ESPN 'First Take' a show of love, hate and sports debate

ESPN's controversial "First Take" show featuring Skip Bayless ESPN's controversial "First Take" show featuring Skip Bayless at the Hard Rock Cafe in Manhattan. (April 1, 2013) Photo Credit: Uli Seit

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The introductions were a cross between a championship boxing match and "The Jerry Springer Show," complete with woofing from a youthful, boisterous crowd and, finally, a chant: "We love Skip! We love Skip! We love Skip!"

This was 10 a.m. Monday at the Hard Rock Café near Times Square, when the most controversial show in sports television hit the road, leaving its Bristol, Conn., studio to celebrate Opening Day in Manhattan.

Then "First Take" began, and at 10:05, Skip Bayless asserted with his trademark certitude that Derek Jeter is not among the five best all-time Yankees. The crowd response came quickly, its "love" turning to "Boooooo!"

Such is life at the center of the sports argument universe, where local and national channels fill the many hours between live events with relatively inexpensive debate shows.

Most of them toil in obscurity, ignored by viewers and critics. Not so for "First Take," the daily ESPN2 scrum starring Bayless and Stephen A. Smith (with Cari Champion as referee) that stirs passion pro and con -- even five minutes apart.

On one hand, the show delivers the young male eyeballs that traditionally have been TV's greatest ratings challenge. In 2012, according to ESPN, 31 percent of the "First Take" audience was men ages 18-34. And 39 percent was African-American -- more than double the overall figure for the U.S. television audience.

On the other, "First Take" in general, and Bayless in particular, are lightning rods for critics who lament what has become of sports discourse, accused (among other things) of cynically manufacturing opinions for the sake of debate.

Richard Deitsch of SI.com has led the charge, recently calling "First Take" a show that "leads the sports world in least common denominator-ing." But he is far from alone.

When Rob Parker, a former columnist at Newsday and other newspapers, was suspended in December for racially charged comments aimed at the Redskins' Robert Griffin III, whom he called a "cornball brother," I wrote he should instead be given a raise for doing his job by attracting attention. (Parker later did not have his contract renewed.)

TNT analyst Charles Barkley once said he hates Bayless "more than any person in the world."

Even Bill Simmons, one of ESPN's most influential on-air figures, took a shot in March, writing that a contentious segment featuring Bayless and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was "awful and embarrassing to everyone involved." ESPN reacted by removing Simmons from Twitter for several days for violating its social media policy.

Jamie Horowitz, who as ESPN's VP of original programming and production oversees the show, called Simmons "a good friend" and said his only disagreement with him was the suggestion "First Take" liked the Sherman segment.

Said Horowitz: "I said to Bill, 'I hated that segment. Skip hated that segment. Stephen hated that segment. None of us wanted what happened.' As soon as that block finished we said to Richard, 'What are you doing?' "

Horowitz said he also was unhappy with the Parker incident.

"For the detractors out there who say that's bad TV, our answer is, 'Yes, that was bad TV,' " he said. "That is not what we wanted. And Rob hasn't been back."

Such sporadic controversies have helped fuel what Horowitz considers misconceptions about the show, and vitriol he does not quite understand.

"I know why fans love it," he said. "That's the part I've figured out. But the detractors remain more of a mystery to me. I'm always surprised by people who dislike the show that they just don't take the approach of, 'OK, then I choose not to watch it.' For some reason 'First Take' seems to cut through that the people who don't enjoy it want to talk about it a lot."

That is certainly true, but traditionally in media, being disliked is better than being ignored. "I get asked that: Do you like the criticism?" Horowitz said. "I always say, aspirationally, I would like everybody to love the show . . . I'm still going for liked. Call it a fool's errand, but that's my goal."

It is a goal unlikely to be achieved with Bayless on board. Horowitz conceded Bayless at times "has a peculiar take on life" that translates into his sports opinions, for example his support of Tim Tebow and lack of it for LeBron James.

But Horowitz and Bayless are adamant that every opinion he has, he comes by honestly.

