Life After 'Undisputed': How Shannon Sharpe Became The Most Entertaining Person In Sports Media

Shannon Sharpe, Complex’s No. 1 Most Entertaining Sports Media Personality, sat down with us to discuss earning the top spot, life after 'Undisputed', and what's next.

Photographed by Taylor Miller

When describing Shannon Sharpe, “Hall of Fame tight end” used to be the first thing that came to mind. But these days that isn’t the case. Now Sharpe is known as a sports media powerhouse who is building a brand that stands above his peers—which is why Complex ranked him No. 1 on our Most Entertaining Sports Media Personalities Right Now list.

“I think more people probably know me now, in this space, than when I played professional football,” Sharpe says. “I think that's a true testament for me to be able to transition from one career to another and do so well at it that people actually forget that you were pretty good at the other career.”

That might sound outrageous when you consider his NFL accolades—three-time Super Bowl champion, five-time All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowler, and the first tight end to gain over 10,000 yards. But it speaks to his rapid ascent as a sports media personality and his connection to his audience. As a pundit, Sharpe exudes a passionate authenticity that is equally resonant whether he’s talking about a serious issue or roasting his co-hosts—all in that unmistakable, endearing Southern drawl. . 

Though Sharpe’s star has grown rapidly, his journey to this point hasn’t been easy; as with his NFL career (he was a seventh-round pick), Sharpe’s media rise is the product of a relentless work ethic.  He started his broadcasting career in 2004 at CBS, where he worked as a commentator for The NFL Today before splitting with the company in 2010. He was out of work on television for six years before landing at FS1. It was on FS1, paired with Skip Bayless on Undisputed, that Sharpe’s media career really took off.“If somebody would have told me, when I got back into this business in 2016, this was going to be the ascension that I had, I wouldn't have believed it,” Sharpe says. “I was just happy that someone threw me a lifeline and gave me an opportunity to get back on television.”

Now, at age 55, he isn’t just back on TV—he has become the most memeable, quotable, and viral face and voice in sports (yes, even more so than Stephen A). After being bought out by FS1 earlier this year, Sharpe joined ESPN’s First Take in September. . Whether locking horns with Stephen A or building his own platform with the Club Shay Shay and the Nightcap podcasts, Sharpe has become impossible to escape on your timeline.

Complex’s No. 1 Most Entertaining Sports Media Personality sat down with Complex to discuss earning the top spot, his rise in sports media, his greatest influences, and what is next for him.

How does it feel to be No. 1?
Wow, it's great. I mean, anytime you are honored and someone thinks that you're pretty good at what you do, it's quite an accomplishment. I really appreciate it. It’s something that when I got into this business, I didn't even know it was possible. I started at CBS and was there for a decade and was out of work for two years, and then [got] an opportunity to go to FS1 and Undisputed with Skip [Bayless] and was there for seven years, and then was out of work for a couple of months, and I didn't really know what to expect. 

Then got a call from Stephen A [Smith] and he wanted me to join him on First Take. And next thing you know, this happens. It's been an amazing ride. I just try to be true to myself. I try to be fair to all the players, having been an ex-professional athlete myself and understanding that I am human. No matter how much money I make, no matter how good I am at a chosen sport, I'm still human. 

What stands out to you after looking at the list of the most entertaining sports media personalities?
Let's just look at the top three. I mean, we got two HBCU guys in myself and Stephen A went one and two. Charles Barkley, who's kind of the measuring stick, especially for myself—Charles Barkley is the one that gave me a belief that I could do it. He's from rural Alabama. I'm from rural South Georgia. We both have a colloquial dialect, and I was like, ‘Man, if Charles can do this being from Alabama, talking the way he talked, why can't I do this? Why can’t I be authentic Shannon Sharpe and be good at this?’ 

I went to so many speech therapists and pathologists trying to change the way I talk. And then I just realized that's not who I am. The listening audience, the viewing audience is never gonna believe this is who I am. They've heard me speak enough to know what I sound like and how I should sound. And once I went back to being who I was, my authentic self, it seemingly took off for me from there.

