This week concludes Max Kellerman’s first week stepping into the shoes of Skip Bayless as Stephen A. Smith’s co-host on the new-look First Take. The remarkable aspect of Kellerman’s selection is that, in many ways, he was one of the original members of ESPN’s crash course into “Embrace Debate” as the very first host of Around the Horn. And in many ways, his rise, fall, and rise again mirrors that of Smith. Their pairing brings ESPN’s 15-year journey with sports debate television full-circle.
Rise: Arriving on the scene and hosting Around the Horn
Around the Horn has turned a corner somewhat in recent years with its emphasis on new voices, particularly female sportswriters and sportswriters of color. Giving this young, diverse collection of sports media members a national platform is a very good thing. However, it’s still fair to look back on the era of Woody Paige, Jay Mariotti, T.J. Simers, etc., and say that Around the Horn made it cool for old-school sportswriters to go on television and yell about things. That’s not exactly the greatest legacy to have in the world of sports media, but it is what it is.
The counter-balance to those old-school sportswriters was the youthful Kellerman, who first emerged as a boxing analyst on Friday Night Fights at ESPN next to Brian Kenny. Kellerman was in his mid-20s at ESPN when he started at FNF and instantly became one of the most appreciated voices covering boxing, given his passion for a sport that was being slowly pushed off the national stage.
When ATH launched in 2002, Pardon the Interruption was only a year old. This was ESPN’s second foray into purposeful sports debate after PTI had been such a stunning success.
Kellerman, then at 29 years old, would make the leap from being a “boxing guy” to a much more prominent role in the hosting position. ESPN could have grabbed any of their dozens of anchors to do the job, but Kellerman’s selection would personify the direction ESPN was looking to go with much of its studio programming. He was never afraid to share his opinion and do so passionately.
Initially, critics didn’t respond well to Around the Horn. Here’s what Slate had to say about ESPN in a 2002 article called “When did ESPN stop doing sports?” (The google headline is “When did ESPN turn into MTV?”, which is funny because apparently MTV didn’t just stop showing music videos just yesterday.)
“Even for the most obsessive geek, Around the Horn is pointless noise pollution, the ThunderStix of sports programming. Its host, Max Kellerman, is excellent talking boxing on Friday Night Fights, but his wise-guy persona and shrill voice are unsuited to moderating a show dedicated to bombast. At least The Sports Reporters (Version 1.0) featured the late, inimitable Dick Schaap, who managed to lend an air of grace to the proceedings. He would be appalled to know his legacy was a raft of second-rate rip-offs, each one trying to top the next in words per second.”
Even though it debuted mostly to negative reviews from critics, enough viewers tuned in to keep ESPN happy. 14 years later (!!!), Around the Horn is still on ESPN airwaves every weekday at 5 p.m. ET as PTI‘s lead-in just as it was all the way back in 2002. Kellerman’s back-and-forths with the featured writers were the central crux of the show. And Kellerman’s star had risen to the point where he was a hot commodity amongst sports networks. In 2004, Kellerman decided to leave ESPN for Fox Sports.
How it mirrors Stephen A. Smith: Like Kellerman, Smith started out as one of the most passionate voices covering a single sport (the NBA). Like Kellerman, Smith was plucked from that role analyzing a sport to become a more prominent national figure hosting his own show in Quite Frankly. ESPN put a lot of chips behind Kellerman and Smith and those initial investments didn’t pay off. They both left the network about a year and a half into the first runs of Quite Frankly and Around the Horn.
Fall: I, Max and a move away from sports
Kellerman left ESPN to host a new show on Fox Sports Net (remember that?) called I, Max after ESPN didn’t match Fox’s offer to Kellerman. At his new digs, Kellerman would be the main attraction instead of facilitating for others. Via a 2004 Sports Illustrated blurb:
“Rather than being the point guard, I will be the main scoring option,” says Kellerman, 30, who first made a name for himself with animated displays of his encyclopedic knowledge of boxing on ESPN2. “On Around the Horn the most I could show of my ability was to state a conclusion with no chance to go through the analysis of what led me there. Now I can.”
It’s more than a little ironic that Fox’s strategy basically is the same now as it was back then: try to build a network that could compete with ESPN by recycling former ESPN talent. It hasn’t worked so far in 2016 and it didn’t work in 2004.
I, Max only lasted nine months before it was cancelled by Fox Sports.
Kellerman also suffered personal tragedy during this time. His brother Sam was killed in October 2004 by boxer James Butler.
His departure from Fox Sports sent Kellerman on quite the nomadic journey. He had a stint with MSNBC as a sidekick to Tucker Carlson, which is so long ago it predated MSNBC’s attempt at being the liberal cable news network of choice.
Kellerman then had a three-year stint with ESPN Radio New York that lasted until 2009, when the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement about the direction of his show. That program also featured a temporary reunion with former Friday Night Fights partner Brian Kenny.