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Skip Bayless personified the worst of ESPN, from the network’s pathological need for self-aggrandizement to its penchant for disagreement as theater. ESPN executives enabled this professional wrestling heel for years because his show—the unctuous First Take with Stephen A. Smith—over-delivered in its time slot. Through controversy after controversy and near-daily mocking of LeBron James, ESPN’s suits looked the other way if the show drew 400,000 viewers and beyond on ESPN2, which it often did during the NFL season. The show is consistently the highest rated non-game programming on ESPN2, even when it falls into the 300,000s during the NFL off-season.
On Wednesday ESPN p.r. put out a preemptive press release announcing that Bayless would be parting ways with the network after 12 years. His contract is up in August. For months, Bayless and his reps have been talking with Fox Sports executives about the 64-year-old joining that network and having an afternoon debate show on FS1 built around him. Fox Sports Networks president Jamie Horowitz, a former ESPN executive, has long been a fan of Bayless and was the lead executive on First Take through many of its most controversial days. It is a match made in heaven if you like sports television from hell.
Expect FS1 to announce in the not-too-distant future that Bayless has signed with them—and likely for about $5-6 million per year, according to multiple sources. Given FS1’s anemic afternoon ratings, any new show has a shot to get an uptick in viewership, but crafting a network around sports bloviators is a strategy doomed to fail in the long run. In the interim, Bayless will cash a nice check and say many outrageous things. It will be interesting to see the reaction of Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman, a standup guy in broadcasting who has made it very clear what he thinks of Bayless on a personal level.
In an interview with SI.com on Tuesday, ESPN vice president of production Norby Williamson said Bayless made the decision to leave. ESPN executives praised Bayless on his way out and said he would work on First Take through the end of the NBA season.
“We wanted Skip to stay and we had discussions with him, but he ended making the decision,” Williamson said. “I respect his decision. His contract was coming up, and he decided to go in another direction.”
Asked what that other direction is, Williamson said, “I’m not here to comment on that other direction.”
Williamson declined comment on ESPN’s financial offer to Bayless, which was believed to be $4 million per year.
Williamson also said he was confident that First Take will continue to grow as a franchise, citing the strong numbers the program had in the first quarter of 2016. He would not give a timeline on announcing replacements. “We have a history of—without bragging—navigating change, and I would say successful change,” Williamson said. “We have built something over quite a time here. Stephen A. and Skip created a great chemistry together, which clearly resonates, and the numbers don’t lie with viewers. But I think we have a track record of managing change, innovating and moving forward.”
Sources told SI.com that Max Kellerman and Will Cain are leading candidates to replace Bayless. “I’m not going to comment on anyone being a fit for the next iteration of First Take,” Williamson said.
ESPN executives have always enabled First Take for a singular reason—it makes money.
“The show is a performer but even beyond that it has made a strong connection with sports fans,” Williamson said. “I appreciate the fact whatever opinion you want to have about this show, and that’s why there are different flavors of ice cream. Fans clearly have a connection to this show and what we offer with it. That’s going to continue, and we are here to serve fans. We have a big tent to do a lot of different sports and studio shows.”
This has been a remarkable week for ESPN given we’re less than 48 hours from the news that Mike Tirico is leaving the network for NBC Sports. In an age of cost cutting at sports media companies, ESPN saved millions between Tirico and Bayless (even as the company said it wanted both to re-sign), and more talent salary reductions are expected throughout the year. Williamson said any narrative that ESPN is hemorrhaging talent should be looked at in broader terms.
“I like our hand, and I like what we do,” he said. “We are in the strongest position of any sports media company, we will continue to be that way, and we will continue to invest and continue to innovate.”