“LeBron isn’t the only one in the lab this summer. Can’t wait to unveil ‘Undisputed’ just in time for football season.”
That was the surprise tweet from Skip Bayless on Wednesday cheerily explaining why his morning show will go dark for more than two months before returning on Aug. 28.
The image of Nutty Professor Skip mixing up a new secret formula in the “Embrace Debate” lab is cute. But like many of Bayless’ statements, it’s not accurate, sources tell Front Office Sports.
Instead, the risky two-month layoff was driven by Bayless and FS1 management’s inability to find a replacement for Shannon Sharpe, said sources.
There are plenty of potential Sharpe successors, ranging from the laid-off Keyshawn Johnson and Max Kellerman at ESPN to FS1 personalities LeSean McCoy, Nick Wright, Emmanuel Acho and Joy Taylor.
But not many on-air talents want to take the hot seat opposite the domineering Bayless. To make matters worse, Bayless has the final say on everything internally at “Undisputed.”
So any Sharpe successors must walk into Fox’s Los Angeles studio knowing they will not be his equal either in salary or the show’s direction.
In his heart, the 71-year-old Godfather of “Embrace Debate” doesn’t want to work with anybody except his “brother from another mother,” Stephen A. Smith, at ESPN.
The result has been gridlock on Sharpe’s replacement, said sources.
“Shannon’s exit moved way faster than they expected. So they had no choice but to go on hiatus,” said one source. “Skip has never done anything like this during all his years at FS1 or ESPN. Not being on the air during all these NBA moves is killing him.”
Another reason for the delay could be that Bayless and FS1 are scrapping the mano-a-mano style of the show. Instead, Bayless could replicate Smith’s formula at “First Take,” where he debates a rotating series of guests ranging from Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to JJ Redick.
It would be a stretch. The rigidly disciplined Bayless has been basically following the same format for 15 years. But it would be an insurance policy for Bayless preventing any debate partner like Sharpe from approaching him in popularity or power again.
All Bayless has shared publicly is that his Undisputed 2.0 will more heavily feature rap artist Lil Wayne, who performs the theme song.
“Trust me, it is going to be something. I’d divulge some details. But I’ve been told I have to be tighter-lipped than [Bill] Belichick. So I’m on to Cincinnati,” he promised on his podcast.
Weekday morning shows like “Undisputed” rely on loyal viewers turning them on, or taping them, daily. You never want to mess with the viewer’s habits. Instead of “Undisputed,” FS1 is airing repeats of “Speak” and “First Things First” in Bayless 9:30 am to 12 noon ET time slot.
More than two months off the air will only embolden Smith and ESPN’s “First Take” to widen their commanding lead over Bayless and FS1. As of June, “First Take’s” estimated audience daily audience of 421,000 viewers was 2.7 times the size of “Undisputed” 154,000 viewers.
Sports personalities like Bayless feed on attention. Maybe that’s why he issued a silly challenge to Charles Barkley of TNT, who’s long derided Bayless as a hot take-spewing “idiot.”
Said Bayless on his podcast: “Please, please, please, Charles, come be this damn ‘idiot’s’ debate partner. Please let me annihilate you on a daily basis. Ten times per show. Let me make barbecue chicken out of you.”
Meanwhile, Sharpe seems to have plenty of career options after taking a buyout from FS1.
Both ESPN’s Smith and new hire Pat McAfee have urged the three-time Super Bowl champion to join them at ESPN.
Sharpe could join the rotating list of guests who debate Smith on “First Take,” while succeeding Steve Young on “Monday Night Countdown.”
The Pro Football Hall of Famer has also been in early talks with sports betting giant FanDuel, which previously paid McAfee $30 million annually.
Whatever the outcome, it starting to sink in at Fox Sports how hard it will be to replace Sharpe.
“This was so dumb. They had the best (partner for Bayless),” said a source. “There are three stars in morning debate: Skip, Stephen A. and Shannon. And Fox had two of them.”