The Big Lead Quarterly: The Summer of Stephen A. Smith & Mass Media Movement

The quarter's biggest media news, touching on everything from Dave Portnoy buying back Barstool to the First Take-Undisputed ratings war and the Joe Buck-Josh Harris handshake.

The media world is fast-moving business and news can slip through the cracks as each day brings waves of fresh content. Similar to our annual Sports Media Awards, The Big Lead Quarterly endeavors to inform you of the most important developments in the space. Earlier this year we summarized Q1 and Q2. Below you'll find a recap of the third quarter of 2023-- from singular moments that reverberated throughout the industry to landscape-altering news items.

Dave Portnoy is back at the head of Barstool Sports

After building the foundation for Barstool Sports brick-by-brick, Dave Portnoy staked PENN Entertainment 36 percent of the pirate ship back in 2020 and the rest back in February of this year for north of a half-billion dollars. The sports-betting gold rush has yielded strange bedfellows but this one had the most public friction, culminating in the disputed firing of Ben Mintz in May, a personnel decision that subsequently resulting in PENN's stock cratering. This rocky marriage came to an abrupt end in early August as wandering eyes led to PENN deciding to jump in bed with ESPN and rebrand its sportsbook to ESPN Bet. As part of the split, Portnoy was able to re-acquire his creation for the tidy sum of $1.

"We underestimated just how tough it is for myself and Barstool to operate in a regulated world," Portnoy said in a video announcement that harkened back a more analog era of the upstart. "Every time we did something, it was one step forward, two steps back. We got denied licenses because of me. You name it. So the regulated industry [is] probably not the best place for Barstool Sports and the type of content we make. ... I am never going to sell Barstool Sports ever. I'll hold it 'til I die."

Rarely do we see win-win-win situation outside of Michael Scott's demented brain but, in the infancy stage of this triangular trade, it does appear that everyone involved will conceivably get what they want. PENN gets the more universally palatable four-letter partnership. ESPN gets to dive in headlong and fancy-free to a wagering world it resisted for years. And Portnoy gets the autonomy over Barstool that he once had and is perfectly comfortable yielding.

Oh yeah, and fans of the site get The Old Barstool back.

Barstool and Portnoy have been a confounding topic for mainstream coverage through their shared existence and every perceived act of aggression has been answered by defenders of the platform, going all the way to the top. That dance is sure to continue. The unicorn nature of the company's growth, its missteps, and steadfast commitment to not be cowed is objectively fascinating — whether the content is for you, decidedly not for you, or if you don't think it should be for anyone.

Josh Harris and Joe Buck share an awkward handshake

Josh Harris is the new owner of the Washington Commanders, and while he's certainly an upgrade over Daniel Snyder, the private equity guru is just a tad awkward. Case in point: when he jumped into the booth with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on Monday Night Football things got weird.

Harris joined Buck and Aikman during a preseason game to discuss his purchase of the Commanders and his plans for the franchise. He stood there, with his hands awkwardly on his hips attempting to seem like a normal human being. At one point, Buck was preparing to ask Harris a question and stuck his right hand out, which the billionaire mistook as an offer for a handshake. He instinctively grabbed it creating an incredibly awkward interaction.

Both Aikman and Buck were amused but didn't mention it because they're professionals, dangit. But given the looks on their faces, you could tell they were holding back laughter. We've all been there in some way or another. This gave off the same vibes as when a server tells you to enjoy your meal and you automatically say, "You too." Don't worry Josh, we sympathize.

The Kevin Brown/Orioles debacle

Kevin Brown was on the call when the Baltimore Orioles clinched their first playoff berth since 2016. It was the first time since Brown arrived in Baltimore that the Orioles had been good and he politely noted something along those lines on July 23 ahead of the O’s first series win in St. Petersburg since 2017. Owner Peter Angelos did not like that. 

Brown was quietly suspended and was gone for a week before someone on Reddit wondered where he went. Eventually, Awful Announcing was able to confirm he had been suspended. The Orioles immediately looked like idiots and went from one of the feel-good stories of the season to a huge laughingstock. Just about every broadcast booth in baseball commented on what happened to Brown during their own games. Eventually, Brown was freed and allowed back into the booth to call the Orioles' dream season, albeit with a new level of notoriety

The New York Times Sports Desk is disbanded

After nearly 100 years, the New York Times sports desk published a final sports section in September. In its place a new sports section containing work from The Athletic now exists. The Times bought The Athletic for $550 million in January 2022 and announced the decision to close the sports desk in July 2023. 

