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Cari Champion: ESPN's First Take 'needs to evolve'

Cari Champion sits between the two shouting heads

Cari Champion sits between the two shouting heads on ESPN's controversial "First Take" show featuring Skip Bayless, right, and Stephen A. Smith at the Hard Rock Cafe in Manhattan on April 1, 2013. Credit: Uli Seit

"First Take" is one of ESPN's most successful -- and controversial -- studio shows, thanks to the often provocative takes of Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. But for the third person in the ring, the format eventually grew too limiting.

So host Cari Champion left the show last month. At 11 a.m. Thursday, she will debut in her new gig as a "SportsCenter" anchor alongside fellow former "First Take" host Jay Crawford.

"Let me tell you, the transition was tough because I really enjoyed the show in terms of what we were able to build over the past two-and-a-half, three years," she said Wednesday between hosting panel discussions at Beyond Sport United, an event at the Prudential Center to promote and discuss social consciousness in sports.

"But I'm very aware of the position. It was the middle seat, the moderator to get the questions laid out. It's a great platform. It was a wonderfully watched show, but the ceiling was really low. I had the skill set to do more.

"I'm a local journalist. I was an anchor. I've worked in this business for a very long time and so I wanted to do more. The end game wasn't always just 'SportsCenter,' but you know how that place works in terms of if you want to do something else, you have to be seen on 'SportsCenter.' It's the show that's regarded, it's the show that you cut your teeth on and can show the rest of the world what you can do. So for me it was the only thing that made sense.

"It was really strategic. It was very much a decision that I had to make when you remove the emotion from it. I didn't want to leave Skip and Stephen A. and I didn't want to leave what we had already built. But at the same time, I knew that it was their show, and no matter how much I was a part of it and no matter how much fun I had, it was limiting, and not in a bad way, because if there was no 'First Take,' there would be no 'SportsCenter' opportunity and there wouldn't be these opportunities [at Beyond Sport]. I'm excited about it."

Champion will host 9 and 11 a.m. shows for now, but in February she will be one of the hosts of a new 7 a.m. "SportsCenter."

"I had been at 'First Take' for about a year and I went and knocked on some doors; you somewhat campaign for yourself," she said of the transition. "There's a lot of politics there and you want to make sure everyone is OK with it . . . They loved 'First Take' and loved me on it. It gets a lot of attention. But what else could I have done? I honestly believe that's what that moderator role is: two years max and you move on.

"The position could evolve. I hope whoever is the next host gets an opportunity to do more than just what I was able to do because I feel the show needs to evolve. Eventually you have to have somebody in the middle who can participate and can go back and forth, if need be. That's a role. That's a real position. You need someone to move the conversation along."

New York Sports