from my audience was sitting in my seat, I believe these are the questions they would ask this guest. So it helped me. Did I know that, 15 or 20 years later, I’d have a show where I interview people? No, but it gave me an opportunity to get more time on air, and that’s what I wanted.

Is there anyone else you tried to emulate or learn from, aside from Ed Bradley?

I like Matt Lauer’s interview style. I love Mike Wallace, too; he’s a little bit more combative than Ed Bradley. I grew up listening to Dan Rather, Walter Kronkite, and all the old school journalists—but that’s not what I am. I’m a conversationalist: what I do is ask a question and I don’t cut the guest off, I let them talk. Because I’m not constrained like on linear television where I have to cut to break.

Do you ever go back and watch Club Shay Shay interviews like they’re All-22 footage and try to pinpoint potential areas of improvement or things that worked well?

I go back and look at the questions that we asked, and I ask myself: Could we have done without this question? Could we have done without that question? Could I have formulated that question in a better way? So you’re right, I constantly try to get better knowing that each guest is like a game in itself. I can’t look at it like, “OK, I just played the Cowboys, now I’m going to use the same gameplan like I’m playing the Steelers.” I have to formulate an entirely different gameplan by not getting too far away from who and what I am. Yeah, you run different plays, but all of a sudden, you’re not running the wishbone if Tom Brady’s your quarterback. You’re not running the wildcat with him [laughs].

But at the end of the day, I’m trying to extract as much information from the guest as I possibly can, getting them to open up and trust me enough to share something with no judgement. Because I make sure that when a guest comes on my show, I haven’t seen any of their interviews. So now, when they come on and start to tell their story, I’m not looking at them with judgy eyes. I think they realize that, and that’s why, more times than not, guests do not have a problem opening up to me on the show.

You said a couple of things just now. First, that particular approach is similar to you watching games with the volume off so you’re not influenced by anyone else’s analysis. Second, you acknowledged that you’re a conversationalist and not a journalist. What you do is much different than what Ed Bradley did or what Matt Lauer does.

Yeah, but people get upset. Like, guys, you do realize that these people aren’t whistleblowers, right? I’m not an investigative journalist—what do y’all want me to figure out? What do you think that I’m not getting out of them? And I think people get lost in that. Every guest has said something that you’ve never heard before, so you want me to do what? So when you look at Club Shay Shay, our conversations last at least two hours because I don’t cut [my guests] off. I’m not interested in hearing my voice, I hear it all the time. This is the one time I get to ask a question and sit back.

I think people are looking for you to push back and challenge your guests. Some interrogation of what they’re saying.

But like I told them: y’all need to go to 60 Minutes [laughs]. Go to Dateline. Go to The First 48, because they have that. If you want that, this is not the place; people want to be entertained. You can’t win, they want you to push back if it’s a guest you don’t like. But if it’s a guest that you like, you’re fine with that. People nitpick, so I’ve just come to the realization, bro: not everyone is going to be happy with everything. It took me a while, but I’ve come to accept that. No matter how good you do it, somebody is going to be upset and you have to be OK with that. And as I’ve navigated this over the last several years, I’ve become OK with that.

You’ve come to understand the nature of the internet. You can live and die off of going viral and becoming a meme. The same people laughing when you have a Black dangling from the side of your mouth will critique you when they don’t like something you’ve said or done.

Yes, yes, yes. Or, if you’ve got a podcast, why do you care about what’s going on on mine? You have a right to object, but do it on your podcast. If I’m leaving something out or there’s something I can do better, this is your opportunity to put it into your podcast and then reap what I missed out on. If it’s a fan, then I get it. But if you’ve got a podcast and I’m doing something that’s so bad, why aren’t your podcast numbers better?

I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I suppose some might not have the same level of notoriety or a platform as big as yours.

Most of the people who are criticizing started their podcasts before me [laughs]. And a lot of times, I have some of the same guests. If you go back and look, for whatever reason—maybe it’s because of who I am and they know my career—but people feel comfortable talking to me.

How do you determine who you’re going to interview?

We try to figure out who has a story and who can tell it while being entertaining. Because people want to be entertained, they’re not going to watch a two-hour sit-down and listen to an investigative journalist. That’s not what they’re going to do. So give the people what they want and everybody’s happy.

