Wednesday December 6, 2023

Sharpe: ‘First Take’ Would Still Beat ‘Undisputed’ Without Stephen A.

  • 'Stephen A. is that dude,' says Sharpe. 'If Stephen A. ever decides to leave and turn the reins over to me, you all know I’m that dude. I’m him.'
  • Last Monday’s ‘First Take’ drew 726K viewers to 162K for 'Undisputed.”
First Take vs. FS1
ESPN Images/Fox Sports
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Shannon Sharpe has thrown down the gauntlet to Skip Bayless and his new castmates at FS1.

Now that he’s joined forces with Stephen A. Smith and Molly Qerim on ESPN’s “First Take,” Sharpe says Bayless and “Undisputed Live” will have to swallow their pride and accept finishing a distant second in the ratings race.  

The ESPN show averaged 726,000 viewers last Monday, while FS1’s “Undisputed” 162,000. That was up 48% year over year from the comparable episode in 2022.

On Tuesday, Sep. 19, “First Take” 620,000 viewers to “Undisputed” 114,000. That was up 43% year over year. “First Take” just posted its 14th consecutive month of year-over-year growth, with September viewership growing 18% to 505,000 average viewers.

Even if Smith leaves “First Take,” Sharpe said he and ESPN will still beat his former on-air partner Bayless in the ratings.

During an appearance on “The Stephen A. Smith Show,” Sharpe called out Bayless and his revamped “Undisputed” cast, including Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, Keyshawn Johnson, and Richard Sherman. 

“Y’all not going to be better than me and Stephen A. That’s not going to happen. I promise you, that is not going to happen. Ever. EVER,” Sharpe declared. 

“Now, if Stephen A. says, ‘Shannon, I want to go in a different direction,’ you all are still not (going to beat us). Because Stephen A. is that dude. If Stephen A. ever decides to leave and turn the reins over to me, you all know I’m that dude. I’m him. Now the problem y’all got is you got two hims to go up against.”

Smith acknowledged Sharpe could succeed him on the top-rated “Embrace Debate” show if he leaves ESPN for late-night TV, entertainment, or politics.

“That possibility is open,” added Smith.

It’s the latest salvo in the white-knuckled competition between three former TV partners turned competitors.

In 2012, Bayless and uber-producer Jamie Horowitz saved Smith’s career by casting him as Bayless’ full-time debate partner on “First Take.” When Bayless joined Horowitz at FS1 to launch “Undisputed” in 2016, they reignited Sharpe’s media career by casting him across the desk from Bayless. 

But the successful seven-year marriage between Bayless and Sharpe broke down in recent months, with the three-time Super Bowl champion eventually taking a contract buyout to leave FS1 in mid-June. 

During Sharpe’s podcast discussion with Smith, he thanked Bayless and FS1 management and cited his many friends at the network like Joy Taylor and Nick Wright. But he also related his version of the breakup with Bayless. As with the split between Smith and former partner Max Kellerman at ESPN, It was a fascinating inside look into how show-biz partnerships fall apart.

Off the air, Sharpe said he didn’t have much interaction with Bayless. Instead, they were like heavyweight boxers retreating to their dressing rooms.

“We barely talked,” Sharpe said.

At the end of their relationship, Sharpe said he felt increasingly bullied and disrespected by Bayless. He didn’t fight back because Bayless was the show’s top-billed star. That was a mistake, he admitted.

The tension boiled over on December 12, 2022 when Sharpe thought Bayless took a “personal shot” at him to defend his pet quarterback, Tom Brady. 

As the duo screamed at each other across the table, Sharpe threw down his glasses. “Put your glasses back on,” said Bayless. 

Sharpe said he felt “betrayed” that Bayless would take a below-the-belt shot at his career because he was losing a debate. After that, their breakup was only a matter of time. 

“I felt in that moment he had lost all respect for me. He had no respect for me,” said Sharpe.

Sharpe admitted that the situation was so volatile he nearly reached across the table at Bayless.

“It took a lot for me not to put my hands on him. It actually did,” Sharpe recalled.

Shannon Sharpe

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After the confrontation, Sharpe said he asked for a meeting with Bayless and FS1 management to let them know that “level of disrespect would not be tolerated.”

The final straw came a few weeks later when Sharpe returned to “Undisputed” after a one-day walkout to address Bayless’s insensitive tweets about Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest on “Monday Night Football.”  

Less than a minute into Sharpe’s monologue, Bayless rode right over his partner. Sharpe’s frustration boiled over. 

“You can’t even let me finish my opening monologue without you interrupting,” he told Bayless.

Observed Smith: “That is the day I knew it was over. You would be leaving.”

Said Fox in a statement to Front Office Sports: “We have nothing but love and respect for Shannon and we remain grateful for his contributions to FOX Sports. We wish him continued success in his new chapter.”

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