It has been three years since Skip Bayless left ESPN for Fox, a move that in the eyes of many — and by the cold calculation of television ratings — has diminished his visibility in the “competitive debate” genre.
But Bayless does not see it that way. On the contrary, he said in an interview last week, “combined with social media, it is even better than it was.”
Ratings for his FS1 show, “Undisputed,” with co-host Shannon Sharpe, have improved steadily since its launch, but as with many modern media personalities, consumption of Bayless content is multifaceted.
Often, his contrarian takes on subjects such as LeBron James get more traction when shared on social media, or on his own Twitter feed, than on live television.
“I look at what they call the engagement rate, or impressions, and they’re so extraordinary that that audience is rivaling the on-air audience,” he said. “I feel like we’re not off-radar. We’re way on it. We’re in the middle of it.”
Bayless credited what he called “the best social media team in the business. I feel like we’ve blazed some new trails with some new platforms that we have created to reach more people.”
One popular feature is #SkipRidesTheTrollerCoaster, in which he periodically responds to any and all questions.
But one thing that has not changed since Bayless left ESPN after 12 years of debating there, notably with Stephen A. Smith on “First Take,” has been the passion he inspires among viewers, followers and professional critics — much of it negative.
He insists he is immune to criticism from outsiders, and mostly ignores it. He has 2.8 million Twitter followers and follows no one himself.
“Not to sound cavalier or above it all, but honestly, I don’t care,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t read it. It doesn’t do me any good.”
He recalled reading feedback when he first joined Twitter in 2009 and quickly realized it was debilitating.
“If one kid in his mom’s basement in Des Moines said my hair looked goofy — I happened to see that in a break on ‘First Take’ — after a while I realized that would stick in my psyche and would distract me for the rest of the show.”
He added, “It will begin to make you waver about who you are and what you are, and I don’t. I don’t believe in it. I’m open to criticism internally from trusted friends within the confines of our building. But not outside.”
Bayless reportedly earns north of $5 million per year, which is part of what makes him such a lightning rod. But Charlie Dixon, Fox Sports’ executive vice president for content, said he brings unique gifts to the table.
“What we all realized very quickly is he has this weird ability to move an audience,” Dixon said.
Dixon called the growth in the television ratings “unbelievable,” but they began from a modest base. For the four months the show was on in 2016, it averaged approximately 107,000 viewers.
In 2017, it averaged 130,000, then in 2018, 165,000. The 2019 average was 169,000 through Aug. 5, but that is certain to rise during football season. His old show, “First Take” has averaged roughly double that so far this year.
Bayless is well aware of the numbers, as he is with all things in life that involve winning and losing.
“The guy is such a hyper-competitive human being at everything,” Dixon said. “I’ve never seen someone take his work so seriously, and it’s just a devout, full-on commitment to what it entails.”
The move from East Coast to West, where Fox Sports is based, has added to the degree of difficulty.
Bayless, 67, loves the Los Angeles lifestyle. (His wife, Ernestine, who grew up in Mastic Beach and spent most of her adult life in New York City, has mixed emotions.)
But it means waking up at 2 a.m. rather than 5 to start his daily routine of exercise and preparation. The show begins at 6:30 local time.
Bayless keeps every clock in his house and all his watches on Eastern Time to try to ease the psychological pain.
“At least it feels almost civilized to get up at 5 in my head than at 2 in L.A.,” he said. “My wife thinks I’m insane.”
As for the show itself, Bayless said he misses Smith “because he is my brother and I’m still very close to him,” but he called Sharpe “a revelation” in his dedication to preparing and verbal jousting.
“It’s refreshing and enlightening and reinvigorating for me,” he said. “I love the battles. I wish he had been able to win one debate in three years, but he still has a chance because we’re entering Year Four.”
Bayless insists their positions are pure, never doctored for attention or added sparks, a charge he has heard before.
“I’m not angry with you for asking that, but I get angry at that notion, because it is so false, and anyone who has been even remotely part of our process would laugh at that notion,” he said.
“We never, ever have tricked up a debate. We’ve never contrived a yin-yang debate, because it won’t work. I will not allow anybody, especially Shannon Sharpe, to lie to me on national TV because I can’t take that seriously...I have never, ever, as God is my witness, contrived a single debate in a single show.”
Said Dixon, “There was never once in the history of this show or the one I was doing before [on ESPN], a time when we said, ‘You know what would be great: If you could do this other side of the argument.’ He’s so against that. Skip would kill me.”
Bayless has no plans to stop or slow down, because he remains passionate about the job, and about life, and has seen friends retire and it felt to him as if “their fire was going out.”
“If you know me at all, I’m stubbornly proud to a fault,” he said. “I’m overemotional. I’m over-passionate and in general people think I’m way too intense and way, way, way too hardheaded. Well, voila, that’s what works for me in what I do.
“So every morning since that first morning on Sept. 6, 2004 [on ESPN], I have been jumping out of bed at some very early hour like a kid on Christmas morning.”
He later added, “There’s an old saying of mine that you have to stay angry, in a good way. I’m still angry. I’m still fighting. I feel angrier than ever.”
“What we all realized very quickly is he has this weird ability to move an audience.”
— Charlie Dixon
Fox Sports’ executive vice president for content