Skip Bayless’ pending move from ESPN to Fox has caused some to wonder if Bristol is really still the top destination for big-name sports media personalities, especially when you add it to the list of other notable exits such as Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann, Colin Cowherd and now even Mike Tirico. ESPN host Dan Le Batard apparently takes strong exception to this idea, though, ranting on his show Wednesday that Bayless and others who leave the Worldwide Leader are like athletes choosing money over winning and are “going to get lost” without ESPN’s prominence:
Here’s a transcription, from Kyle Koster of The Big Lead:
“The ego of these guys is such that they don’t believe they’re choosing money over winning,” Le Batard said on his show this morning. “They believe they are going to make the difference. It’s happening right now in the sports opinion business. I told Colin Cowherd not to leave this spot. We were having conversations — now I’m revealing private conversations that I shouldn’t be — even though it would have benefited us, I was telling Colin Cowherd I don’t think you leave. You leave, you’re going to get lost, you’re going to do it for money and no one’s going to know where to find you. We don’t do this to have your voices stuffed in a drawer; we do this to be heard.”
…“Skip Bayless doesn’t think he’s going for money,” Le Batard continued. “Skip Bayless thinks he’s going to make a difference. And he’s not. What’s been happening with the athletes is happening in the gasbag business.”
LeBatard certainly isn’t completely wrong that Bayless, Cowherd and others are likely sacrificing somewhat of a platform by leaving ESPN, but he’s not entirely right either. It’s notable that although Cowherd’s still pulling unremarkable ratings on FS1 (66,000 viewers on average in February, only an upgrade of 20,000 over Mike Francesa), The Herd is drawing more viewers on TV with FS1 than it did with its ESPNU simulcast (often 30,000 to 40,000). Cowherd was an important radio personality for ESPN, but not as much of a TV one (even Colin’s New Football Show, on ESPN, nabbed 187,000 for its debut airing, but drew less than the 188,000 who tuned in to Outside the Lines on ESPN2). He’s playing a larger day-to-day role on that front at Fox, and not necessarily in front of less people. He’s also now a much bigger fish in the relatively small pond of FS1 than he was in the giant ocean of ESPN.
Bayless is a bit of a different story. Yes, he’s probably going to be shedding viewers here. It’s hard to imagine that whatever he winds up doing at Fox can pull the 300,000 to 400,000 viewers First Take received daily (on ESPN2, no less), especially at first, so it does seem like this move may be somewhat about the money (reportedly $5 to $6 million annually, versus the $4 million annually ESPN offered) and somewhat about “going to make a difference,” as Le Batard says. Le Batard’s also right that Bayless may not wind up making that much of a difference; FS1 is not going to suddenly surpass or even come close to ESPN on the revenue or ratings side just from hiring Skip Bayless, as he’s one guy who does one show, and ESPN has an army of talent, a ton of live rights, and an incredible subscriber fee that’s way beyond Fox’s. FS1 won’t be able to get close to ESPN on numerous fronts for years at the very least, if not decades, and the hire of Bayless alone won’t do that.
That doesn’t necessarily make this a bad move for Bayless, though. For one thing, Le Batard is wrong that “we don’t do this to have our voices stuffed in a drawer, we do this to be heard,” at least when it comes to the universal statement. Even if that was right, Cowherd’s TV voice was essentially stuffed in the ESPNU drawer in Bristol, and it’s given a much more prominent place “to be heard” on FS1. Beyond that, Le Batard’s motivations are not everyone’s motivations, and even “to be heard” raises questions; is that only about pure viewers and listeners, or is it about being an identifiable face of the company? The latter’s much more likely for the likes of Cowherd at Fox than ESPN, and even though Bayless was a big face of ESPN, he was still one of many, at a place with the motto of “no one is bigger than the four letters.” At FS1, he’ll be the most prominent personality by far, and the centerpiece of First Take creator Jamie Horowitz (now the president of Fox Sports National Networks)’s attempt to embrace debate and recreate Fox News. This goes back to the old question raised by Milton’s Lucifer of whether it’s better to serve in heaven or raise in hell, with the important caveats that Bristol, Connecticut is far from heaven, and there are some advantages to warmth when you’re a purveyor of hot takes.