How does it feel to be ranked atop the names of the people on this list?
Man, No. 1, I mean look at some of the names on this list. You got Stephen A, Barkley, Pat McAfee, Shaq, Cam and Mase, Gilbert Arenas. Michael Irvin is a good friend of mine; Draymond Green, Ryan Clark, Nick Wright, who was with me at FS1. Big Perk, the Kelce brothers. This is an unbelievable list. This is an incredible list. Stephen A, you made this possible, bro. To invite me to your house when you've already set a nice table, had great guys and women discussing topics, and to invite me in. But to be on the list as far as this entertaining and to watch Shaq and Chuck, how they do on TNT, they just have fun, and that's what I've tried to do no matter who my partner is. Whether it was Skip before Stephen A, Ocho [Chad Johnson] on Nightcap. It's just been an unbelievable ride. And I'm not done. I'm just getting started. But thank you Complex Volume for this prestigious award. I really appreciate it.

How would you describe these past few years of building your platform in regards to Club Shay Shay and taking it to Volume Sports?
You know, when I started out, I wanted it to be entertaining because at the end of the day, it's still gotta be fun. The people just don't wanna hear dry analysis like “he did this,” “he did that.” And so I tried to put my spin on it. It was a lot of sayings that my grandfather and my grandmother used when I was growing up, a lot of just ad-libs, a lot of one-liners that I guess make me relatable. And so I've always tried to just do my own thing, carve up my own path. I understand that I'm very unique in this space. But the way that I've been embraced, respected, admired—if somebody would have told me, when I got back into this business in 2016, this was going to be the ascension that I had, I wouldn't have believed it. 

I was just happy that someone threw me a lifeline and gave me an opportunity to get back on television. I didn't know how long it was gonna work because [Undisputed] was a new program. I didn't know if I was going to be there for six months, definitely didn't know six years, and it got to seven years. I built the name for myself, built the brand for myself, and here I am. More people know me, this celebrity Shannon, “Unc,”  “Shay,” than at the height of my NFL career. And I think more people probably know me now, in this space, than when I played professional football. I think that's a true testament, for me to be able to transition from one career to another and do so well at it that people actually forget that you were pretty good at the other career.

Does First Take now feel like home, and if so how did ESPN make you feel at home?
Well, it's all because of Stephen A. He welcomed me with open arms. He said, “I want you to be yourself. Don't worry about me. Don't worry about stepping on any toes. Just do you.” So he made it very easy for me to come in and be myself, because then I didn't have to worry about getting in his lane. I don't want to side swipe anybody over here. He just told me to be myself. [ESPN head of studio programming] Dave Roberts, when I sit down and talk to him and the ESPN team, they were like, “Welcome aboard. We're so excited to have you aboard.” I think the biggest thing for me is to have those people reach out. Ryan Clark reached out to me, and Marcus Spears. All of the guys that were normally on First Take reached out a lot. And so for me, it's just the openness and the open arms that they greeted me with. And so it kind of made my transition a lot easier than I anticipated, but I was coming into work and keeping my head down. I know people think I talk a lot, but I like to come in, do my job, and I just go home and do my own thing.

You have already built an impressive résumé in sports media, but what is your ultimate goal in this space?
I want to be a media company. I want to be a household name. What Stephen A has been able to do, what Charles Barkley has been able to do, what Shaq has been able to do. Some of these guys, Pat McAfee, what he's been able to carve out the digital space and then get his own programming on ESPN. That's what I want to do. I want to be able to build a brand, and I want to be able to help other people that want to get in this space. But my brand is built on respect. It's built on discipline; it's built on work, and working hard. If you don't bring those attributes to the table, then I'm not for you and you're not for me.

