ESPN didn’t just hire a new sparring partner for Stephen A. Smith when the network signed Shannon Sharpe to contribute to “First Take” during NFL season.
The WorldWide Leader brought aboard the personality who’s taking its signature debate show to historic heights, and burying Skip Bayless once and for all.
For the second week in a row, Smith and Sharpe destroyed Bayless and his crew at FS1’s “Undisputed.” The duo drew 626,000 viewers on the first Monday after NFL season, and then attracted a record 717,000 eyeballs on Tuesday, the day following Aaron Rodgers’ season-ending achilles injury.
“Undisputed,” meanwhile, drew 185,000 and 118,000 viewers on those dates, respectively.
In other words, Smith and Sharpe are crushing Bayless and his ensemble cast by a 6-1 margin.
That’s a knockout blow!
It’s easy to forget now, but the gap between the two programs wasn’t always so gargantuan. When “Undisputed” launched in 2017, Bayless was only losing to “First Take” by a 3-1 margin, and beating out “SportsCenter” on ESPN2.
So what’s changed?
The shift started before Sharpe jumped to ESPN. Smith’s stardom has exploded in recent years, landing the screaming head a massive contract worth $12 million annually. While Bayless and Smith both play cartoon characters, the latter endears himself to celebrities and star athletes, while the former repulses them.
Smith possesses cultural cache. Bayless, who’s 72 years old and famously eats chicken and broccoli every day, is kind of a joke.
It’s apparent that Sharpe is enjoying the ride. Last weekend, he flew private with Smith to catch Colorado’s clash against Colorado State. (Bayless wasn’t in attendance, despite landing Deion Sanders two straight weeks.)
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While “First Take’s” ratings initially dipped when Kellerman left (a fact that Smith seldom mentions when burying his former co-host), they rebounded in a big way when the show added new voices, such as Chris Russo. Last year, “First Take” averaged record viewership in February, and kept growing.
“First Take’s” audience has increased year-to-year for an astounding 13 straight months, and that streak should continue into September.
Sharpe deserves a lot of credit for that.
“Undisputed’s” audience immediately tanked when he left. Through June, the program would still often draw between 150,000 to 200,000 viewers per show, and sometimes more.
This month, however, “Undisputed” is averaging around 148,000 eyeballs per episode. That’s not good sign at the start of NFL season, when sports shows typically enjoy their biggest bumps of the year.
Since every national sports debate program covers the same topics (Cowboys and Lakers), the personalities make the difference. Sharpe, once a middling NFL studio analyst with CBS, has separated himself from the pack.
The process started in 2016, when he landed a spot with Bayless, and started finding his voice. Soon, Sharpe was ripping Donald Trump and calling out older white sports figures, such as Phil Jackson, who expressed opposition to “Black Lives Matter.”
“Can you tell ‘dumb dumb’ that politics has always been in sports?,” said Sharpe about one of the NBA’s all-time coaching greats.
In a deeply polarized society, Sharpe’s views on racial and social issues are unapologetically progressive. And sports fans are rewarding him with their attention, despite being more conservative than the general population.
Unc Shannon Sharpe on phil Jackson saying he hasn’t watch the NBA since the bubble because people want to see sports as non political pic.twitter.com/K1myMRwkWR
— Shannonnn sharpes Burner (PARODY Account) (@shannonsharpeee) April 24, 2023
While sports debate shows are about arguing–Bayless has a whole workout routine designed around “getting ready” to spar about footballs and basketballs–the conversation rarely gets personal.
But Sharpe doesn’t follow those norms. Early this year, he picked apart Bayless’ ridiculous tweet about Damar Hamlin at the top of the show, throwing the great sports debater off his game (apparently, Bayless never trained for the possibility of his partner getting real).
Unc Shannon sharpe was explaining why he wasn’t on undisputed yesterday & this man Skip bayless gonna interrupt him when Shannon tells him to take down the tweet of damar Hamlin ??♂️??♂️??♂️ pic.twitter.com/hQQK0njiQZ
— Shannonnn sharpes Burner (PARODY Account) (@shannonsharpeee) January 4, 2023
That tiff may have been the start of Sharpe and Bayless’ unraveling. Later that month, the Pro Football Hall of Famer earned embarrassing headlines for getting into an altercation with Ja Maront and his father at a Lakers-Grizzlies game.
But in a weird way, the bizarre episode solidified Sharpe’s elevated place in sports culture. The Grizzlies even turned the incident into a meme.
— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) March 1, 2023
Few sports pundits can match Smith on a celebrity level, but Sharpe comes close. He’s a good partner for Smith now, and could play a bigger role down the line.
Smith, who’s signed through 2025, has long expressed interest in political commentary and even replacing Jimmy Kimmel. Recently, Smith shared a piece from Front Office Sports that speculates Sharpe could be his “First Take” successor.
Maybe that’s just Smith playing into the drama. He’s a showman at heart, working different angles with all of his co-hosts: Russo, JJ Redick, Marcus Spears, Ryan Clark. More than ever, his personality rules over the program. Everybody else is secondary, including the athletes they cover.
But the early ratings show that Sharpe could be his most effective foil ever. Sharpe may be taking a small step back now, but he’s setting himself up for a bright future in Bristol, and beyond.