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Skip Bayless’ New ‘Undisputed’ Cast Not Well-Received Inside Fox

  • Some fear Bayless' crew can't compete with Stephen A. Smith & Co. on ESPN's "First Take."
  • “Stephen A. is Skip’s Daddy now,” said a source.
Fox Sports

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But you could also argue it’s a sign of desperation. 

Skip Bayless’ strategy to copy rival Stephen A. Smith’s “debate by committee approach” with revolving guests — as well as the underwhelming talent — was met with a resounding thud inside Fox Sports, sources told Front Office Sports.

Bayless’ “Undisputed” has been on extended hiatus for nearly two months as FS1 executives have auditioned candidates to replace departed co-host Shannon Sharpe.

In that time, Bayless and FS1 have managed to line up Rachel Nichols, rapper Lil Wayne, Amazon Prime Video’s Richard Sherman and possibly ex-NFL star Keyshawn Johnson as weekly “Embrace Debate” foils for Bayless.

But some fear this proposed cast can’t compete with ESPN’s football-focused “First Take” this fall, which could include Sharpe and former Dallas Cowboys star Michael Irvin. Plus, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo of SiriusXM and rising ESPN stars Marcus Spears, Ryan Clark, Mina Kimes, Dan Orlovsky and Kimberley A. Martin.  

“This is it? This is literally copying exactly what ESPN is doing. And it will make a bad show worse. Rachel Nichols has never been a debater or given opinions. She’s a great interviewer. So this is a classic miscast,” said one TV talent, who declined to be named.

“Lil Wayne is Skip’s barbecue buddy. Sherman has potential. But Keyshawn just got laid off by ESPN — and is looking for his next gig. This shows me they’re having trouble finding major talents to work with Skip.”

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After earning stardom at ESPN, Nichols jumped to CNN. But her show, “Unguarded,” was canceled in 2014. In 2016, she returned to ESPN, where she found success again with the afternoon hoops show, “The Jump.”

But in 2021, ESPN removed Nichols from its NBA coverage — and canceled “The Jump” — after private comments she made about colleague Maria Taylor exploded publicly on the pages of the New York Times

Nichols, who is white, said Taylor, who’s Black, earned the role as host of the 2020 NBA Finals because ESPN was “feeling pressure” on diversity. 

“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” said Nichols, according to the Times. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or take my things away.”

(Both Nichols and Taylor are long gone from ESPN, with young star Malika Andrews now serving as the face of the network’s NBA studio coverage).

Ever since Lil Wayne performed the original “Undisputed” theme song, he and Bayless have become close friends, with Bayless bragging about their weekend barbecues. Bayless recently tweeted a picture of the rapper recording a new theme song for the show dubbed “Good Morning.”

Said Bayless: “My brother Lil Wayne has agreed every Friday going forward to do a segment with me live on ‘Undisputed.’ He is heart and soul into the show’s relaunch.”

Another source warned the strategy to go outside the family for Bayless’ future debate partners is not sitting well with some up-and-coming FS1 talents.

The pioneering Bayless has made Sharpe and Smith millions over their careers. Luring Irvin, for example, away from Smith and “First Take” would be a real coup. In person, Bayless is a courtly, soft-spoken gentleman, a polar opposite of his TV personality. But he’s intensely private and seldom interacts with colleagues.

But FS1 personalities like Nick Wright, Joy Taylor and Emmanuel Acho are all experienced and talented enough to excel on “Undisputed” if they were given the opportunity.  

So why does Bayless seem set on only searching outside the FS1 family?  

Take Wright, for example. 

The 38-year old host of FS1’s “First Things First”  is an expert debater. He’s held his own with everybody at FS1, including the network’s biggest star Colin Cowherd. When FS1 originally recruited Wright from radio, he was talked up internally as the next Bayless or Cowherd. Why not Wright?

“Skip doesn’t want to work with Nick Wright,” answered the source. “Skip doesn’t want to work with anybody who will make him look bad. And Nick would disembowel him on the air.”

Or FS1 could find ready-made debate talent at Fox Sports Radio.

Host Doug Gottlieb is a Fox, CBS and ESPN veteran who almost became Smith’s full-time debate partner on “First Take” in 2016 before ESPN chose Max Kellerman, according to sources.

Gottlieb can hold his own in debate with anybody on sports TV or radio. He’s appeared on virtually every FS1 studio show over the years. He recently made national headlines when he asked Joey Bosa if he was watching the new Netflix show Quarterback.

“Why would I watch a show about Patrick Mahomes?” Bosa told Gottlieb.

Then there’s Fox Sports Radio’s “Odd Couple” duo of Chris Broussard and Rob Parker. Like Gottlieb they’re veteran sports opinionists who’ve appeared on virtually every FS1 studio show. And FS1’s own promising TV newcomer LeSean McCoy.

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On the other hand, the rotation could be a cost-effective way to find Sharpe’s successor. Rather than signing a new co-host to a multi-year contract worth millions, FS1 can pay so-called “day rates” to rotating guests.

“This is dating as opposed to marriage,” said another source. “If you’re dating, all you have to do is pay for dinner. If you’re married, everything gets more expensive.”

There’s no denying the pioneering Bayless’ huge impact on sports TV. Still, it’s clear that 11 years after Bayless saved Smith’s career by inviting him to become his full-time partner on “First Take,” their roles are increasingly reversed.

Smith has the No. 1 “Embrace Debate” morning show and nearly triples his old partner’s TV audience. As the face and voice of ESPN, Smith nearly doubles Bayless’ $8 million annual salary

“Stephen A. is Skip’s Daddy now,” said the source.

Bayless, the 71-year-old godfather of “Embrace Debate” television, is expected to have final say on all hires, said sources.

He’s promised his new and improved “Undisputed” will return to the airwaves on Aug. 28. Fox declined to comment.

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