Thursday December 7, 2023

Fox’s Problem: Nobody Wants to Work With Skip Bayless

  • FS1 challenged to find a replacement for Shannon Sharpe.
  • Bayless micromanages ‘Undisputed;’ expected to have ‘final say’ on hire.
Shannon Sharpe
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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The pending departure of Shannon Sharpe poses a major talent problem for Fox Sports. Namely: few people want to work with Skip Bayless – and Skip Bayless has limitations on a new partner.

That’s what sources tell Front Office Sports about the challenging, chaotic situation inside FS1’s “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed” morning program.

The 71-year-old shock jock micromanages all aspects of the weekday “Embrace Debate” show, which airs at 9:30 a.m. ET/6:30 a.m. PT.  Bayless rightly considers himself the Godfather of Embrace Debate. He’s never really gotten along with his debate partners, except for his “brother from another mother,” Stephen A. Smith, at ESPN.

“Nothing happens on that show without Skip. They chose Skip over everything else. You can’t tweet about him, talk about him, anything – or they call you into the office,” said a source. “On ‘Undisputed,’ he makes all the calls, even when he’s off.”

In that vein, Bayless is expected to have the “final say” on Sharpe’s replacement, said the source. So the challenge is to find a new debate partner who can hold his own with the enfant terrible of sports TV. But not overshadow the egotistical Bayless. 

“Skip is not going to hire anybody who challenges him – and he’s going to make the hire. So it’s a crazy deal,” warned the source. “And here’s the kicker: you have to be willing to work with Skip, you’re going to have to put up with some shit, he has to approve of you. And you have to get up at 3:30 in the morning.”

Marcellus Wiley, the former FS1 personality, believes Sharpe’s growing popularity threatened the domineering Bayless, especially his weekly “Club Shay Shay” podcast, which now boasts 1.18 million subscribers.

“I think this is a case of the classic ‘Never outshine the quote, unquote master,’” Wiley said.

Tellingly, the 54-year-old Sharpe also liked a tweet saying Bayless was jealous of his outside success. He also liked another tweet saying FS1 keeping Bayless – and losing himself and moderator Jenny Taft – was the equivalent of a “music promoter keeping Weird Al Yankovic but getting rid of Lady Gaga and James Brown.”

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On the other hand, joining Bayless could be a smart career play for an ambitious young star who’s stuck on the depth chart at FS1 or another network. Or those, unfortunately, swept up in the pending Disney-mandated talent cuts at ESPN.

The “Undisputed” job would likely pay well over seven figures. Bayless signed a four-year, $32 million extension with Fox in 2021. But the jury’s out on whether they’d sign him to another long-term deal.  Sharpe’s successor could put up with him for a few years, then inherit “Undisputed,” one of FS1’s few hit shows. 

Several talented internal candidates could succeed Sharpe, like Emmanuel Acho and Joy Taylor of “Speak” and Nick Wright of “First Things First.”

The show could go with rotating guests debating Bayless ala Smith and “First Take.” But FS1 doesn’t boast the deep bench of ESPN, where there’s a constant flow of new faces to joust with Smith.

There’s already volunteers. On Wednesday, former NFL star Antonio Brown tweeted he’s ready to “take Shannon Sharpe’s spot on ‘Undisputed.'”

One natural outsider candidate is ESPN’s Max Kellerman, who debated Smith for five years before being pushed off “First Take” in 2021.

Kellerman is likely to lose his afternoon show “This Just In” with the coming of new ESPN hire Pat McAfee. He had a long and successful TV/radio career in Los Angeles, where Fox Sports is based.

Ironically, Bayless is soft-spoken, courteous, and a gentleman off-camera. But on camera, he’s a bomb-throwing provocateur. Future TV partners know he goes for your throat on the air.  

Following his controversial tweet about Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s heart attack during an NFL game, Bayless’ reputation has never been lower within the athletic community.

In January, former NBA player turned FS1 analyst Matt Barnes said he’s had to intervene twice to stop an NBA player and coach from assaulting Bayless.

“They wanted to f–k Skip up. Personally, I’ve had to do it. One was this year, one was last year. Personally, I had to reach out to Unc (a nickname for Sharpe) and set up a conversation for people who wanted to f–k Skip up. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, but it’s just gone too far, in my opinion.”

There are also diversity considerations at play. It would be difficult for FS1 to cast another white male across the desk from Bayless. Thanks to its barbershop-like approach, “Undisputed” has a strong following in the Black community. The new hire is likelier to be a person of color, a woman, or both.

The New York Post first reported that Sharpe is taking a buyout from Fox – and taking “Club Shay Shay” with him. 

“Those close to Sharpe said privately he did not seek to be the unquestioned leader on the show, but wanted to be an equal with Bayless in the program’s topic selection,” wrote the Post.

But the ugly breakup between the duo has been brewing for months. 

Front Office Sports reported the pair were on the rocks in January, with their relationship falling to an “all-time low.

Sharpe was furious that Bayless wouldn’t even let him address the Hamlin controversy for one minute without interrupting him on the air.

“That totally crossed the line for Shannon,” said another source.

The three-time Super Bowl winner was also seething over Bayless seemingly taking “personal” shots at his Hall of Fame career to defend the performance of his pet quarterback Tom Brady. 

“You would disrespect me — to support him,” declared Sharpe.

Sharpe is no shrinking violet when it comes to confrontations himself.

During a Los Angeles Lakers home game in January, he nearly brawled with Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant and his father, Tee Morant. 

On his YouTube show Thursday, McAfee said he hopes Sharpe lands at ESPN.

Even if he doesn’t go to the Worldwide Leader, the free agent Sharpe would be “massive asset” for any platform looking to launch or expand in sports media, said McAfee.

“Shannon is going to be in a really good spot here, I think. And I hope to hell he comes to ESPN,” McAfee said.

Fox declined to comment on this story.

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