Skip Bayless’ ESPN career came to a merciful end at 11:30 AM Tuesday morning after 12 insufferable years on this planet.
When he arrived in Bristol, Bayless had already carved out his niche as a contrarian and antagonist whose calling card was taking aim at the biggest sports stars in his town and hiding behind a shield of objectivity. He spent nearly two decades in Dallas criticizing icons such as Tom Landry and Troy Aikman; the former he called an over-the-hill hypocrite, the latter he portrayed as a coach-killing gay racist. Upon moving to Chicago, Bayless put Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas in his crosshairs, blasting “The Big Hurt” for a contract holdout and insinuating that Thomas used performance-enhancing drugs.
After part-time roles on ESPN programs such as “SportsCenter” and “Rome is Burning,” The Worldwide Leader permanently hired Bayless in 2004 to become Woody Paige’s foil for a debate segment on ESPN2’s ill-conceived “Today Show”-style morning program, “Cold Pizza.” Paige left two years later and the show appeared to be on its last legs when it moved from New York City to Bristol and was rebranded as “First Take” in 2007.
But former ESPN executive and current FOX Sports president of national networks Jamie Horowitz overhauled it in 2011 to make “First Take” a fulltime debate program. Ratings shot up 58% in the first quarter of 2012 and when Stephen A. Smith was hired to be Bayless’ permanent sparring partner later that year, “First Take” finally cracked the code to ratings success: eschew real analysis for outrageous opinions that would grab the internet’s attention and leave viewers tuning in to throw things at their television. It didn’t matter if people loved or hated the show as long as they watched — much in the same way people who hate Howard Stern ironically listen to him almost twice as much as his fans to “see what he’ll say next.”
“First Take” has since become a staple of ESPN’s daytime television programming with 400,000 average daily viewers and the blueprint for the “Embrace Debate” era in Bristol.
As he departs “First Take” to work for his old boss at FOX Sports 1 and collect the reported $30 million pot of gold that awaits him in Los Angeles, I can confidently say Skip leaves Bristol as the single most hated man in sports media.
The public hates him for making millions of dollars to play the part of a wrestling heel. Athletes despise him for taking cheap shots at their performance and character. His ESPN colleagues are embarrassed by him. And his new FOX Sports 1 coworkers undoubtedly feel the same way — they just can’t say so anymore.
Bayless will best be remembered for his constant praise of 48-percent career NFL passer Tim Tebow and endless criticism of three-time NBA champion LeBron James.
And Bayless’ Bristol tombstone will include the following comical inscriptions:
- “Tim Tebow is the next Brett Favre.”
- “Tebow owns the quarter LeBron disappears in.”
- “Johnny Football will one day be bigger than his buddy LeBron ever was.”
- “One day Robert Griffin III will be a better QB than Aaron Rodgers.”
- “Derek Fisher will prove to be a much better NBA head coach than Steve Kerr.”
- And my personal favorite from the 1.4 PPG high school basketball player, “FYI: I started for high school team that lost in state finals. Coach didn’t like me b/c I shot too much and he wanted me to be more PG.”
It may be hard to believe, but those who actually know Bayless on a personal level swear by his kindness and generosity.
He insists that his villainous persona isn’t an act even though it becomes harder to believe by the day; Bayless’ response to LeBron James winning a third NBA championship was declaring that the Spurs would have beaten the Cavs and Kyrie Irving should have been named MVP.
Who knows, maybe Bayless has actually convinced himself his hyperbolic opinions are sincere. After all, how long can you play a role that’s made you as famous and rich as Bayless until you can no longer separate yourself from the character you portray on TV?