Undisputed Skip bayless Credit: Undisputed on FS1

Undisputed, like many sports studio shows, is off this week as the dust settles on the NFL season. But as Bayless approaches his 72nd birthday and the end of his Fox contract while anchoring a show that is nowhere near competitive with First Take in the morning sports debate show slot, an FS1 lineup without Undisputed may soon become the norm.

Bayless signed a four-year contract worth $8 million annually in early 2021. That means this is the final year Fox is locked into paying one of its marquee talents. And it appears the polarizing sports debate pioneer simply doesn’t have pull these days.

Earlier this month, while celebrating record months for nearly all of its daytime lineup, Fox Sports 1 left Undisputed viewership numbers out of its news release entirely. Even during the peak of the NFL postseason last month, Undisputed struggle to top 100,000 viewers.

On the other hand, Nightcap, the YouTube show produced by former Undisputed cohost Shannon Sharpe, surpassed the FS1 morning program’s viewership during a post-Super Bowl livestream. Even the audience for Bayless’ own self-titled podcast has cratered since a big launch.

Speaking of Sharpe, his departure may have dealt Undisputed its knockout punch. Sharpe was often seen as the Robin to Bayless’ Batman during the eight years he sparred with Bayless on the show, but Sharpe’s true popularity is revealing itself.

Alex Reimer recently wrote for Awful Announcing that “if success is the greatest revenge, then Shannon Sharpe has more than proved his point to Skip Bayless.” Indeed, Sharpe has the biggest sports podcast on the planet with his Club Shay Shay interview show. And he has another juggernaut in Nightcap, which he cohosts with Chad Johnson and Gilbert Arenas.

Efforts to replace Sharpe have not gone well for Bayless. The debater emeritus of First Take did away with a moderator and brought on a rotating panel of commentators to fill Sharpe’s big shoes. None of Keyshawn Johnson, Richard Sherman or Michael Irvin brings nearly the level of preparation or gravitas that Sharpe did to the seat opposite Bayless. Unlike Smith’s balancing act with First Take since the departure of Max Kellerman, the lack of a consistent co-host on Undisputed makes the show feel chaotic and small-time.

Bayless chased Sharpe off last summer as their relationship frayed. Sharpe jumped to ESPN and appears to be Smith’s successor as First Take host.

At the same time, Fox has several developing in-house options as its other studio shows perform well. After a decade of competing with the worldwide leader, it’s clearer than ever that FS1 may have to settle for being ESPN’s little brother.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad business. And with popular voices like Nick Wright, Joy Taylor, Emmanuel Acho and even Jason McIntyre growing their profiles in less-savory roles, it could be the perfect time to reimagine its studio lineup heading back into fall football.

There’s no reason to believe Wright, Chris Broussard and Kevin Wildes could not turn First Things First into an even bigger show in the 10 a.m. slot. If Fox prefers to go even heavier on football, Speak would offer a solid morning anchor with Acho and LeSean McCoy bringing a better version of the athlete-centered cast that Bayless was going for with his new-look Undisputed panel.

More than ever, great talent is also available for hire. While it’s hard to tell what Fox Sports’ balance sheet looks like, and the company has been slow to embrace streaming and digital content, perhaps the $8 million coming off their books with Bayless’ contract could be used to make a big splash elsewhere.

Kellerman and new free agent Ryan Clark stand out as obvious targets. Or could Fox poach one of the numerous athletes making waves self-producing their own digital content, like Arenas or Cam Newton? Certainly Sharpe, Colin Cowherd, Pat McAfee and others have proven it is possible to hold traditional broadcasting jobs while continuing to build a digital business on the side.

There is no immediate rush for Fox to kill Undisputed and say goodbye to Bayless. After all, the push through the spring is still a fruitful time for sports shows. The summer is often when change comes.

But Fox execs are likely mulling these moves already. They are in a position of strength. It would be a shock if Bayless receives another contract, and the network has many good options to pivot to.

This feels like the beginning of the end of Undisputed. If it is, the show will be remembered for producing a superstar in Sharpe, and its avoidable decay led by Bayless and his ego. Now could be the perfect time for FS1 to salvage the time slot, save its ratings, and place better content front and center in its morning lineup.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.