In September, Shannon Sharpe made his debut on ESPN’s First Take. Since then, all eyes have been on Sharpe and his quick success with longtime ESPN star, Stephen A. Smith.
Sharpe and Smith attracted 626,000 viewers on the first Monday after the kickoff of the new NFL season. The following Tuesday — the day after Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles tendon on the New York Jets’ fourth snap of the season — drew more than 717,000 viewers.
The success of Sharpe and Smith stands in sharp contrast to Sharpe’s former show on FS1 – Undisputed. That show led by the provocative Skip Bayless, continues to have weeks where multiple episodes draw less than 100,000 viewers. FS1 content chief Charlie Dixon revamped Undisputed after Sharpe’s departure and had Bayless debate a new rotating group of co-hosts including Rachel Nichols, Michael Irvin, Richard Sherman, Keyshawn Johnson, and Lil Wayne. The results have not been pretty. The show is falling increasingly far behind ESPN’s First Take in ratings. In addition, it’s no longer the most popular show on its own network, with programs like The Herd With Colin Cowherd and First Things First With Nick Wright regularly attracting more viewers.
Throughout the past ten years, First Take has been more popular than Undisputed, at least in part because more people watch ESPN than FS1. However, the gap hasn’t always been as vast as it is today. When Undisputed launched in 2017, it would regularly beat out SportsCenter on ESPN2 in daily ratings, and the ratio of First Take viewers to Undisputed viewers was only 3:1 compared to 6:1 and sometimes 7:1 in recent months.
Stephen A. Smith’s remains a key piece to the puzzle. Smith currently owns an annual contract worth $12 million and is arguably one of the most prominent voices at the network. He drives daytime ratings like few other people. Before September 2023, First Take’s viewership had grown for 13 consecutive months. However, it was modest gains. The arrival of Sharpe proved that there was massive jumps still in play.
The love for Sharpe by sports fans is more of a recent phenomenon. Although he spent several years as a pregame and postgame analyst on CBS Sports’ The NFL Today pregame show (after a decorated Hall of Fame NFL career that featured three Super Bowl victories and eight Pro Bowl appearances), today’s generation typically identified him as Skip Bayless’ co-host on FS1’s Undisputed. Sharpe was a mainstay and a big success on Undisputed until he announced in June that he would be leaving the show.
When Sharpe and Bayless first teamed up on Undisputed, Bayless was acclimating to a new role as well. He had previously been employed by ESPN, but walked away when new FS1 president Jamie Horowitz encouraged him to join the network. Under Horowitz’s direction, Sharpe and Bayless developed an unlikely partnership and Undisputed seemed primed to take on and perhaps take down First Take.
The show was growing month after month until Horowitz left the network in 2017 and then the relationship between Sharpe and Bayless soured. Horowitz had been the maestro that allowed Sharpe and Bayless to flourish and without his presence, the two stars couldn’t find peace. Sharpe eventually had enough of Bayless and left the network this past June.
Stephen A Smith was the immediate beneficiary of Sharpe’s exit. Smith sensed an opportunity to take his show to the next level by bringing a new debate partner on board. Smith was vocal about his desire to partner with Sharpe on First Take. On the July 21 episode of The Stephen A. Smith Show on ESPN radio, Smith shared some juicy details hinting at a potential collaboration. “What I can tell you is that the honchos are talking to Shannon Sharpe. What I can tell you is that the honchos are fully aware that Stephen A. Smith wants Shannon Sharpe on First Take… and I aim to get him,” Smith said. Five weeks later, news broke that Sharpe would be joining First Take on Mondays and Tuesdays during football season.
The stories of Smith, Bayless and Sharpe overlapped in odd ways since they were all part of the “morning talk” reimagination led by Jamie Horowitz. Smith’s first appearance on ESPN came back in 2005, when he regularly hosted Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith. The show ended in 2007, and Smith was persona non grata at ESPN. But Smith found his way back to the network in 2011 when Jamie Horowitz paired Smith and Bayless as the co-hosts for First Take. During the years of Bayless and Smith’s partnership, Shannon Sharpe would regularly make guest appearances on First Take and even filled in when Smith was on vacation. These shows gave Bayless and Horowitz evidence of the duo’s potential for a strong partnership. When Horowitz came on board as an executive at Fox, he was eager to bring Sharpe and Bayless together again.
As Sharpe returns to ESPN to appear on First Take alongside Smith, many elements are coming full circle. Sharpe is returning to the show where his early guest appearances caught Jamie Horowitz’s eye and paved the way for his regular role on Undisputed.
Sharpe also returns to the show that Jamie Horowitz himself helped popularize by molding it into the format in which it still exists. When Horowitz was put in charge of First Take in 2011, he quickly realized that the show’s debate segments were drastically outperforming the show’s other components, such as news segments and on-air interviews. Horowitz redesigned the show to feature more of this content, and this innovation played a major role in the show’s rise in popularity and growth in viewership.
It’s too early to tell how high First Take’s ratings may climb. Still, one thing is clear: Jamie Horowitz’s fingerprints are all over the success of First Take and Sharpe’s incredibly successful sports media career. The debate-centric format is loved by some and despised by others, but it’s turned three men — Stephen A. Smith, Shannon Sharpe, and Skip Bayless — into sports media and pop culture icons.