It looks like Max Kellerman’s time on ESPN morning debate show First Take may be coming to an end. Michael McCarthy of Front Office Sports reported Wednesday that it looks like Kellerman (seen at right above with Smith during a 2019 road show in Oakland) is set to exit that role, while still remaining with ESPN in other roles:
Kellerman could leave his debate chair opposite Stephen A. Smith and Molly Qerim Rose for more extended duty on TV and ESPN Radio, sources told Front Office Sports.
The decision is not finalized, said sources, but if Kellerman leaves, Smith is not expected to have a daily debate partner. Instead, he could debate various ESPN personalities as well as high-profile guests.
“It could be Stephen A. vs the World,” said one source.
Even if if Kellerman leaves “First Take,” he’s still expected to play a very prominent role on ESPN. He’s hosted the eponymous “Max Kellerman Show” on ESPN Radio since 2020. He also has his own boxing TV show on ESPN2.
Sources speculated Kellerman could also join the morning radio show, “Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin,” with Keyshawn Johnson, Jay Williams and Zubin Mehenti. Mehenti has missed significant time on the show due to health problems.
Andrew Marchand of The New York Post added further confirmation later Wednesday:
Kellerman is expected to be removed off ESPN’s “First Take,” the show in which he and Stephen A. Smith verbally battle each day, going hot take for hot take, sources confirmed.
…For now, ESPN does not plan on replacing Kellerman with anyone in particular. Instead, a rotation of verbal sparring partners will likely make the short walk over each morning from another ESPN show, “Get Up,” which is located in the same Seaport studios. Molly Qerim is expected to continue to host, but Smith is the undisputed star.
It’s been clear for a while that ESPN prioritizes Smith over Kellerman, especially following Smith’s 2019 five-year contract that pays him $8 million or more a year. A switch to a rotating opponent would make it clear that First Take really is “The Stephen A. Smith Show.” (Well, one of The Stephen A. Smith shows: Smith also has Stephen A’s World on ESPN+, a regular pre-game SportsCenter special on ESPN ahead of Wednesday night NBA games, and countless specials for SportsCenter and other ESPN/ABC properties.) But an interesting question is if the viewership will hold up for “Stephen A. vs the World.”
When Skip Bayless left First Take to join FS1 in the fall of 2016 and launch Undisputed, there were questions about what would happen to First Take‘s viewership. Some of it definitely left for Undisputed, but a lot stuck around for the Smith and Kellerman era of the show, especially after that show was moved to main ESPN from ESPN2 (in January 2017). That move alone led to significant First Take audience growth, which isn’t surprising considering the relative prominence of ESPN versus ESPN2 and how many people just flip ESPN on regardless of what is airing. But it’s notable that First Take has had a very good ratings run with Smith and Kellerman, and that it’s opened a wide lead up over Undisputed. It will be worth watching to see if that continues with “Stephen A. vs the World.”