Skip Bayless Contract Talks to Test Fox Sports and Upended TV Market

    • Bayless’ original four-year, $25 million deal with Fox Sports expires in September
    • ‘Worst timing ever for Skip,’ warns one TV executive.

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Skip Bayless may have run into his toughest opponent: the coronavirus pandemic.

Bayless’ original $25 million, four-year deal with Fox Sports to host the “Undisputed” morning debate show expires in September, sources said. 

With sports media companies slashing costs in the current economic crisis, there’s a question of how much money Fox wants to throw at one of sports TV’s most outspoken commentators.

“This is the worst timing ever for Skip,” warned one media executive familiar with the negotiations. Fox declined to comment.

Most on-air talent at Fox Sports have already agreed to a temporary 15% pay cut, said sources, to show solidarity with their bosses at Fox Corp., the $11 billion media company controlled by the Murdoch family. It is unclear if Bayless took any salary reduction.

And rather than landing a raise, Bayless might be hard-pressed to maintain his current $6 million-a-year salary under a new contract.

The 68-year old Bayless is far from alone in that regard. Some TV and radio talents with expiring contracts are just looking for one-year deals to get them through 2020, with no increase in compensation. 

Talent agents, meanwhile, are trying to put off contract negotiations until they can point to some positive signs of life in live sports.

“Flat is the new raise,” said one source.

Despite getting up in the middle of the night to shoot “Undisputed,” Bayless is happy with his move to Fox in Los Angeles from ESPN in Bristol, Conn. four years ago. 

Likewise, FS1 executives have been pleased with Bayless’ ability to carve out a loyal audience in the same time slot against Stephen A. Smith, his old sparring partner on ESPN’s “First Take.”  Especially since FS1 was airing nothing but reruns in “Undisputed’s” 9:30 a.m. to 12-noon time slot before the show’s premiere on September 6, 2016.

Last September, they rewarded Bayless’ debate partner Shannon Sharpe with a multi-year contract extension. FS1 also promoted Joy Taylor, the original moderator of “Undisputed,” to news anchor on Colin Cowherd’s afternoon show “The Herd.” Jenny Taft succeeded Taylor on “Undisputed.”

Still, the competition between the two shows isn’t much of a race anymore. Year-to-date, “Undisputed” is averaging roughly 150,000 daily viewers vs. 414,000 for “First Take.” 

“Fox does want Skip back. The coronavirus has shown the durability of talk shows,” said another source. 

Unfortunately for Bayless, the rival TV networks that could have driven up his negotiating leverage are also struggling with the economic fallout from the pandemic. 

Bayless and Smith have made no secret of their desire to someday reunite on the air. They’ve called each other their “brother from another mother” and publicly mused about working together again.

READ MORE: Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayles Could Reunite on ESPN’s ‘First Take’

But ESPN is in cost-cutting mode these days, recently dictating that the search for a new “Monday Night Football” announcing team would focus solely on more reasonably-priced internal talent already under contract instead of a splashy outside hire.

DAZN, led by Bayless’s old FS1 and ESPN boss Jamie Horowitz, is also trying to rein in spending during the pandemic.

“That monster payday is tricky for Skip now. ESPN might not be able to bid big money,” said a source. “Hard to imagine [Fox cutting Bayless’ pay]. The compromise would be to hold the line.”

NFL TV partners such as Fox, Disney’s ESPN, CBS Sports, and NBC Sports are also heading into the next round of billion-dollar TV rights negotiations.

A cost-cutting Fox might look to save its capital to defend its Sunday afternoon NFC TV package during the next round of TV negotiations. 

With Tom Brady moving to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from New England Patriots, Brady’s Bucs will make multiple appearances in Fox’s late Sunday afternoon game slot, including a game on the opening weekend vs. Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints on Sep. 13. 

That 4:25 p.m. ET game slot has ranked as the most-watched TV show for 11 straight years. The network’s “Fox NFL Sunday” has ranked as the most-watched pregame show for 27 years.

But rival NFL TV partners like Disney, NBC, and CBS have been hungrily eying Fox’s Sunday package. That’s especially true for Disney, which would love to get its ABC broadcast network back into the NFL TV game.