You spoke about Charles Barkley being a blueprint for you. How so?
It was the candidness with which he spoke. It was his honesty that allowed this to be possible. Because a lot of times, athletes see one thing but they want to be friends. And so if you want to be friends, you're not going to be as critical, because you're afraid that if you run into this guy at an event, he ain't gonna speak to you or he gonna run down on you. Charles never worried about that. He talked about what he saw. He played the game at an elite level. So obviously he came with instant credibility. No, he never won a championship, but I believe you can be a great player and not win a championship. 

He's a Hall of Famer, a double-double guy every night, got a team to the NBA Finals, and was an MVP. So his ability to talk with authenticity and with honesty about what he's seeing and him being able to critique players. Because it's not easy; because you do understand you were once a player and you were once in the very shoes that they were in: having a family, having a mom, had a dad, had people that loved you. But I think it's a different time now with the social media aspect and a lot of these guys have never heard they played a bad game. And so once, even if you give them praise for a decade-plus, the moment you say something negative, they forget all the good things that you said and only focus on the negative thing that you said. Oh, now you're a hater. And that didn't bother Charles. And so I was like, he can do it—why can’t I? That's the way I look at things. I saw Charles have success. I was like, I could do that.

You have spoken about a number of sports media personalities that have influenced you. Who would you say is the greatest sports media personality of all-time?
Howard Cosell. His range was limitless. He could call any sporting event; the way he could do his back and forth with Muhammad Ali. For me, he's the greatest, but I think Charles Barkley's top three. Absolutely. I don't know if we have seen anything quite like Charles. He's another guy that, you know, he can call a basketball game. He loves golf. So to see him in those challenges and hear him talking about that, he loves sports. 

And I think that's the biggest thing, guys that really love the sport and you can tell—it resonates on camera how much they love the particular sport that they're talking about. But they can make it entertaining. Those are the kind of guys that I try to emulate. I put my own spin on it. But for me, Howard Cosell, I don't think there's anybody more entertaining in the sports media space than Howard Cosell.

Have you had that moment where you felt like you made it in media?
I'm just coming to the realization. I was just at Savannah State a couple of weeks ago, and my best friend of 30-plus years, Bucket, he said, “Homeboy, it is not the same.” He says, “You're the same, but everything around you has changed; it's different.” I realize that it's different. I'm not a different person. I just have to move differently. The way I interact with people is different. My friends are my friends still; my family is still my family. But I’m a lot more cautious of who I let into this space, and why do you want to be in this space with me? Are you bringing something, or are you trying to take something? And so that's the biggest thing that I've had to adjust with, because normally I just go about my normal routine. It's not that simple anymore. It's not the same anymore.

So it sounds like you have to move differently now than when you were in the NFL.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think I've had to move differently because of social media. I had to be more conscious of the things that I did, the places that I went, the things that I've said, that I say. But I'm also at a different stage of my life. You know, I'm not 25 anymore. I'm not 35 anymore. I'm 55. I’ve got kids of my own. I have grandkids. There's a different level of responsibility and accountability that comes along with aging, and I'm OK with that.

What do you hope for in the future of your career?
I would like to have a bigger role in this space. I love working with Stephen A. These last three or four months have been unbelievable. Coming up with a new podcast and having people that I care about with that, that's been with me the whole way. But I'm not as high. I put it like this: If I was a pilot, I know that I can go to a certain altitude, and I haven't reached that comfortable altitude yet. So right now I'm still ascending, and once I get to that comfortable altitude—I don't know where that is. I don't know if it's 50,000, 80,000, or 100,000 feet up in the air. I don't know what that is. 

All I know is just hard work, and I think maybe that's my purpose…and I've had someone tell me, “Shannon, your purpose is to work.” Because that's what drives me. That's what I go to bed at night [with], and that's what I wake up in the morning [to]. OK. How do I get better in my craft? How do I make sure I can bring people better content on my platforms? How can I be better with Stephen A. on First Take? How can I be better in any aspect of my life? Especially when it comes to work. And I think everything kind of, you know, falls in place after that. Yes, I'm going to be the best father I can be. I'm going to be the best brother I can be. And I'm gonna be the best mate I can be. But work is what gets me going, is what gets me excited to jump out of bed every single morning.

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