Could the Combustible First Take Relationship Drive Skip Bayless From ESPN?


Stephen A. Smith recently signed a massive new contract, he’s got national commercials, always seems to have the network’s backing whenever he crosses the line – be it uttering the N-word on air, or threatening one of the best players in the NBA – but how does this all look to the guy who carries the show Smith co-stars on, First Take?

As the stories in Bristol go, Skip Bayless is less than thrilled with the current setup of First Take. He shows up hours before the show goes on air and huddles with producers to go over topics they will cover, as it usually works in television. According to several people at ESPN interviewed for this article, Smith is said to regularly saunter into the morning meetings a half hour before the show, leading Bayless to ask colleagues at the network why he has to do all the work. On more than one occasion, Smith has called into said meeting from his bed.

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ESPN’s been through a tumultuous year, losing some recognizable names from their opinion roster: Keith OlbermannBill SimmonsColin Cowherd, and most recently, Jason Whitlock. Like Cowherd, ESPN wants to keep Bayless when his contract ends next year. He’s on one of the most lucrative TV shows at the network and it sets the table for His & Hers, giving the show a nice lead-in, and helping turn it into a hit. In 2016, Bayless figures to become one of the highest-paid people at the network. Unless … is there a chance he leaves?

Bayless has been around sports media for decades, at virtually all the important newspapers and on multiple TV networks. He’s the “Grandfather” of debate, dating back to the 90’s. Those who know Bayless say he’s seen what has happened to fellow opinion-makers at the network in the last year, a situation that more than a few view as troubling.

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Bayless knows that at ESPN, he isn’t thought of in the same vein of Smith, who regularly appears on SportsCenter, is wedged into NBA coverage and last month, was put on Sunday morning NFL shows.

The counter to that, in speaking to people who work at ESPN: the opinionated Bayless can be difficult to work; Smith is up for talking around-the-clock – just turn on the red light and let him go.

Some executives under ESPN President John Skipper view Bayless as “riskier” than Smith – perhaps because of moments like this Richard Sherman one, and that Smith is a red carpet regular and on a text/phone call basis with athletes – though Bayless has never been suspended from the network, and Smith has.

The man who put Smith and Bayless together at ESPN, Jamie Horowitz, is now running Fox Sports 1. He already made one significant move by plucking Cowherd, which shook up ESPN’s radio/mid-day TV lineup. Could Horowitz lure Bayless away from ESPN to further bolster Fox Sports 1 programming?

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