Smith Kellerman First Take

With viewership for First Take tanking in the post-Skip Bayless era, execs in Bristol are taking a drastic measure. According to John Ourand of Sports Business Daily, First Take will soon move from ESPN2, where it has lived for almost 10 years, to the main ESPN channel,

As of Jan. 3, First Take will appear on ESPN from 10 a.m. to noon. The two SportsCenter programs currently in that slot—an interview show with Hannah Storm and the “Coast to Coast” version with Cari Champion and David Lloyd—will slide over to ESPN2.

First Take has seem its ratings decline sharply since Bayless left for FS1. The Stephen A. Smith-Max Kellerman duo has failed to captivate audiences the way Smith and Bayless did, and although First Take still beats Bayless’ Undisputed every day, viewership of the ESPN program is down dramatically from this time last year.

Ourand got some interesting insight from an ESPN executive on the network’s expectations for First Take and the calculus of moving the show to the mothership.

ESPN execs said they expected to take a ratings hit when Bayless left — not because Bayless went to a competitor and launched a competing show. Rather, it was because the biggest faces of ESPN’s “Embrace Debate” strategy — Bayless and Stephen A. Smith — were breaking up. It will take a while for Smith, Kellerman and host Molly Qerim to establish the same chemistry. “Skip could have left to work on a lobster boat and ratings would have suffered,” said ESPN Exec VP/Programming & Scheduling Burke Magnus. “We knew there would be an impact with Skip and Stephen A. splitting up. It would be naïve and disingenuous to believe or say otherwise.”While he predicted that the move to ESPN will help ratings, Magnus said he had considered the move well before Bayless announced his departure, “This is something that we’ve talked about for a long time,” he said. “We believe the ratings impact has settled down now, and we’re seeing our numbers start to grow.”

While it’s possible that Smith and Kellerman will click with audiences sooner than later, this move is certainly not guaranteed to pay off for ESPN.

First Take’s viewership will undoubtedly increase on its new channel, as more people are inclined to mindlessly tune into ESPN than ESPN2, but that won’t necessarily mean anything. Is there any reason to think switching First Take and the two SportsCenter programs will result in a greater total audience? Won’t the ratings hit SportsCenter takes cancel out the gain First Take sees?

Meanwhile, it’s disappointing to see three hard-working and capable news anchors demoted to ESPN2 in favor of mindless debate. The news is particularly brutal for Champion, who escaped hosting First Take and earned her own SportsCenter show, only to have her time-slot swiped by her former program. That has to be dispiriting for Champion and for all the on-air personalities at ESPN who don’t resort to gratuitously provocative opinions.

There’s been some speculation that the era of debate-centered sports TV is coming to an end. But if that’s the case, someone apparently forgot to tell ESPN.

[Sports Business Daily]

About Alex Putterman

Alex is a writer and editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has written for The Atlantic, VICE Sports,, and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.

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