Fox Sports Live is approaching its first full week on the air and reviews have been mixed. The new Fox Sports 1 flagship is really two shows in one. The first is a traditional sports highlight show anchored by Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole. The Canadian pair have mostly been a hit with the audience with their comedic tone reading highlights. I will always laugh when Onrait screams his way through an NFL promo.
The second is an athlete panel hosted by Charissa Thompson and featuring Donovan McNabb, Andy Roddick, Ephraim Salaam, Gabe Kapler, and Gary Payton. The panel has been more miss than hit with audiences through the first week. It's been widely regarded by writers, observers, and fans as the weaker link in Fox Sports Live. SB Nation's Steve Lepore called it a "jokey mess" after the debut episode. Others have chimed in on Twitter with the same sentiment:
Good things about Fox Sports Live: Jay and Dan, showing a ton of highlights. A very bad thing: The panel discussion is atrocious.
— Ryan Papaserge (@RyanPapaserge) August 23, 2013
This Fox Sports Live panel is still terrible. Nothing to worry about yet, ESPN.
— Patrick Green (@patrickpgreen) August 23, 2013
Fox sports live would be so much better if the panel wasnt there and it was just a sportscenter type show
— Tom (@Tom_McGuire17) August 23, 2013
I'm asking you guys to stop watching SportsCenter and switch to Fox Sports Live with me. Just ignore the panel. Onriat and O'Toole are great
— pickle baughman (@jcd1124) August 23, 2013
That Fox Sports Live "athletes panel" is basically what would happen if someone said "Hey! Let's do what ESPN does, but much worse!"
— Mookie Alexander (@mookiealexander) August 22, 2013
What is it about the panel that has led to this criticism? TV viewers aren't accustomed to seeing ex-athletes talk about general sports. I posed this question on Twitter last night – why is there backlash when athletes talk about general sports on television and not on radio? Mike Golic talks all sports on ESPN Radio. Same for other national and local hosts like Tiki Barber, Doug Gottlieb, Boomer Esiason, Frank Wycheck, and countless others. And yet, when the Fox Sports Live panel got together to talk Ichiro's 4,000 hits, it was labelled the worst panel discussion ever by Deadspin's John Koblin in a description that didn't seem hyperbolic.
The reasoning is multi-layered. First, athletes on television speak in short soundbytes and not hours at a time on the radio. Therefore, their opinions on general sports are more easily exposed and more shallow by the nature of the medium. Multiple hours a day on the radio is much different than a few 30 second tidbits each night and that relationship between viewer and analyst is built instantaneously on TV. Secondly, that leads to a credibility gap that Fox Sports Live has self-created. Why would I trust Donovan McNabb's expertise on Ichiro or Andy Roddick's BCS pick if I've never heard them talk about these subjects before? ESPN wouldn't trot Tim Hasselbeck out to give his pick on the upcoming Bristol night race and expect viewers to take it seriously.
And it leads to some awkward discussions where half of the panel is silent for an entire segment. Take this example from Thursday night after the Ravens-Panthers preseason game. Andy Roddick and Gabe Kapler don't say a single substantive word the entire time as Donovan McNabb and Ephraim Salaam analyze the game. You could literally replace them with cardboard cutouts of themselves or decorative plants and the segment would not change.
That's not to say what McNabb and Salaam said was horrible, in fact, it was actually a decent discussion. That's the good of the Fox Sports Live panel. The bad is when McNabb and Roddick venture into baseball debates about doubles or something. Or when Mike Tyson talks about being involved in shootouts growing up with awkward silence surrounding him. Or when Gary Payton authoritatively says LeBron James is a better athlete than Usain Bolt because he knows LeBron can play football, basketball, AND BASEBALL at the highest level. That's the kind of flinging-stuff-at-walls you would expect from a show like First Take.
The panelists individually wouldn't be bad contributing to the show on their own. McNabb and Salaam have a good dynamic, especially when actually talking football. Gabe Kapler has been the most impressive thus far and looks to be a very bright baseball analyst. And I'm sure Fox could find something for Andy Roddick to do. Why not turn the show over to Onrait and O'Toole and let Thompson conduct interviews and talk to the panelists one on one? Yes, it's a format that wouldn't be as different than SportsCenter, but it's one that would work better for where FS1 is at the moment.
In a few months time, that very well may be the case as Fox Sports Live finds out this two shows in one mishmash doesn't work. It's going to take a huge step forward in both credibility with the audience and content quality for the panel to survive its current format. If Fox is so invested in the "group of athletes siting in leather chairs" concept they would be better served bringing back John Salley and Rodney Peete, launch Best Damn Sports Show Period 2.0, and be done with it.
At the moment these panel discussions are more a rehash of BDSSP and less an innovative way to get sports analysis. How long can it be till Tom Arnold's comeback?