It makes perfect sense, but it’s also wild to think that even a major part of one of the most famous newspapers in the history of the world could be taken down so easily and obviously by digital media. It’s the kind of thing that the folks at the top of The Athletic probably imagined as they poached local reporters and writers for their subscription service, but for a print publication to buy them and do it to themselves seems as weird as the idea that the New York Times sports desk is gone forever. The journalists in the defunct sports department, who were mostly unionized, were moved to other parts of the paper. The New York Times Guild called the decision “flagrant union-busting.” 

More change at ESPN

The summer was a season of change for the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Senior Vice President Lee Fitting, who oversaw Monday Night Countdown and College GameDay, left right before football season. Scott Van Pelt started hosting Monday Night Countdown with Ryan Clark and Marcus Spears joining the crew. Meanwhile, College GameDay added Pat McAfee as a regular contributor. And if you want to see more McAfee just tune into ESPN at noon five days a week. As for GameDay, they replaced Big & Rich with Darius Rucker, Lainey Wilson, and The Cadillac Three as "Comin’ To Your City" got a modern upgrade. 

There’s also a new SportsCenter studio. Stephen A. Smith continues to tinker with the First Take lineup, this time by adding Shannon Sharpe two days a week. But don’t get too comfy because ESPN is reportedly getting ready to move on from the Seaport studio, where First Take and Get Up both tape. 

The third quarter of the year is generally a very slow one in the sports world. Big stories are rare. The dearth of content means producers and personalities are willing to get creative in order to maintain ratings. This year, Stephen A. Smith looked around and decided he would be the story as often as possible. And he was so successful we had no choice but to name him Personality of the Quarter. 

Some of the headlines were standard Stephen A. affair. He reported Stefon Diggs was unhappy with the Buffalo Bills and the player himself rebuffed it. He inspired Lonzo Ball to make a video of himself standing up and sitting down in response to another report, causing Smith to blow up on the Chicago Bulls guard during a First Take segment. Smith even managed to elbow his way into a more national audience by continuously pushing the envelope on his podcast, the Stephen A. Smith Show. It seemed there was no topic off-limits for him as he tore into Larsa Pippen over her relationship with Michael Jordan and yelled that Hunter Biden was “on crack.” How much value he added to those conversations is certainly debatable but the man is a performer at heart. Smith knows how to cook up a take and his skills in that arena were on full display all summer. 

Most impressively, Smith wielded his considerable power in the media sphere to recruit a highly sought-after personality to the four-letter network. Shannon Sharpe’s final day at Undisputed was in June. By early September, he was across from Smith on First Take. There were numerous places Sharpe could have ended up after honing his craft across Skip Bayless for seven years. But Smith wanted Sharpe, so ESPN went and got him. Even the most significant media movement of the quarter (and arguably of the year) could not unfold without the looming influence of Smith. 

At times it can feel like nothing happens in sports media without Smith’s name coming up. Rarely has that been more true than over the last few months. ESPN’s inimitable personality, already larger than life, only continues to grow. 

There was no summer vacation for sports media as the transaction wire was red-hot and scoop merchants couldn't get even a single day off for fear of missing out on several moving pieces. There was Shannon Sharpe moving on from Undisputed on less-than-great terms and jumping into Stephen A. Smith's First Take. And of course Skip Bayless rebuilding FS1 mornings with a cadre of rotating guests including Michael Irvin, Keyshawn Johnson, Richard Sherman, Rachel Nichols and Lil Wayne. We learned we could have an honest-to-goodness mid-morning television rivalry in this the year of 2023, which is equal parts inspiring and mildly depressing to anyone who happens to be within the blast radius of contentious debate.

Sage Steele, who had been working at ESPN while having a pending lawsuit against them, reached a resolution and the two parties mutually agreed to part ways. We now wait for her next move, which could be in entertainment or, possibly, something more civic-minded. Dianna Russini jumped from ESPN to The Athletic in a somewhat surprising move, but one that sets her up to get more touches and visibility.