I know that in the past, a company like ESPN might not have been receptive to you having a non-ESPN platform where you discuss things that are well-beyond ESPN’s purview. For example, I caught the conversation you and Chad had last night about whipped cream [Shannon giggles]. Club Shay Shay has brought more eyes to First Take—Stephen A. said that himself this morning—so do you think ESPN is more lenient than they would’ve been in the past, especially with big-name talent, because they ultimately benefit from those external platforms that people like you have built for yourselves?

Yes, absolutely. Because they know the people that like Shannon Sharpe are going to follow Shannon Sharpe wherever he’s at. They’re going to watch, they’re going to listen, so I think that plays a major role in ESPN allowing me. I wasn’t willing to give up Nightcap, because I wanted to create something. After you get fired several times, you start thinking, “How can I create something where I don’t get fired?” Well, create something that you own. They can’t fire you from something that you own. You can fire the coaches, you can get different players, but you can’t fire me from my team because I own it.

That’s the main reason I went out and tried to create my own platform: I got tired of, “Well, we want to go in a different direction. We want to do something different.” OK, well, I don’t want to do anything different—I want to do this right now.

I read that you got a call from [Disney CEO] Bob Iger to discuss your future at ESPN after the Katt Williams interview became perhaps the first big cultural moment of the year. That is a long way from “sticking to sports,” but I don’t know that that happens in a different era when the business is just as cutthroat and results-driven as it is now, but perhaps a little less restrictive, right?

Yes. It was a one-year deal, so I was like, “Let me show them that I can still be entertaining and informative, and hopefully, they’ll ask me to come back for more years.” As I started talking to decision-makers—[ESPN chairman] Jimmy Pitaro, [president of content] Burke Magnus—they were very pleased. I don’t look at the ratings, what I try to do is be as informative as I possibly can. I try to watch as many sporting events as I possibly can, while keeping an eye on the culture. Because hey, there might be times when we have to talk about the James Harden situation. And while James Harden is a basketball player, this is an opportunity for me to insert some humor and entertainment value into the discussion.

So when Bob reached out, I was like, “OK, great talking to you. I really appreciate the opportunity.” And he was like, “You know, I’ve heard nothing but great things about you. Everybody talks about how hard-working and well-prepared you are, and that you are a strictly business person. You come in, you do your job, and you go home. There’s not a whole lot of extracurricular activities or extra conversations going on with you.” And there’s not.

Stephen A. called me about three months in and he was like, “Bro, let me ask you something,” and I was like, “Yeah, what is it?” And he was like, “Is this all you do?” I’m like, “What do you mean?” So he says, “Bro, you don’t talk to nobody, you don’t talk about nobody, you don’t go anywhere, you don’t do anything. Is this your life?” And I told him, “Yeah, bro. This is what I do.” He says, “Man, how long you been like this?” And I told him, “My entire professional life.” His response? “Damn.” And I told him, “Bro, this is it. My purpose is to work, it’s to provide for my family, it’s to leave a better situation so now I can give back in the manner in which I want to give back.” And any time I give back, I only have one simple rule: When I give something, you’re not allowed to tell where that gift came from.

So you were basically on a “prove it” deal.

Yeah, I was. Because I don’t know what was said, but any time you leave in a situation like that, there’s obviously speculation of what transpired and how it transpired. So I was like, look, let me just go in here and do what I do. I know who I am, so I think I can show them. And at the end of the day, you can make a decision. Maybe ESPN goes, “Hey, one year. It was fine.” And that would’ve been OK; I would’ve appreciated Stephen A. extending himself, because he put himself out there for me. I will forever be grateful for what Stephen A. did—because he didn’t have to do it, but he did.

ESPN doesn’t happen without Stephen A.’s blessing, and I told him: “Bro, you know my personality.” He said, “Bro, don’t worry about that. Come in and do you.” I remember a couple of months in, he told me: “You’ve been here, I need you to be you.” Him telling me that allowed me to relax, because I didn’t want to sideswipe anybody, get in anybody’s lane, or step on anybody’s toes.

