With Skip Bayless expected to join Jamie Horowitz’s burgeoning empire at Fox Sports 1, the focus shifts to ESPN’s replacement options alongside Stephen A. Smith on First Take. Say what you will about Bayless, and First Take’s programming approach, but the program has been ultra successful for the worldwide leader in sports. Ratings have been high, and the pairing of Smith and Bayless created curiosity, and instant reaction.
Whether you loved or hated Skip and Stephen A., you paid attention. So filling the void of Bayless’ departure is not an easy task for ESPN executives. Not only are they challenged to make the second coming of the program better than the original (always tough to do) but they’re also saddled with keeping their one remaining star (Smith) happy, while finding the right partner to pair him with.
Finding an opinionated personality in sports media isn’t difficult, but not every individual can be comfortable, and provide the right chemistry and fit opposite Stephen. Gaining his buy in is critical to making the show work in the future. Which is why some of the considerations mentioned all make sense.
So which options are at ESPN’s disposal? I’m told by multiple sources that there are at least four candidates on a short list of finalists to replace Skip Bayless on First Take. As the process plays out that number could increase, especially now that the position is publicly available. In the interim, here are a few of the names that I’m told have been discussed and involved in dialogue with the network.
Max Kellerman – He’s already under the company umbrella hosting afternoons on 710 ESPN in Los Angeles, and participating on SportsNation with Marcellus Wiley, and Michelle Beadle. While some internally may prefer not to disrupt his current television arrangement, most would agree that First Take takes precedence over SportsNation.
Kellerman and Smith have known each other for a long time, so it wouldn’t be too difficult for them to find their groove together. Max is certainly brash, and unafraid to challenge Stephen A., and he comes across well on camera. He’s also developed a strong television profile over the past decade between his work at Fox, ESPN, and HBO, and he’s shown that he can adapt to the west coast and create a strong pairing with Marcellus Wiley. Those are the reasons why he’s a legitimate consideration.
The one issue that could be problematic is Max’s location. Although he’s a New Yorker and would likely have no objection to relocating to the big apple, by doing so ESPN would have to retool their afternoon radio program in Los Angeles. They’d also have to find another west coast option to fill his shoes on SportsNation, assuming the show continues without him. The likelihood of Smith and First Take being moved to Los Angeles is unlikely. Kellerman is certainly talented enough to replace Bayless. The question is whether or not he’s the right fit.
Chris “Mad Dog” Russo – At first glance this may seem like an odd fit, but given that Russo’s contract is expiring soon with SiriusXM, and he and Stephen A. have formed a relationship over the past two years since Smith joined the radio network, it’s been considered. There’s no doubt that Russo has the personality to stand out. His ability to verbally joust with Smith also won’t be an issue.
If Russo were brought into the fold, the network could strike a deal to have him continue doing his show with SiriusXM as they’ve done with Smith’s program, or they could elect to move him to their own flagship station 98.7FM ESPN New York where his arrival opposite WFAN would create a major local buzz. Russo has demonstrated he has television chops with his regular role on MLB Network, and he’s partnered with the worldwide leader’s “30 For 30” division on a documentary about the history of the “Mike and the Mad Dog” radio program.
Over the span of his career Russo has never been an ESPN guy, so the fit at this point in his life does seem strange. He’s also indicated that he’d like to remain with SiriusXM if possible. There’s also the possibility of a reunion with Mike Francesa. His former partner has gone on the record stating that he won’t continue with WFAN beyond 2017, so a move to ESPN by Russo would likely kill any possibility of the two reuniting for one final swan song. That said, Russo has moved on without Mike before, and an opportunity like First Take might be enough to satisfy his appetite.
Brandon Tierney – BT is another strong consideration who has ties to Stephen A. The duo worked together on 98.7FM ESPN New York and had great chemistry, and brought something fresh and exciting to the New York radio airwaves. During their stint as partners they brought the best out of one another, often raising the volume with their opinions. They share a mutual passion for many of the same teams, and sports, and have a relationship that continues off the air.
Currently, Tierney hosts a national radio program for CBS Sports Radio with Tiki Barber, and appears on the CBS Sports Television Network. He spent nine years on radio and television in New York, and has also worked across the country in San Francisco, Detroit, Las Vegas, so offering a national perspective is something he’s well suited to provide. Couple that with a great on camera presence, the ability to perform on radio and television, and an immediate chemistry with Smith and understanding of how to push his buttons (something the other candidates don’t currently possess), and you can see why ESPN executives have him on their radar.
The one challenge with bringing Tierney on board could be his contractual situation. Kellerman is under company control, and Russo’s agreement is expiring, whereas Tierney is under CBS’ control. However, with CBS CEO Les Moonves acknowledging an interest in selling the company’s radio division or spinning it off as its own entity, it would seem hypocritical to deny Tierney an opportunity to move to First Take when his own situation could potentially be impacted by a CBS sale or realignment.
Will Cain – He’s been a contributor to the network across multiple platforms, and is seen as a rising star in the company. He’s made previous appearances on First Take and His & Hers so he’s familiar with the flow of the program. He’s also extremely sharp and unwavering with his opinions.
Before joining ESPN, Cain worked for CNN, and The Blaze. He’s also appeared on The View, Fox News, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and “Way Too Early”, and HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher”. With First Take seen as a hard hitting debate driven program which follows a strategy similar to that of many News Talk television shows, his prior experiences in television news would seem to serve him well if ESPN elects to toss him into First Take’s rough waters.
The big questions surrounding Cain are whether or not ESPN will want to feature him in one of their most high profile spots when he still remains a relative unknown. Additionally, he and Smith have no prior working relationship so learning on the fly with the whole world watching might not be the best solution. It’s also fair to question if he brings more to the mix with Smith than the other options, even though he’s impressed during his previous appearances.