Warriors coach Steve Kerr criticized President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday for the coarseness of his campaign. But the part of Kerr’s self-described “rant” that caught Skip Bayless’ attention came before he got around to Trump.
Bayless was bothered by hearing Kerr say, “People are getting paid millions of dollars to go on TV and scream at each other, whether it’s in sports or politics or entertainment. I guess it was only a matter of time before it spilled into politics.”
“I was offended by that, honestly,” Bayless said Thursday after a special episode of his FS1 show, “Undisputed,” near Madison Square Garden to promote Fox’s UFC 205 coverage.
Bayless did not appreciate being tied into another campaign comparison later in Kerr’s remarks, when he said the debates had turned into something out of Jerry Springer’s show.
“Do we raise our voices occasionally? Occasionally we do,” Bayless said. “Do we have what I think are very thoughtful, deep discussions of race or a lot of social issues surrounding sports? We do. Do we have deep discussions of what happened on the NFL field on Sunday or Monday? We do, and I’m proud of that.
“People like to hear two relatively smart people — and I think we qualify — disagree, and it’s all natural. In my 13 years doing this type of show, not one time have I ever contrived a debate. We don’t trick it up. If there’s a topic that’s a must-do and we agree, so be it . . . I was just offended by that notion that we’re two people screaming at each other.”
But couldn’t Kerr have been talking about any number of sports debate shows? “It sounded like it was a shot at us,” Bayless said. “That’s how I interpreted it.”
Jamie Horowitz, president of Fox Sports’ national networks, said he would like to have Kerr on the show to talk about it. “He’s incredibly thoughtful, and I like the offense he designs as well,” Horowitz said.
As for the notion that the show is 2 ½ hours of screaming over contrived disagreements, Horowitz said the fist bump between Bayless and Shannon Sharpe that opens the show is “supposed to be an immediate sign, to quote our President, that’s it’s an intramural scrimmage. We’re brothers wrestling in the living room.
“This is not a fight to the death. If you charted out our show, I think you’d see far more agreement than people realize.”
If Kerr indeed was thinking of Bayless — who does get paid millions of dollars to go on TV and conduct spirited sports debates — he likely was more familiar with his work at ESPN’s “First Take,” where he and co-talker Stephen A. Smith were a visible, popular, sometimes controversial pair. (Bayless also is well known for his Twitter stylings aimed at more than 2 million followers, especially his frequent criticism of LeBron James.)
But since early September, Bayless has been doing his thing on another network, on another coast and with another co-debater in Sharpe, albeit with the same boss in Horowitz. Joy Taylor hosts the show.
How’s it going so far?
“It is the most fun I’ve had in my career, because I’m reunited with the man who turned my career around, Jamie Horowitz,” Bayless said. “It took a long time to pry myself out of ESPN, both literally and psychologically, because I helped build that show.
“And Stephen A. Smith is my brother for life and it was about a year left on my deal of long, soul-searching nights with my now-wife Ernestine. It nearly killed me to leave, and it’s the best thing I ever did.”
Bayless suggested over the summer that he felt limited in what he could say at Disney-owned ESPN. He said he has not felt that way since coming to FS1.
“I’m freed psychologically, because on-air on a Walt Disney-owned network, trust me, day after day I had to edit in my head,” he said. “I respect the fact it was owned by Disney and that it had been driven into the depths of my brain there are certain things you can’t say. You have to honor that boundary and I did, because that’s who they are and I respected it.
“Three or four times a show on ‘First Take,’ you’d be, ‘No, uh, no.’ These are happening in one thousandth of a second in the back of your mind. ‘Don’t say that!’ Now it’s gone and I’m more free to just be me and unleash. But I can’t give you a specific example.
“There are still the same boundaries, they’re just slightly wider and freer in my head because I know in the end, Jamie is always going to have my back.”
In the grand scheme of sports viewership, the morning time slots of “First Take” and “Undisputed” are not nearly as important as major live events, and their audiences are modest. But the shows’ relative ratings have been a source of fascination within the business.
“First Take” clearly has taken a viewership dip since Bayless left. On most days it beats “Undisputed” by roughly a 3-to-1 margin, but at times the gap has been closer to 2-to-1. (On Friday ESPN announced that “First Take” would move from ESPN2 to ESPN in January, part of an effort to boost its sagging ratings.)
Bayless said he told Horowitz that he was not interested in any ratings news for at least a year, but Horowitz has been updating him anyway.
“This is climbing Everest, and I know how hard it was to build those ‘First Take’ ratings, and it’s going to be even harder to challenge the Worldwide Leader,” Bayless said. “But he constantly texts me with, ‘You won’t believe this!’ So if he’s happy, I’m happy.
“All I know for sure is we have established a beachhead. It sounds like we have hurt them, and we are off to about as good a start as we could be off to. That’s all I know.”
Said Horowitz, “I’m happily surprised by how much success we’ve had in such a short amount of time . . . I’ve been surprised by how much ground we’ve made up. It wasn’t supposed to happen that fast. Listen, the journey is incredibly long, but it’s such a fast start, it’s incredible.”
The makeup of the viewership reflects the live audience Thursday: primarily young and ethnically diverse. As was the case at “First Take,” more than 50 percent of the show’s audience is non-white.
“The consumers who watch these [debate] shows are incredibly advertiser-friendly,” Horowitz said. “They’re avid fans. They’re loyal fans. They’re young. They’re diverse. These are the people that everybody wants to reach, whether it’s an election or you’re running a media network.”
Sharpe, who moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles to do the show, said the experience has been “great,” other than the fact that he has to get up at 3:15 a.m. to prepare for the 6:30 a.m. local start time. He said he and Bayless are a lot alike.
Bayless said Sharpe brings a different dynamic to discussion, in part because unlike Smith (and Bayless), he is a former athlete rather than a former sportswriter.
“Shannon Sharpe is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Bayless said. “He is the greatest trash-talker in the history of that league and he has brought that on the air, and it is a battle for me. You have no idea how much I miss Stephen A. We stay in touch. But this is a whole new energy.
“I am debating someone who is in his mind the greatest tight end who ever played, and he might be right about that. Maybe he doesn’t have Stephen A.’s gift of gab. But he’s a big personality, big opinions, powerfully stated. He’s been spectacular on race issues . . . It’s brought a different texture to the format.”