Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless are poised to pull off a possible reunion at ESPN’s “First Take,” sources told Front Office Sports.
Bayless’ current contract with Fox Sports expires in 2020, said sources. Smith refers to Bayless as his “brother from another mother.” The former “First Take” sparring partners could reunite on the “Embrace Debate” morning show that turned them both into national stars.
“They both want to make it happen. I’m just not sure ESPN will hit Fox’s number,” said one source.
However, another source said the mantra of Mark Silverman, Fox’s president of national networks, has been cost control. Disney’s ESPN, on the other hand, is still willing to break the bank for on-air talents who move the needle.
Warned one TV executive: “The era of modern sports talent is here. The top 1% will make the big money. The middle will go away. And low paying talent will fill out the grid.”
Both Fox and ESPN declined to comment on Smith and Bayless’ respective contract situations.
The two sports “opinionists” have succeeded on their own since former FS1 boss Jamie Horowitz lured Bayless to Fox with a four-year, $25 million offer in 2016.
Bayless teamed with Shannon Sharpe and Joy Taylor to launch FS1s “Undisputed” in September 2016. The weekday morning show, which airs from 9:30 to 12 noon ET, averages around 150,000 to 180,000 daily viewers. Jenny Taft succeeded Joy Taylor as moderator after Taylor moved up to news anchor on Colin Cowherd’s “The Herd with Colin Cowherd.” Bayless may be tired of looking at up at his former protege.
After Bayless moved to Fox, Smith tapped Max Kellerman to be his new debate partner in July 2016. Since moving to the flagship ESPN network from ESPN2, “First Take” has set one audience record after another in its 10 a.m. to 12-noon time slot. The show now draws 400,000 to 500,000 daily viewers, more than double the audience of “Undisputed.” Molly Qerim Rose has served as host of “First Take” since 2015.
With Chris Berman working part-time and Bob Ley retired, the 52-year-old Smith has emerged as the face of ESPN. Besides “First Take,” he’s getting his own new series of “SportsCenter” specials.
During the new NBA season, “SportsCenter with Stephen A. Smith” will air Wednesday nights at 7 p.m., serving as a half-hour pregame show before game telecasts at 7:30 p.m. ET.
ESPN previously gave Smith his own “SportsCenter” specials during this June’s NBA Finals. “I’m a big fan of Stephen A. No shock there. He delivers for us,” Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president & executive editor of production, said at the time.
Smith and Bayless are convinced their on-air chemistry is unique, said sources. During their time together on “First Take” from 2012-2016, the duo could watch an NBA game and plot out the next’s show’s debate points, without even talking to each other.
“The way [ESPN] would position this is they’re taking ‘First Take’ to ‘another level,’” said another source. “Nobody thinks Stephen A. and Max are a match made in heaven. Same for Skip and Shannon. Put (Stephen A. and Skip) back together again.”
Kellerman or Sharpe would have options if the duo of Smith and Bayless reunited. With his experience on TV/radio and boxing expertise, the 46-year old Kellerman could fill a number of roles, including possibly replacing Smith himself on his eponymous ESPN Radio afternoon show.
Rather than serving as the foil to Bayless, Sharpe, meanwhile, could become the star of “Undisputed.”
Sharpe recently signed a contract extension with Fox. But the 51-year old Pro Football Hall of Famer doesn’t make half of Bayless’ $6 million annual salary, according to sources. Bayless’ departure would enable Sharpe to ask Silverman for Bayless-level money.
Both Smith and Smith could say their on-air partnership made their careers.
The 67-year old Bayless was a former newspaper columnist who kicked around print, radio and TV before joining “First Take’s” predecessor “Cold Pizza” in 2004.
Noticing that viewers responded strongly to Bayless’ debate segments, Horowitz revamped the show in 2011. The new and improved “First Take” featured the bombastic Bayless debating various foils. TV ratings took off. Bayless became the most polarizing voice in TV sports media, incessantly criticizing LeBron James while praising Tim Tebow.
Like Bayless, Smith started as a newspaper reporter/columnist before landing his own ESPN show called “Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith” in 2005. But ESPN canceled his show. Smith eventually left ESPN in 2009 and was out of a job.
Smith’s career comeback started when Bayless invited him to appear as a guest debater on “First Take.” Their chemistry was so good ESPN permanently gave Smith the debate chair opposite his close friend in 2012. Smith has never forgotten how Bayless helped his career.
There’s plenty of roadblocks that could derail this reunion. Fox could re-sign Bayless early before he reaches free agency, the way it did with Cowherd.
ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro could balk at devoting such an enormous amount of salary to a single show. Even if bringing Bayless back to ESPN could be viewed as a strategic shot at FS1’s morning show ambitions.
But the first step towards a reunion between the duo may have been Smith’s recent contract renewal with ESPN despite a year left on his deal, according to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post.
At $8 million a year, Smith is eclipsing Mike Greenberg’s $6.5 annual salary to become the highest-paid employee at ESPN.