ESPN First Take is Not That Bad, Which is the Problem

ESPN First Take with Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith is the worst show in the history of sports television. Right?

For years, the show has been targeted by sports media watchers – from the established Sports Illustrated to the outsider Deadspin to the blog Awful Announcing – as the epitome of everything that is wrong with sports coverage in the social media era.

espn first take
For years, I never watched the show. It airs on weekday mornings when I’m at work. When I occasionally work from home, I will keep CNN or ESPN on as background or play music. I can’t say that I ever watched the show.

It has existed as a curiosity for me. The show delivers outstanding ratings for a 10 am weekday timeslot on ESPN2. It averages roughly 400,000 viewers, which is just about the same number NBCSN does for its Formula 1 coverage. There are a whole bunch of variables there – the reach of ESPN vs. NBCSN at the top – but it’s worth noting that First Take does ridiculous numbers for its timeslot, especially considering ESPN proper airs a live SportsCenter opposite it.

So on Monday afternoon, as I treated myself to a sushi lunch following a busy morning, I was greeted by a repeat of First Take on the television behind the sushi bar.

“Finally,” I thought. “I’ll be able to see what this is all about.”

Even before I watched one minute I knew I’d write about it – in my head, I was excited to explain in great detail how the fire from the steaming hot sports takes singed my eyebrows off.

Instead, I watched two guys talking about football. I don’t know how else to put it – it was every other mindless debate show that proliferates the cable sports landscape.

In fact, as Smith and Bayless discussed – excuse me, debated – whether Saints are really that bad or the Browns are actually good, it struck me how I could hear this exact same discussion – excuse me, debate – on Pardon the Interruption later in the day and no one would bat an eye.

That’s when it struck me. People like Richard Deitsch and Deadspin don’t hate the show First Take, they hate Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless. Maybe they should. Or maybe the hatred is really a thinly-veiled form of jealously.

Both Smith and Bayless have transformed themselves into well-paid stars thanks to endless and shameless self-promotion. Bayless is infamous for trolling, moronic tweets. Smith says loud, obnoxious things while telling people to tune in to First Take for the take on his takes. It’s a remarkable circle of nonsense that attracts attention.

Look, I’m not saying you should watch First Take – there are dozens of other shows that serve the same mindless purpose. They just lack the self-promoters at the helm.

It was remarkable that at the same time I was trying to figure out why First Take receives such venom, I saw a tweet to an interview with Charissa Thompson. I say interview but it was more a love letter to Thompson in the guise of journalism. The article features praise such as, “She’s refreshingly self-aware about the media business and her role in it.”

This isn’t to disparage Thompson but her main role on Fox Sports 1 is to moderate yet another mindless debate among former athletes on Fox Sports Live.  It is a panel that has produced cringe-worthy viral moments that rank up there with anything First Take has produced, yet Thompson’s willingness to share her honest thoughts gives her a free pass.

It’s not like Bayless and Smith are unique in their willingness to troll people into submission. Gregg Doyel at CBS Sports and Clay Travis at Fox Sports are two other prominent examples of morons who have risen to “stardom” in terms of page views and Twitter followers by trolling fans on a daily basis. Yet their trolling skills don’t match those of Smith and Bayless, so they don’t get the same amount of vitriol.

In fact, the First Take disgust has risen to such levels that ESPN executives have been called in to defend the show and refute absurd claims that the show is ruining the entire cable empire’s brand. I haven’t met a single person who passed on watching Monday Night Football or College Gameday because Skip Bayless said something stupid.

In the end, I was disappointed.

I was disappointed that First Take was a horrid disaster.

I was disappointed that so many have wasted so much time lobbying shots at First Take, giving them the precise publicity they want.

I was disappointed that my idea for a blog post ended up like this.

I was disappointed that trolling remains so easy to pull off if one is so inclined.

I was disappointed that this is the sports media – First Take and the First Take haters. We can all do better. We should all do better. 

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