Both Rodger Sherman and Kevin Clark left The Ringer, the former to travel the country checking out college football games in bohemian fashion and the latter to work with Omaha and ESPN on an NFL show.

Adjust your scorecards accordingly.

The First Take-Undisputed Ratings War

This summer reignited the dormant Stephen A. Smith vs. Skip Bayless feud. The latter’s stock plummeted as Undisputed took several months off to find a replacement for Shannon Sharpe, departing in part due to the actions of Bayless. The former stayed on television, forcing himself into the center of every conversation during the doldrums of the sports calendar, while successfully recruiting Sharpe to ESPN. And throughout, both Smith and Bayless alternated taking light shots at each other while giving their versions of what happened during the early days of First Take

After the fireworks settled and both men got to work on their shows, First Take lapped Undisputed in the first week of ratings with new cast members. That was not necessarily unexpected but Smith tweeting out a Front Office Sports article detailing just how bad his show beat Bayless’ was quite the turn. Media’s superstars usually stay away from the ratings game in public and rarely does an ESPN employee take such an open victory lap around Fox Sports. But as we’ve learned, with Stephen A. Smith, expecting the unexpected is the only way to anticipate what he’ll do next. 

PGA Tour Ratings 2023

The LIV/PGA merger dominated golf discourse for most of this year but there were still plenty of tournaments to be played and ratings to digest. The Tour Championship in August marked the last event of the 2023 PGA calendar; its average of 4.6 million viewers was the highest in five years.  It turns out that was a sign of a positive trend for golf viewership this past year. 

A few weeks after Viktor Hovland shot a 63 to win the final event of the season, CBS announced average viewership was up 1% from 2022 on the whole. The non-major PGA events took an even bigger leap as viewership for those nine tournaments were up by 5%. NBC has yet to release their year-over-year numbers but it seems reasonable to expect a similar leap after their US Open ratings were up by nearly a third from last year. The lack of drama between LIV and PGA that dominated 2022 does not appear to have an impact on general interest– which TV executives are surely glad to know as the PGA Tour evolves in the coming years.

2023 Little League World Series Ratings

The 2023 Little League World Series was one of the more memorable in the event's history. Luckily for ABC and ESPN, the ratings reflected the excitement of the series. According to ESPN, the 2023 LLWS was the most watched edition of the event since 2015.

In a thrilling championship game, El Segundo Little League beat Curaçao 6-5 when star shortstop Louis Lappe blasted a walk-off home run. That championship game from August 27 averaged nearly three million viewers (2,944,00) on ABC, which was up 18 percent from the 2022 championship game. At its peak, the 2023 title game had 4,060,000 viewers tuned in. In addtion to big viewership from the final, the U.S. Championship Game on August 26 averaged 2,528,000 million viewers, up four percent from 2022, and the International Championship Game averaged 1,677,000 viewers, which was up nine percent from the previous year.

It wasn't just the big games that saw increased viewership. The entire 38-game series averaged 1,081,000 viewers, which was up 22 percent from the 2022 event. That's big news for the company's coverage of the even moving forward.

First Month of NFL Season Ratings

The first month of the 2023 NFL season saw a big jump in ratings, garnering massive boosts over the September games from previous years. Multiple networks boasted of big gains.

NFL on CBS saw its best viewership in 13 years, with an average of 18,698 million viewers. The network's Week 3 game featuring the New England Patriots and New York Jets, garnered 17.518 million viewers, which was up 19 percent over Week 3 in 2022.

Amazon continues to see gains for Thursday Night Football, and finished the month averaging 13.48 million viewers for Week 4 on Amazon Prime Video. That is up 15 percent from the same week last season. For the season, Thursday Night Football is averaging 14.14 million viewers, up 19 percent from the first three games in 2022.

Fox got a big boost from Taylor Swift in Week 3, as 24.32 million viewers tuned in for her appearance at the Kansas City Chiefs-Chicago Bears game on Sept. 24.

ESPN set a record for its Week 1 Monday Night Football game, as it garnered 22.6 million viewers for Aaron Rodgers' (brief) debut with the New York Jets. That topped the previous high of 21.8 million for a Packers-Vikings game back in Week 4 of 2009.