Then, Bob tells me we need to have a sit-down in January. I’m thinking the worst: ”Damn, I just got here.” [laughs] He said they wanted me to have a bigger role at ESPN and they wanted me for the long-term.

The lines between sports discussion and general pop culture are becoming increasingly blurry. How do you feel about Club Shay Shay becoming a destination for people to be part of the broader cultural conversation on a week-to-week basis?

It seems like pretty soon, linear television is only going to be the place where you go for sporting events. Some other programming will remain on linear, but for the most part, it’s all heading to digital. Because now, it seems like a lot of people watch on their devices: iPad, telephones, whatever the case may be. That’s why you can’t lean too heavily into one or the other—well, I can’t. I can’t be all pop culture without studying and watching sports. I can’t only study and watch sports without having an eye and ear on pop culture.

I think what the team has been able to do is walk that line between sports and pop culture, and give people, be they athletes or entertainers, a platform where they can share their stories. I had Johnny Manziel—a great interview, I loved sitting down with Johnny to see how reflective he was. I had Terry Crews, who I knew because we came into the league about the same time. I get something different each interview and I take something away from it like, Damn, I really didn’t know that about that person. I can see why he or she is successful. I can see what makes them tick. So yeah, it’s a great thing and something I don’t take for granted. I understand the position that I’m in and the power that’s been bestowed upon me, so I’m going to try to use it to the best of my ability.

What did you learn from the Katt Williams interview?

Bro, I’m sitting down doing the interview and I had no idea it was going to do what it did. When I wrapped the interview, I remember looking back at my producer and he’s shaking his head. So I’m covering my mic, puzzled: Did I curse? Did I say something? Did he say something? And he was like, “It’s gonna set the internet on fire. This will be talked about all 2024.” I’m like, “Really?” He said he was hoping the interview could do 10 to 15 million views, because at the time, Steve Harvey was my best interview and he was eight million. He did a great job of covering the comedy circuit, The Kings of Comedy, The Steve Harvey Show—he did a great job. So I was very, very proud of that interview.

I remember my producer saying it was going to do 20 million, at least. So we drop it and that day, we have 120,000 to 130,000 people in the chat watching it live. When it did 42 million in a week, he told me he thought it would break the record. I asked what the record was and it was 68 million. It did that and what I’ve said at a couple of events now is that what Katt Williams did for Club Shay Shay is what the television did for sporting events. Now, you had to take Club Shay Shay seriously. Seventy-million views? Over 110 million views when you look at the clips? Over three-quarters of a billion impressions on that one video? Well, if we didn’t have your attention, we have your undivided attention now.

It also opened you up to more scrutiny. How is that different or more disorienting than what you received as a player? Because you played in plenty of hostile environments.

See, that was the thing. I understood that Raiders fans, Chiefs fans, Chargers fans, Steelers fans or whoever were going to have a dislike for me because I was a pretty good player and I was going to beat their team. I didn’t expect the criticism that came along with this—I just did an interview that people liked. I started seeing criticism I never got before. Nobody said anything about pushback when I had Steve on. Nobody said anything about pushback when I had Rickey Smiley, Michael Blackson, Cedric the Entertainer, or Earthquake on. So what’s this really about?

Well, you shouldn’t have let him”—so what was I supposed to do? I’ve never heard an interviewer say, “You can’t talk about that” or “You can’t say that.” So it took me a while, but I’ve learned that it’s 20X what I experienced as a player. I’m a multiple Super Bowl champ, I have a gold jacket, and I was one of the better players at my position. The adulation and praise was never this high, but the criticism, critiques, and vitriol were never this bad either. So it’s a double-edged sword that I guess comes with the territory when you’re in this space. But maybe I missed the boat, because I don’t remember anybody else being in this realm and having to deal with this. But it’s something you accept: not everybody is going to like your style, the guests you have on, or what they say or your response to them.

People who like the guests that I have and the guests that I have will continue to watch and those that don’t, oh well, I guess there’s other things for them to do.

