Skip Bayless Photo credit: FS1

Following a lengthy sabbatical, Undisputed will resume next week, debuting a new format that promises to be more sophisticated—and decidedly less hostile—than its debate-driven predecessor. Bolstered by newcomers Richard Sherman, Michael Irvin, Keyshawn Johnson, Rachel Nichols and Lil Wayne (because why not?), Undisputed’s ensemble cast closely mirrors ESPN’s “more the merrier” approach to First Take, replacing Max Kellerman with a rotating cast of panelists led by radio legend Chris “Mad Dog” Russo.

This obviously represents a major departure, both tonally and stylistically, from the deafening echo chamber of Skip Bayless vs. Shannon Sharpe, one of the most spirited on-air rivalries the genre has ever produced. Though the explosive pairing did little to elevate the sports discourse (in fact, many would argue it had the opposite effect), the sheer voltage of their dynamic will be difficult—if not impossible—to fully replicate.

Fox has planned accordingly, making a conscious effort to lower the decibel level as Undisputed looks to forge a new, post-Sharpe identity. That’s not to say Undisputed won’t continue to incorporate elements of debate culture, or that Sherman and company are any less equipped than Sharpe was to match Bayless’ intensity (ruthless doesn’t even begin to describe Skip’s abrasive, no-holds-barred aesthetic). Still, this feels like a major turning point, a carefully orchestrated rebrand meant to distance Undisputed from the toxic masculinity and rampant egos that have plagued the show throughout its seven-year existence.

“I just feel like with the audience, and where America is as a consumer right now, there’s enough strife going on in everybody’s day-to-day that doesn’t have to just be debate,” said executive Charlie Dixon of the network’s new direction, pivoting away from the “embrace debate” philosophy that shaped so much of FS1’s early programming. “We focus more on the chemistry and the availability of agreeing with people versus trying to find inflection points where people have a variance of opinions. It gives us more opportunity to have bigger conversations and go deeper into conversations, versus coming in with an in-the-moment take that is either going to be right or wrong.”

Dixon’s self-awareness is admirable, but what makes his quote so jarring is that it reads like an admission of defeat, a white flag signaling Fox’s voluntary withdrawal from the “hot take” circuit. Of course, that paradigm shift would require Bayless’ cooperation, willingly forfeiting his crown as the king of debate television. That’s about as likely as the Colts getting a first-rounder for Jonathan Taylor (keep dreaming, Irsay), or James Harden miraculously mending fences with the Sixers after going scorched earth on Daryl Morey. If the saying’s true you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, what hope do we have of Bayless, at 71, suddenly reinventing himself as a measured voice bound by journalistic principles? Even if Bayless had the stomach for it, he’s committed so fully to the bit, feeding his worst impulses as an unrepentant gasbag for so long, that his metamorphosis is all but complete, unable to escape the loathsome character he’s created.

Rest assured, the hot-take industrial complex is alive and well on First Take, with “Mad Dog” enjoying a career renaissance as a contrarian pot-stirrer blinded by nostalgia, provoking frequent sparring partner JJ Redick into cartoonish arguments usually referencing athletes from the distant past. But make no mistake, Russo is a guest in Stephen A’s home, careful not to outshine Smith on his own show (Kellerman made that mistake and paid dearly for it). Bayless occupies a similar throne as the gravitational force that Sherman and others in the Undisputed universe revolve around, serving as judge, jury and executioner of the show that has become his life’s work.

It’s significant that Fox pursued outside hires, enlisting the services of Sherman (whom Bayless has history with following their heated exchange on ESPN years earlier), Irvin, Johnson, and Nichols rather than promoting internal candidates from within the company. You can’t fault Fox for targeting big names, especially for a show as high profile as Undisputed, though one would think, sooner or later, the network will have to develop stars of its own. The broadcasting carousel that began a year earlier when ESPN poached Joe Buck and Troy Aikman from Fox represents a concerning trend in sports media, with companies more focused on winning the news cycle with splash hires than fostering their existing talent. In a shrinking industry with limited resources, it’s not implausible to think this will become the new norm, with shortsighted executives pursuing the path of least resistance, recycling the same retreads while depriving audiences of a fresh perspective.

The move to a roundtable format might benefit Undisputed in the long run, minimizing the problematic optics of Bayless, the living embodiment of white privilege, scolding or disparaging a black ex-athlete. Fox was rightfully criticized for perpetuating that dynamic during the show’s earlier incarnation, with Bayless’ condescending tone often interpreted as subtle racism, exposing his prejudice with dog-whistling and coded language. The outspoken Bayless will always be a magnet for controversy, though having additional panelists to diffuse the tension could mitigate the risk of going off the rails, as Undisputed often did when Skip and Shannon were at each other’s throats.

The summer hiatus has helped build anticipation for the show’s return, with many curious to see how Bayless interacts with his castmates including Sherman, who arguably stands the most to gain from his new platform on Undisputed. The former Seahawks star is both articulate and well-spoken, traits he displayed as a studio analyst for Amazon’s coverage of Thursday Night Football. He’s also a dogged competitor known for his prolific trash-talking (both on and off the field), which is precisely what’s needed to battle a sharp-tongued antagonist like Bayless. What remains to be seen is what version of Sherman comes out on Undisputed—the composed, level-headed commentator we saw last fall or the brash, hell-raising alter ego who famously chirped Michael Crabtree in the NFC Championship.

Where Lil Wayne fits in to this elaborate maze of moving parts is anyone’s guess, though his close friendship with Bayless is well-documented. Whether he offers legitimate sports insight (we know Wayne is a devoted Green Bay Packers fan) or amounts to little more than a gimmick, the “Lollipop” rapper should bring an endearing quirkiness to his segments, infusing the show with needed levity to offset Bayless’ scowling self-seriousness.

Whether you’re hate-watching or genuinely curious to see how the show evolves, all eyes will be on Bayless next Monday as Undisputed 2.0 takes shape, the latest chapter in the career of a polarizing figure, a defiant sports anarchist with no conscience or capacity for shame.

[Sports Business Journal]

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.