Shannon Sharpe Skip Bayless Shannon Sharpe on ‘First Take’ and Skip Bayless on ‘Undisputed’

Skip Bayless may have won the battle when he forced out Shannon Sharpe from FS1’s Undisputed.

But the Pro Football Hall of Famer has won the war. Ever since teaming up with Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take, Sharpe has seen his celebrity skyrocket, along with the show’s ratings.

Bayless’ counter-offering, meanwhile, continues to slip further away from relevancy. The 72-year-old carnival barker is viewed as nothing more than a caricature.

His “funeral” commercial, which ran during Fox NFL broadcasts through the latter portion of last season, was symbolic. Bayless’ career may not be dead, but it’s certainly not alive and well.

Originally signed for the NFL season, Sharpe inked a new deal with ESPN last week, taking him through the NBA Playoffs. That symbolizes his elevated status for a couple of reasons.

First, Sharpe is no longer synonymous with the NFL. He may have received his start in TV on CBS’ NFL Today after a Hall of Fame career as a tight end, but his appeal now moves well beyond the gridiron.

Bayless deserves credit for that. When CBS parted with Sharpe in 2014, the football great was viewed as a serviceable, yet interchangeable analyst.

A stint at NFL Network, or another cable network as a seasonal analyst, seemed to be his broadcasting future. “Sharpe is good enough on TV that he’ll surely find work, but there probably won’t be any options that come with as big a platform as Sharpe had at CBS,” wrote ProFootballTalk at the time. (That quote isn’t cherrypicked to dunk on Florio; but rather, as a representative of the conventional wisdom back then.)

But Sharpe, to his credit, didn’t rush back into broadcasting. He waited for the right opportunity, and that happened two years later, when Bayless recruited him to join Undisputed.

Bayless helped resurrect Stephen A. Smith’s career, and that’s exactly what happened with Sharpe. The upstart debate fest was a success in its early years, only losing to First Take by a 3-1 margin, and beating SportsCenter on ESPN2.

That’s not to say Sharpe was part of an emerging juggernaut. Though the gap narrowed between the two shows when Max Kellerman left (a fact that Smith doesn’t mention when criticizing his former co-host), they rebounded in a big way when the show added new voices, such as Chris Russo. First Take averaged record viewership in February 2022, and has only further exploded since then.

Last year, First Take celebrated its most-watched year ever, averaging 496,000 viewers per show. The gap between the two programs only widened when NFL season began. Per Front Office SportsFirst Take was beating Undisputed head-to-head by more than 400,000 viewers September through November. Smith and his star-studded group averaged 554,000 viewers over those months, compared to just 120,000 for Bayless and his restructured panel.

Through the years, Sharpe found his voice with Bayless. He ripped Donald Trump and called out older white sports figures, such as Phil Jackson, who expressed opposition to “Black Lives Matter.”

While Sharpe’s outspokenness was great for his career, and Undisputed‘s ratings, it created palpable tension with Bayless. They had a minimal relationship away from the studio, and there were an increasing number of tense moments.

Their highest-profile showdown came in early 2023, when Sharpe picked apart the commentator’s ridiculous tweet about Damar Hamlin at the top of a show.

Bayless, the man who trains for hours in the gym so he can yell about sports on TV, was visibly rattled.

Sharpe left Undisputed during the NBA Finals last June, but it wasn’t a mutual split. Smith has said Sharpe was “pushed out.”

Reports following Sharpe’s departure back that up. FS1 granted Bayless full say in selecting his next sparring partners, according to Front Office Sport’s Michael McCarthy. “Skip is not going to hire anybody who challenges him—and he’s going to make the hire,” said a source.

That didn’t exactly come to fruition. Bayless selected three of the most outspoken stars in NFL history–Richard Sherman, Michael Irvin and Keyshawn Johnson–to take Sharpe’s seat.

But in the world of sports media, their names don’t resonate as much as Sharpe’s. First Take started obliterating Undisputed after he left.

Sharpe is far from the only reason for that, of course. Smith is a powerhouse, and guys like Russo, JJ Redick and Kendrick Perkins create their own share of viral moments on a weekly basis.

Meanwhile, Bayless’ act is increasingly stale. How many more times must we be forced to watch him throw away a Cowboys jersey?

An elderly man throwing a phony temper-tantrum over a football game is … not cute.

Nobody would accuse Smith of offering nuanced and circumspect analysis. But Bayless is one-dimensional, and obviously fake.

Many people would agree Tom Brady was more responsible for the Patriots’ dynasty than Bill Belichick. But Bayless went 10,000 steps further, crediting Brady with “75%” of their success and belittling Belichick as a “glorified defensive coordinator.”

Take it away, Sir Charles Barkley!

“You know how much I hate Skip Bayless,” he said recently. “I hate him with every fiber. Sometimes he makes me want to gain weight back so I can hate him with even more weight.”

Bayless, for better or worse, is the Godfather of “embrace debate.” But he hasn’t evolved.

On the contrary, Sharpe continues to expand his reach. That’s the second part of his new deal with ESPN that stands out: it’s only for a few more months.

Perhaps ESPN, which is scaling back its spending on talent (unless you’re Smith and a select few A-listers), doesn’t know whether it can afford Sharpe for a full calendar year.

Or maybe, Sharpe is the one enjoying the leverage. He’s part of two breakout digital hits: his “Club Shay Shay” podcast, and late-night live YouTube show with Chad Johnson, “Nightcap.”

In fact, “Nightcap” peaked at nearly 90,000 viewers after the Super Bowl, outdrawing all but one of Bayless’ shows on FS1 that week.

“Club Shay Shay” is one of the buzziest podcasts going right now, producing possibly the most-discussed interview of the year so far.

Comedian Katt Williams appeared on the show in early January, and ripped some of the biggest names in comedy and entertainment, including P. Diddy and Steve Harvey.

Given the success of his new media ventures, ESPN may need Sharpe more than he needs ESPN. Meanwhile, Bayless is being watched by fewer and fewer people and leading others to wonder if he’s been surpassed by others at his own network. If success is the greatest revenge, then Shannon Sharpe has more than proved his point to Skip Bayless.