Over the last 16 years, First Take has been a staple of ESPN’s daytime programming lineup and has arguably redefined modern-day sports television. Show host Molly Qerim is joined by executive producer and featured commentator Stephen A. Smith on weekday mornings to deliberate the latest topics in sports – but the program endured a seismic change in the latter half of 2021. Co-host Max Kellerman, who had worked with Smith for the previous five years, provided a worthy debate partner for Smith, but he ultimately compelled ESPN management to change the format of the show.
Responsible for overseeing the network’s slate of programming, President of Content Burke Magnus knows that ESPN has something extraordinary in First Take. Throughout its time on the air, the show has endured various iterations while continuing to be a compelling and entertaining watch. Much of that can be attributed to the work ethic of Smith, who is in his second stint with ESPN and became one of the faces of the company.
“I would put him near or at the very top of our talent roster in terms of his profile and the success of the show,” Magnus said. “By the way, nobody works harder. Nobody works harder.”
Today, Smith is joined by a deep roster of panelists, including Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, Kimberley A. Martin and Kendrick Perkins among others depending on the sports calendar and slate of conversation points. Consistently changing the look of the show keeps the product fresh and allows for the network to accentuate the strengths of its personalities.
“You can theme your approach depending on the season, and I think they’ve done that particularly in the case of the NFL and NBA, which have become year-round conversation pieces and content opportunities,” Magnus said. “….It’s a unique circumstance where two people can carry that kind of conversation on a year-round basis without it getting stale.”
Smith, however, has not been reserved about having aspirations beyond the world of sports media. The ESPN superstar recently began hosting his own afternoon show with Cadence13, a podcast studio under the ownership of Audacy. The show is live streamed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with Smith diving into topics both inside and outside of sports. Fans have the ability to participate in the show by calling in on a live hotline, some of whom have the chance to speak with Smith directly. Moreover, the show continues to gain subscribers on YouTube, with Smith’s channel having 282,000 at last count, and consistently makes headlines because of the intrigue surrounding his opinions.
Some people within media circles have adopted the sentiment that Smith has eclipsed ESPN and that he is bound to leave the network in the near future. Magnus, however, believes that First Take is his priority and the show that has made everything else possible.
“I don’t think he’s outgrown ESPN,” Magnus said. “I think there’s plenty of room for us to do more with him and for him to do more on his own.”
On Wednesday’s edition of his podcast, Smith shared that he will have an announcement of his own in the coming future and added the caveat that it would not pertain to former FOX Sports 1 commentator Shannon Sharpe. Less than 24 hours later, Sharpe announced that he has agreed to a deal to join Smith on First Take for select editions of the show, with his first appearance coming on Monday, Sept. 4. The platform will allow him to continue disseminating his opinions about the NFL and professional sports at large en masse.
Being able to land these kinds of superstar talents pertains to the credibility of both ESPN and Smith, who has become one of the most venerable multimedia personalities of his time. Magnus affirms that Smith has built a “juggernaut” of a program and understands that his future will continue to be stratified with multiple endeavors.
“As this show has been his own now going on many years, I think the world has figured out that he is, while quite bombastic at times, an incredible entertainer with an incredible point of view that he communicates in a really entertaining way,” Magnus said. “He’s going to have the ability to do other things in a diversified media environment.”
The aggregate product ESPN is introducing on Thursday, Sept. 7, which includes Get Up and The Pat McAfee Show, marks a compilation of programming that have all established themselves as proven commodities in different settings. They are now joining together to cultivate a lineup with the potential to shape the future of not only ESPN, but sports media at large.
“We just think the three of those things together over six hours, basically Monday through Friday, is going to really be a significant and powerful offering,” Magnus said.
Barrett Sports Media’s exclusive interview with Burke Magnus will be published tomorrow morning, featuring his thoughts on the new daytime programming lineup, ESPN BET and the future of the “Worldwide Leader.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Mina Kimes: Deshaun Watson ‘Bailed Out Our Entire Industry by Being Bad’
“If he was playing well, I would be inundated by hate mail right now because that’s what happens
Mina Kimes was not alone in condemning the Cleveland Browns for signing Deshaun Watson to a record guaranteed contract as he was facing dozens of accusations of sexual misconduct. This is the first full season Watson has played for the Browns and he has been less than impressive through the first two weeks of the season.
