Michael Smith, a longtime ESPN commentator and host whose contract with the network just expired, has a new gig: He’s EVP and chief content officer of (co)laboratory — a new L.A. studio startup focused on developing original content about sports, featuring athletes as storytellers.
(Co)laboratory was formed earlier this year by three partners: Basil Iwanyk, founder of Thunder Road Pictures, producer of films including “A Star Is Born,” “Sicario” and the “John Wick” franchise; Jaymee Messler, who co-founded The Players’ Tribune media company with Derek Jeter; and industry exec Greg Economou, formerly chief revenue officer and head of sports at Ticketmaster who also worked in senior roles at Dick Clark Prods., the Madison Square Garden Co., the NBA and the Charlotte Hornets.
Now the trio have tapped Smith, who said he was looking to start a new chapter in his career after 15 years at ESPN.
“This is an opportunity to tap into my entrepreneur side, my dealmaker and producer side,” Smith told Variety. “I haven’t been this excited in years.”
At (co)laboratory, Smith will play a key role in the development of original content across multiple formats, including scripted and unscripted digital series, podcasts, film and TV. He’ll provide creative direction on (co)lab projects — including on-camera coaching for athletes — as well as identifying business opportunities. In addition, Smith will be appearing in front of the camera, with the startup planning to develop several shows around him.
“What we’re doing is empowering athletes and creators in general. I think we’re going to be able to make some really impactful content and tell some new stories,” said Smith.
Prior to joining (co)laboratory, Smith had served in a variety of roles at ESPN including reporter, commentator, host, anchor and executive producer since joining the Disney-owned sports cabler in 2004. Most recently, he had anchored the 6 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter” before leaving that post last year. Smith had co-hosted “SC6” with Jemele Hill, who left ESPN after a controversy over several of her tweets and is now a writer at The Atlantic. Prior to ESPN, Smith began his career as a reporter for the Boston Globe. He’s represented by WME.
Smith’s ESPN contract officially ended last week. After his stint at “SportsCenter” ended in March 2018, he said, “I’ll be candid, there was not a whole lot at ESPN that represented growth or a new challenge. … Since then, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this, to be honest with you.”
Messler met up with Smith a few months ago, after a mutual acquaintance suggested to Smith that he check out (co)laboratory while he was on a trip to L.A. He said he instantly hit it off with Messler and, after meeting with the other founders, accepted the job offer. Said Messler, “He was one of the freshest voices on ESPN. We share such a sensibility — it seemed like such a great fit for him to come build this company.” Iwanyk added: “We were blown away by his enthusiasm.”
Smith, who turned 40 in August, will be bicoastal for a bit. He lives in Farmington, Conn., near ESPN’s Bristol mother ship, and has three kids in school. But he plans to relocate to L.A.: “This is where the action is.”
(Co)laboratory’s backers to date include Iwanyk’s Thunder Road and angel investors. In joining the company, Smith also is an investor and owns an equity stake. According to Messler, the startup will be seeking outside investors as well.
The idea is to provide athletes with development resources and funding “to let them be part of a storytelling concept,” said Messler. Prior to co-founding The Players’ Tribune, which is all about providing an unfiltered digital platform for pro sports stars, she was chief marketing officer of Excel Sports Management.
(Co)laboratory currently has 21 projects in development, according to Messler, but she declined to provide details. One area Smith said he wants to lean into is women’s sports, which he noted has a fanbase that’s underserved by media companies.
The company will produce its own projects as well as enter into co-productions. Iwanyk said the team has inked about a half-dozen deals so far with athletes to develop their entertainment projects, under which (co)lab is bringing actors, directors, producers and writers on board. (Co)lab also wants to produce branded content with leagues and marketers.
“We just saw a gigantic white space in the market for sports content and a rise in the voices that want to tell those stories,” Iwanyk said. “There seems to be a huge thirst for this.”
Founded in February 2019, (co)laboratory is based in Culver City, Calif., after moving last month from its previous Santa Monica digs.