"If anyone could watch our meetings on a daily basis, I believe every word I've ever said on this show, from my head to my toes, right or wrong, agree or disagree; that's the way I'm built," Bayless said.

"I back it up and I've always backed it up and I think I have been right a lot more than I have been wrong and that is why those people hang with the show. They know that camera doesn't lie on conviction."

Bayless spoke after individually talking to a long line of fans from among the capacity crowd of 350 at the Hard Rock, nearly all young enough to be his children. He said regardless of critics, he mostly gets nothing but love when he is in public, including on weekends, when he lives in Manhattan.

He said when he walks out the door of his building, "it's like doing a talk show walking down Eighth Avenue . . . I so appreciate my public that if five guys stop me on the corner of 43rd and Eighth I'm going to stay for a while."

Bayless said his longtime girlfriend is "astounded" by the public reaction to him. "She always hears people hate me and she says, 'I never see anybody hate you,' " he said.

He said he doesn't spend much time thinking about criticism.

"I don't read my Twitter responses; I'd probably jump off a building if I did," he said. "To me people say you have strong opinions. I just have opinions, my opinions. If I take my shot anybody is welcome to take theirs, but I'm not going to take it to heart or to bed. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."

The key to the show's success, everyone involved agrees, is the chemistry between Bayless and Smith, a 61-year-old white guy from Oklahoma City and a 45-year-old black guy from Hollis, Queens, who are longtime friends.

"He's crazy, but I tell people all the time: I mean that affectionately," Smith said. "Why would I want to debate somebody I think is sane and correct all the time? I want somebody I think is crazy and wrong most of the time. That way I have material to go at him. If I always agreed with him it wouldn't work."

Smith has built a career on bombast, yet on "First Take" he often serves as the (relative) voice of reason. Strange? "You've known me long enough to know I always believe I'm the voice of reason, so that hasn't changed," he said, laughing.

Said Bayless, "It's chemistry like I've never had with anyone else . . . I can't explain it. We are from opposite ends of the Earth but I love that man. I don't always like him, but I do love him. He's fun for me because he's the most glib human being I've ever known. Sometimes I'm mesmerized by his, as he calls it, 'bloviation.' "

Bayless admitted there are times he knows going in, Smith might generally agree with him on a point, so, "I will go first and I will push about 17 buttons on Stephen A. Smith and he can't stand on live TV to agree with me so I'll start to turn him against me."

Horowitz said fans often say they love Smith or Bayless, "but overwhelmingly you hear, 'I love the two of them together.' "

Despite Bayless' take on Jeter -- he argued for Yogi Berra as the No. 5 all-time Yankee -- there was much love to go around in the crowd of mostly 18-to-25-year-olds at the Hard Rock. The raucous vibe clearly energized the staff.

" 'First Take' fans who love the show love it with intense passion, and that's a tough thing to see when you're doing a show in Bristol," Horowitz said. "You hear it through social media, but you come to a live event and you see really what the truth is, which is this passionate, young audience that really enjoys the show."

Bayless said, "I live for this. [In the studio] you say something you think is reasonably insightful, maybe even funny, and you get no response from anybody and it's a little off-putting. This reminds you they are out there watching. They just so love the show it rubs off on us and we feed off the energy."

Smith said he loves the live energy, too, but he didn't need that as a reminder the show has plenty of fans to counter its detractors.

"Both [Bayless] and I have over a million Twitter followers, so we can tell through that alone that we have a lot of love out there," Smith said. "It's not a surprise by any stretch of the imagination that we're going to have fans wherever we go. It comes with the territory, but we have more fans than haters."

The show's success is built in part on the fact it has plenty of both. But Horowitz said at its core the show's mission is simple.

"The most common thing we've heard, and we have done focus groups on this, and it's my favorite line: 'Skip and Stephen talk about sports the way I talk about sports with my friends,' " Horowitz said. "Really, that's the whole show in a sentence. We are talking about sports the way people really talk about it."'

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