Kimes says that in a strange way, it something she and her colleagues should be happy about.
“This dude just bailed out our entire industry by being bad,” she said this week on Pablo Torre Finds Out.
She said that she has talked to a number of fellow NFL analysts and writers that feel “a little bit of relief” that there is nothing about Watson to celebrate right now.
It isn’t lost on Kimes that maybe not having to talk about Deshaun Watson like he is any other star in the NFL isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“We never had to reckon with, and maybe we will. You know, it’s been two weeks, but we certainly haven’t, so far, had to reckon with that cognitive dissonance in what it would have entailed,” she said.”
Winning and outstanding performance can scrub clean a lot of scandal in the minds of the public. Kimes noted that even mentioning the allegations against Watson would be met very differently if he weren’t struggling.
“Right now, because he’s playing bad, because he’s playing poorly, if you were to put a clip of me saying something about the fact that he was accused of all these sexual crimes and misdemeanors and whatnot, and if you put that out now, I would not get heat,” she said. “That’s what I want to drill down on here. Like, if you aggregated this and put it out, I would not get hate mails. If he was playing well, I would be inundated by hate mail right now because that’s what happens.”
Shannon Sharpe: Skip Bayless and I ‘Barely Talked’
“It was really like a heavyweight fight.”
As Shannon Sharpe gave a heartfelt goodbye to his longtime Undisputed co-host Skip Bayless, it marked the end of a near seven-year run together on FOX Sports 1. For two-and-a-half hours each morning, Sharpe and Bayless would debate the sports topics of the day and help define an era of debate television. Directly opposing them for most of that time was First Take on ESPN, a show that they had both been a part of in varying capacities over the years.
Stephen A. Smith, working alongside analyst Max Kellerman and host Molly Qerim, engaged in a similar format before the show adopted a new format in late 2021. As Smith utilized the deep ESPN talent pool to have experts on different topics oppose him, the show grew in popularity and, at times, left Undisputed significantly behind in the ratings.
Sharpe is now a member of First Take and is contributing to the program on Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the football season. At the same time, he is building Shay Shay Media with his flagship Club Shay Shay Podcast on The Volume and working to produce content in tandem with the media brand.
Nonetheless, he misses working with FOX Sports 1 on a daily basis because of all the people on the lot aside from the show itself. From the security guard that would walk him to and from his car every day to those in wardrobe, props and in the cafeteria, no longer being able to see them for 240 days throughout the year has been a difficult thing to come to terms with.
“People don’t understand just how hard I worked at that job,” Sharpe said in a recent interview on The Stephen A. Smith Show. “What they saw was the two-and-a-half hours a day, but they didn’t see the prep – the six-seven hours of prep time I actually did to get ready for the show [and] the re-watching of the entire show to try and get better.”
After Sharpe completed his protracted answer to Smith about the things he misses most regarding FOX Sports, the First Take featured commentator elocuted an observation he made therein.
“You do understand that in that lengthy answer that you just gave to my question, you did not mention Skip Bayless one time,” Smith said. “You do know that.”
There were reportedly growing tensions between Sharpe and Bayless that ultimately led to the latter’s exit from the network. When Sharpe officially departed, Bayless and FOX Sports 1 management began work on compiling a new cast and format for the program, which relaunched earlier this month. Michael Irvin, Keyshawn Johnson, Richard Sherman, Rachel Nichols, Josina Anderson and Lil’ Wayne have all appeared on the show as contributors, facing off against Bayless, an institution and influential professional in the format.
Sharpe has gone on the record numerous times to thank Bayless for everything he did to welcome him to the network and create a stellar program. The part that he revealed to Smith was that they did not have much of a relationship off of the set, even within the corridors of the production facility.
