ESPN has made it very clear for a long time now that it sees Stephen A. Smith as a star. According to ESPN’s former president, that vision was a big part of the reason why Smith’s head-to-head debates with Skip Bayless on First Take came to an end.
The Athletic published a sprawling history of the sports debate show on Wednesday, running through the history of how it became, for better or worse, one of the most influential shows in American sports television history.
These days, Stephen A. Smith is the centerpiece of First Take while guest hosts revolve around him and his whims. Of course, that’s not how it started. The debate show rose to prominence thanks in large part to the connection, or lack thereof, between Smith and Bayless.
Former ESPN president John Skipper, who now runs Meadowlark Media, spoke with The Athletic about the dynamic between the two loud men and how it all ended.
Skipper said that he wasn’t initially a big fan of the show and its “artifice,” though he’s come to realize that he might have misread the purpose of First Take.
“I think it’s true that on SportsCenter you should not survey what should go first,” Skipper said. “You have to put whatever the news of the day is first. On an entertainment show — and indeed First Take was entertainment — I think Jamie’s approach turned out to be more fruitful. I probably didn’t think that at the time.”
Like so many successful projects with two people, it was eventual that either Smith or Bayless would want more than they were getting at ESPN. It turned out to be Bayless and Skipper says that the company simply made a value judgment that led to Skip leaving for Fox Sports.
Smith had renewed his contract with ESPN for more than $3 million annually the year before, but Bayless’ deal was about to expire. Skipper entered the fray late and said ESPN made a “considerable” offer to keep Bayless. But in the end, he left for Fox in April 2016.
“We waited too long,” Skipper said. “We valued Stephen A. more than we valued Skip. … We just felt that Skip was the foil and the star of the show was Stephen A.”
You could make the case that neither Smith nor Bayless truly ever recaptured the lightning they had against one another, and maybe that’s for the best.