I was watching First Take yesterday and you and Stephen A. had this spirited debate with Chiney and Andraya about why Caitlin Clark wasn’t selected to the women’s USA basketball team. One of the cruxes of the debate was basketball versus marketing: should the focus be on winning an eighth gold medal or using Clark’s popularity to grow women’s basketball? Well, seeing as how First Take has performed so well, with the many consecutive months of year-over-year growth, and especially since your arrival, don’t you think First Take could help grow the women’s game by spending more time talking about the actual game rather than some of the peripheral discussions—especially if the ratings are going to be there anyway because of who’s having the conversations?

But here’s the thing: the fans determine what we talk about. Who do the fans want to talk about when it comes to the WNBA?

Some people want to talk about Caitlin Clark, but that’s not the only conversation to be had. For example, the Las Vegas Aces have the best player in the league, A’ja Wilson, and they’re currently struggling, having lost back-to-back games after winning back-to-back titles. “What’s up with the Aces?” could be a segment.

They’ve won back-to-back, and their ticket prices when Caitlin Clark came were triple what they were when they won the WNBA Finals. She is the most popular female basketball player in the world right now. Nobody has come into the WNBA with more fanfare. I’m not saying she’s gonna be A’ja Wilson, I’m not saying she’s gonna be Diana Taurasi, Sheryl Swoopes, or Breanna Stewart. We know she probably won’t be anything like that, but for whatever reason, she’s got people talking about the WNBA. And, just from a marketing standpoint, can you imagine how many jerseys she would have sold? How many minutes did Christian Laettner play in ‘92, one or two a game?

Not many and he didn’t need to be there.

Thank you, but they understood. The NBA could have taken 11 other guys, but the only one they really wanted was Michael Jordan because he was the most popular player in the world. Who’s the most popular women’s basketball player in the world, currently?

Probably Caitlin Clark, but to be fair to her, she isn’t Michael Jordan and I don’t know that the conversations would be what some people think they’d be if she was sitting on the bench during the Olympics. I also don’t think she’s entitled to a spot on that team off the strength of popularity alone.

But her numbers are better than Diana Taurasi’s across the board, so why is DT there—a legacy pick? And I love DT, but her numbers aren’t better than Caitlin Clark. For me, you can’t say that you want to grow the game, and I get it: she could have easily been like, “I’m good, I’m gonna sit this one out.” She’s got millions of dollars; the least amount of money she’s making is from the WNBA. She’s got a signature shoe deal, she’s got State Farm, and imagine the local stuff she has in Indiana? I guarantee she has local stuff that pays her more than her WNBA salary. Advertisers want to see her, people want to see her, give ‘em what they want.

I think they’re going to win the gold medal with or without her on the team because I think we have the best women’s players in the world. I know we have the two best women’s players in the world in A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart, so I think we have a very formidable team. I was just thinking about getting marketing dollars so that all of a sudden, that $76,000 is a minimum and rookies are coming in making $100,000. Then, hopefully, that gets to $125,000, then $200,000. Then, the top women’s players can make a million dollars instead of $245,000. It’s not the same as NBA money, but I think women’s players would be more satisfied making a million dollars per year than that.

I’ve been poor. I know what it’s like to make $2,000 a year as opposed to $60,000 a year, then making $200,000, then making a million dollars a year. Bro, a million dollars a year compared to $200,000 a year is like $1,000 a year to $200,000 a year [laughs]. But she’s handled it very, very well—to no fault of her own. A lot of it is social media, a lot of it, as we’ve seen over the last two years, was NIL deals that came along. She took a pay cut coming to the WNBA, but now the NIL money is turning into endorsements. We’ve seen this before, it’s nothing new. They weren’t happy about Tiger Woods. But, when the purses at these golf tournaments started getting bigger, everybody realized it was because of him and everybody started liking him again. Hopefully, she can bring more eyeballs, marketers, sponsors, and people going out to support.

I can’t wait to get stationary again so I can go out and catch some games. I love Breanna Stewart’s game; I’ve followed her career since college. I love A’ja Wilson; she went to the school my brother went to. I’d like to catch at least one DT game before she retires; I’d be disappointed if I didn’t see her play at least once. And hopefully, this rookie class gets an opportunity to flourish. You see Angel Reese, Cameron Brink, and Rickea Jackson—this class is just like Caitlin Clark, but for whatever reason, she’s more polarizing.

Originally Appeared on GQ