“Skip would get to work; I would get to work,” Sharpe described. “I was in my dressing room; he was in his dressing room. It was really like a heavyweight fight. We barely talked…. [and] it was not a carry on a conversation and then, all of a sudden, we get up there and do what we do…. It was very little communication.”
Some of the public perception of Sharpe’s time on FOX Sports 1 and the split he had with the network adopted the notion, “Skip Bayless made Shannon Sharpe.” The remark perturbs Sharpe, who was a three-time Super Bowl champion and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame before he started working at the network. As one of the most accomplished tight ends in the history of the National Football League, he had already been enshrined in the history of the game and sports as a whole in perpetuity. The aspect of his being that FOX Sports 1 helped him with was in becoming more popular and well-known, and it is something he owes to Bayless and the program itself.
“Skip Bayless did not make Shannon Sharpe relatable. Skip Bayless did not make Shannon Sharpe the storyteller that he is [and] Skip Bayless did not make Shannon Sharpe the football player that can break down plays,” Sharpe articulated. “….I miss debating him, but it had gotten to the point over the last six-seven months – and I won’t allow it to ruin the six great years that we had – but it had gotten to the point that we needed to go our separate ways.”
Rick Cordella Named President of NBC Sports
“Rick has been at the epicenter of NBC Sports for years with a proven track record of growth and innovation…”
Three months after Pete Bevacqua stepped down as the chairman of NBC Sports to become the new athletic director at the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater, the company has decided on its next leader. Rick Cordella, who has been with NBCUniversal since 2006 serving in a variety of different roles, has been promoted to the role of “President, NBC Sports,” and will report directly to Mark Lazarus, the chairman of NBCUniversal Media Group.
Cordella most recently served as the president of programming for NBC Sports and Peacock Sports, a role in which he oversaw strategy for the sustained growth of both platforms. Peacock will be the exclusive home of a game within the NFL Wild Card round on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, marking the first time such an occurrence is taking place. Cordella was an integral member of the founding team for Peacock and served as the chief commercial officer for the over-the-top (OTT) streaming service. Under his leadership, NBC Sports garnered the accolade for the most-streamed Olympics and Super Bowl in history as the platform more than doubled its subscriber count year-over-year (YoY) to 24 million.
The six-time Sports Emmy Award winner began his tenure with the company within its fantasy sports properties, specifically overseeing Rotoworld and a variety of additional websites under its purview. Cordella was also a board member of FanDuel and represented NBC Sports on behalf of its investment in the sportsbook and gambling company. Additionally, he also has experience in digital media and has worked on the launch of several direct-to-consumer and online services, including NBC Sports Gold, ProFootballTalk and NBCSports.com, while also outlining content and editorial strategy.
“Rick has been at the epicenter of NBC Sports for years with a proven track record of growth and innovation across all platforms, particularly our flagship NBC network as well as Peacock, where he helped architect our leadership role in sports and streaming,” Lazarus said in a statement. “Rick will oversee the evolution of our business as we continue to offer the best experiences and content to our viewers, as well as be the best partner to leagues and rights holders.”
NBC is in the second year of a $20 billion media rights contract with the National Football League, primarily centered on its Sunday Night Football property. The lead broadcast booth of Mike Tirico, Cris Collinsworth and Melissa Stark is in its second season working together. NBC also started broadcasting Big Ten Conference football games this fall with its new B1G Ten Saturday property featuring Noah Eagle, Todd Blackledge and Kathryn Tappen.
The company recently reacquired the rights for WWE SmackDown, which will air weekly starting in Oct. 2024 on USA Network, and will produce four specials in prime time each year as part of the deal. NBC is paying $7.75 billion to broadcast the Olympic Games through the 2028 festivities in Los Angeles, Calif., and has been working with Major League Baseball to present an exclusive Sunday morning contest on Peacock each week. These properties, plus other aspects of its business, will be under the leadership of Lazarus, Cordella and other executives at the company.
“It’s a continuation of what we’ve been doing,” Cordella told John Ourand of Sports Business Journal. “It’s less about this being the start of a new day and more about how we’re going to keep executing the way we have.”
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