First Take was among the shows that rode a tremendous NFL playoff weekend to unprecedented ratings back in January and the momentum continued into February thanks to the Super Bowl and the much-anticipated reintroduction of Chris "Mad Dog" Russo. The Big Lead has learned that First Take's February viewership was up 22 percent from 2021, continuing a trend of year-over-year growth in nine of the past 10 months.
Stephen A. Smith, Molly Qerim and a rotating cast combined to average 445,000 viewers, the highest February figure since 2018. Since returning from a battle against COVID, Smith has somehow been more electric and impassioned in the new year.
"I am energized," Smith told the New York Post a few weeks ago. "But it’s because of Molly [Qerim] and all the contributors I work with every day and how much fun they make it for me. It doesn’t even feel like work. I’m having the time of my life. That’s where the energy comes from. Hard to have that if you’re depressed about work."
First Take's re-emergence into the foray as the marquee daily brand has been interesting to behold. It's not just that the market has moved closer to the full-on embrace of debate, it's that First Take remains the industry standard in the department. Smith, the biggest star in all of sports media, is hugely responsible for that. But in close viewing of the program recently it becomes clear just how innovative and creative the staff is each and every day. Moving past the news of the night to the exact locus of peak conversation is an art form.
Being able to attack a story from an angle precisely selected to drive engagement, then have confidence that the talent is going to deliver the goods 100 percent of the time provides great adaptability and confidence. Tagging Russo in has created appointment television not seen on sports cable for quite some time. The data reflects the anecdotal: that First Take won't be ignored.
And it's a heck of a ride if you're willing to go along.