First Take’s ratings have been in a free-fall ever since Skip Bayless departed the standard bearer for the three ring circus of staged televised sports debates. Ratings have fallen 30% over last year at First Take as fans have either left to go watch Bayless at FS1 or have abandoned the morning debate format entirely. In a sign of how the Bayless-ESPN divorce is impacting both networks, the combined audience of Undisputed on FS1 and First Take on ESPN2 falls short of the Bayless-Smith audience of First Take last year.

Given First Take is the dormant Frankenstein’s monster of ESPN’s Embrace Debate movement, the network is doing what they can to bring it back to life. That now includes halftime appearances on Monday Night Football, which amazingly is not as insane of an idea as what ESPN is doing next.

ESPN is launching a First Take viewer contest that will end with two winners debating Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman on actual television.

Yes, you heard me, two fans will debate Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman on actual television.

Starting today, ESPN2’s First Take has launched the “First Take, Your Take” viewer contest offering two winning fans the chance to debate Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman on national television. Viewers are invited to upload a one-minute video with their best original sports debate – by themselves – to The rules and regulations for the chance to win are listed on the website.

The contest will run for six weeks and the deadline for submissions is Tuesday, Nov. 22. Two winners will be selected on November 23 by the First Take staff, and will travel to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., to receive the full backstage experience and join Smith and Kellerman in a televised debate.

“My vision – for anything I do in this business – is to always have audience participation in some capacity, since there is no success without their interest and involvement,” said Smith. “So after years of interacting with folks on the streets, at the arenas and stadiums – even in the supermarkets – swearing they could debate like pros, I decided it would be great to give folks a chance to show what they’re made of. Let’s go!”

“We’re excited to showcase fans debating, which is the cornerstone idea behind the show,” said Antoine Lewis, ESPN Coordinating Producer for First Take. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the winners to get the full First Take experience, to actually sit at the debate desk right up there with Smith and Kellerman. It’s going to be fun for everyone.”

This may be a worse idea than “Who’s Now?” Do you realize how hard that is to do? Not only does it say out to the world “cheap promotional gimmick to save our fledging ratings” in bright flashing lights, it confirms pretty much everything most of us find so off-putting about the show – that the best and easiest way to make a name for yourself and get on television is to scream and yell about something or be a giant troll. Even our presidential debates our turning into episodes of First Take.

As for the actual event, it’s uncertain how this will work out well for ESPN. Either this is going to make for some really awkward television or the fans are going to come on First Take and wipe the floor with Smith and Kellerman, proving just how easy it is to argue about sports for a living. On second thought, maybe this will be worth watching after all.


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