Saturday December 9, 2023

DAZN Eyes Debate Shows With Skip Bayless Waiting At Fox

  • Subscription sports streaming service seeking to expand its content offerings beyond prime time fights.
  • Bayless’s Fox deal expires in September, setting up a possible reunion with ex-ESPN bosses.
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DAZN (pronounced ‘da-ZONE’) is moving beyond live boxing matches and sporting events to launch more original studio shows and documentaries. The next step for the streaming service could be debate shows, ala Skip Bayless’ “Undisputed” on FS1 and Stephen A. Smith’s “First Take” on ESPN.

With Bayless’ four-year, $25 million deal at Fox Sports expiring in September, DAZN and Jamie Horowitz, the streaming service’s executive vice president of content, have emerged as a potential bidder for the pending TV free agent. Bayless credits Horowitz with turning his life and career around when both were working at ESPN’s “First Take.”

Gus Ramsey, the longtime ESPN producer turned program director at the Dan Patrick School of Broadcasting, wouldn’t be surprised to see DAZN “embrace debate” under Horowitz and John Skipper, the former ESPN president turned Executive Chairman of DAZN Group.

“Horowitz is a big believer in ‘playing the hits’ and sticking with what he thinks works. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go down that road,” Ramsey said.

DAZN Trying to Break Out

The four-year-old DAZN has been on a spending spree, paying billions for sports rights in nine countries. It has an eight-year, $1 billion joint venture with Matchroom Boxing and a five-year, $365 million deal with boxer Canelo Alvarez. The company first launched in Europe and has a strong presence in Japan and Italy with soccer. It also holds the rights to broadcast NFL games in Canada.

In the U.S., DAZN has a three-year, $300 million digital rights partnership with Major League Baseball. As part of the deal, DAZN launched a nightly whip-around program called “ChangeUp,” hosted by former “SportsCenter” anchor Adnan Virk. Similar to the NFL RedZone channel, it offers live look-ins to MLB games.

The company is owned by Ukranian-born American billionaire Len Blavatnik and is working with Goldman Sachs to raise $500 million to support its expansion efforts, according to Bloomberg. That could indicate that Blavatnik, who’s worth an estimated $19 billion, is no longer willing to carry the cost alone of acquiring expensive sports rights, according to Bloomberg.

DAZN is taking a novel content approach to gaining subscribers. It released original documentaries such as the Sylvester Stallone boxing documentary “One Night: Joshua vs. Ruiz” across free platforms like YouTube. DAZN’s strategy is to Invite fans to watch content for free, hopefully, get them hooked on the quality and then induce them to pay $19.99 a month or $99 a year for the service.

DAZN is seeking to break out in the US in ways outside of their main event boxing productions, and debate shows may be one.

“I expect (DAZN) to try to create more reasons to use their app in between their big events,” one exec said. 

The possible three-way bidding war for Bayless ratchets up the morning competition between Fox and ESPN on the studio front. It also signals a possible change in media strategy by DAZN, which may be looking to create more studio shows ala “ChangeUp.”

Miami Reunion

Worlds collided in Miami this year when DAZN came to town to piggyback on Super Bowl coverage with a primetime fight. Among the DAZN contingent was Horowitz, who held a very public reunion with the co-host of “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed” at a Fox hotel during Super Bowl week in Miami. 

“They were holding court together for over an hour,” said one source. Fox and ESPN declined to comment. Horowitz could not be reached.

Fox executives “100 percent” wants to retain the enfant terrible of morning TV, sources said. As a vote of confidence in “Undisputed,” the network signed on-air partner Shannon Sharpe to a multi-year contract extension in September.

For his part, Bayless might be reluctant to move back to the East Coast. He lives close to Fox’s Los Angeles studios. Despite rising in the middle of the night to go live every weekday morning at 9:30 a.m. ET, he’s got his routine down pat. 

“Staying put is always easier,” said a source.

But Bayless and former “First Take” debate opponent Smith like to call each other their “brother” from another mother. The two ex-partners have made no secret of their desire to reunite down the road. The question is whether ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro would be willing to pay Bayless “Stephen A.” money and sink that much salary into a single show.

Smith recently signed a five-year contract that will pay him almost $8 million per year, according to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post. He’s talked on the air about possibly moving “First Take” to Los Angeles: now the epicenter of the NBA with LeBron James’ Lakers and Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers.

READ MORE: Shannon Sharpe Scores New Deal With Fox

Bayless and Smith “have never been as good separately as they were together,” said a source.

The wild card is DAZN, which is expected to be a player in most future sports rights negotiations.

At ESPN in 2011, Horowitz turned Bayless into a TV star by remaking the “Cold Pizza” morning show into “First Take,” after realizing the “Cold Pizza” “debate” segments scored higher with viewers. 

Horowitz and Bayless then brought in Smith as a guest sparring partner. The show’s TV ratings took off when Bayless successfully lobbied for Smith to become his full-time opponent in 2012.

During his stint running FS1 and FS2 as President of National Networks from 2015-2017, Horowitz lured multiple on-air talents and executives from ESPN, including Bayless, Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock, and Chris Broussard. Bayless was one of Horowitz’s biggest hires, signing a four-year deal worth $6 million annually. 

Once Bayless arrived at Fox in 2016, Horowitz paired him with Sharpe, added Joy Taylor as moderator, then launched “Undisputed” to challenge “First Take.” 

Back in Bristol, ESPN tapped Max Kellerman to take the debate chair across from moderator Molly Qerim and Smith, who’s since become ESPN’s biggest star.

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

Meanwhile. Bayless could be publicly meeting with Horowitz to gin up the impression of a bidding war – and send a signal to his bosses. But he wasn’t bluffing four years ago with his threat to leave ESPN. Bayless switched teams, jumping to a startup sports cable network at FS1.

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