With Sports on the Bench, ESPN Creates Second Act for Stephen A. Smith’s ‘First Take’

Brian Steinberg

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Nothing keeps Stephen A. Smith from saying what he wants on ESPN’s popular “First Take.” Except for faulty wi-fi.

Magic Johnson joined the late-morning show on May 4, ready to hash it out with Smith and his regular co-hosts, Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim Rose. But as Smith prepared to ask the basketball great a few questions, he quickly found he could not. “I got cut off,” he explains, thanks to an outage around his home in New Jersey, where he is working remotely due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. “I had to call in for the interview because they lost me on camera. Those are the things that you have to start working with” in an era when nearly every TV program has been disrupted.

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Smith is among the legions of popular show hosts who are trying to cope with new — and in the world of 2020, often surreal — methodologies to maintain a connection to die-hard fans counting on them each day for a little distraction from difficult times. His show is also critical for ESPN, which has been left scrambling to fill its schedule with relevant programming in the wake of the suspension of most sports’ leagues’ seasons.

“First Take” hinges on two things — new developments in the sports world and unfettered, in-your-face conversations about them. Both are in shorter supply these days.

“We are not in each other’s face. We are not in each other’s presence,” says Smith about his daily back-and-forth with Kellerman. “It’s tough.”

Silence at “First Take” has never been up for discussion. There are no touchdowns, finish lines or home runs here – it’s a talk show, not a live game – but it has become one of the sports outlet’s signature programs. Indeed, as part of a new schedule, ESPN this week launched “First Take Extra,” a half-hour “highlights” show that offers the best of the original morning conversation, at 3:30 p.m. Earlier this year, ESPN launched a radio show, “First Take, Your Take,” during which host Jason Fitz dissects the Smith-and-Kellerman banter even further.

On Monday, “First Take” started off warm, with Smith offering his view of how former Bulls star Scottie Pippen was depicted in ESPN’s latest chapter of “Last Dance,” a much-publicized documentary about Michael Jordan. From there, the temperature rose, as Kellerman and Smith made their way through topics ranging from a Dallas Cowboys executive’s comments on how much to pay a quarterback to whether or not college sports should take place in the fall if students aren’t attending classes on campus. The pair even wandered a little afield, weighing in on the recent controversy around the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery (several athletes had begun to weigh in on the matter).

The appeal of the show is easy to see. Kellerman tees things up on most topics, turning up the temperature of the debate before throwing things to Smith – the equivalent of throwing a verbal fastball over the plate. Smith then tries to knock it out of the park, delivering remarks that often seem closer to oratory than they do commentary. It’s easy to get lost in the crescendo – except for the fact that there’s an argument going on. “One of these days, you’re gonna make me call you out on national television,” Smith said to Kellerman, essentially accomplishing the very thing  he promised even as he was vowing to do it.

Others have noticed. Fox Sports hoped to capture some of the show’s raison d’etre in 2016 by luring former co-host Skip Bayless and setting him up in the same “First Take” time slot. ESPN recently signed Smith to a new five-year contract that gives him a presence in other programs, including shows leading into NBA games.

“They showed a tremendous amount of faith in me,” says Smith, who  feels “a strong level of responsibility” to work alongside Kellerman, Qerim Rose and the show’s producers “to fill the air every day with some element of normalcy.”

The program is important to the business of ESPN. Aside from “SportsCenter,” “First Take” in April commanded the biggest advertising spend of any ESPN show that isn’t a live sports broadcast, according to Alphonso, a company that analyzes TV data. “First Take” took in $76.3 million in advertising in 2019, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending.

Viewers have continued to pay attention. ESPN says “First Take” maintained the network’s streak as the most-watched option by men between 18 and 34 in April, and that the program saw overall audience increase 4% in the first quarter of 2020.

To keep viewers hooked, ESPN needs to keep the action coming. “We are not going to water it down for the fans. They have got to see a hot show each day, with the best topics being debated. Max, Molly and Stephen A. bring it every single day, no matter the circumstances,” says Antoine Lewis, the show’s coordinating producer.

But “First Take” isn’t all talk. Behind the scenes, Lewis and his team have for weeks had to tackle unfamiliar procedures and devise different segments to keep chatter on the air. Before the pandemic prompted a shutdown of the program’s original production format, Lewis, who has been with the show since 2013, was ready to send his staff across the country to keep things going.

He came up with as many as six different courses of action. “There was a plan that probably involved doing the show in some way from three different states,” says Lewis, revealing that under one concept, ESPN might have dispatched staffers to North Carolina and Los Angeles as well as its headquarters in Bristol, Conn., as part of a contingency effort. “The initial conversation was ‘What are we going to do to put this show on the air?’” says Lewis. “How do you do this from different cities? What would we have done if we could not do the show from New York, if we could not do the show from Bristol?”

Now that pandemic logistics are set, producers have focused on getting the chatter to flow. Despite the lack of sports, some stories continue to erupt, like the NFL Draft, or Tom Brady’s move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But viewers have been asked to use social media to suggest debate ideas, says Brian Bourque, one of the show’s producers. “We are going to hopefully do more of these,” he says.

There is also a move to try to get bookings that might surprise daytime viewers. “Everybody is sitting at home and people are clamoring to do something,” says Lewis. “We are able to get maybe someone we normally would not have gotten.”

And there have been new concepts, including a day-by-day countdown of the 15 best NBA players.  “The NBA playoffs would be going on around now. With that not being the case this year, what’s a way we can talk NBA when people are really looking forward to watching those games?” asks James Dunn, also a “First Take” producer. “The goal is to hopefully spark some interest” and prod debate over who ranks where – and perhaps even get the athletes to notice.

The team is also taking on a wider variety of topics, Yes, says Smith, NFL and NBA are often top of mind, but “you start to open to venturing into different lanes.” He says he won’t talk just to fill the time. “It’s about our passion, and if we don’t have passion for a particular discussion, we won’t do that.”

Smith may be working harder than normal on the show, even though he and many other top personalities at ESPN have been asked to take a 15% pay cut – a sign of how much the absence of live sports weighs on the economics of ESPN and its parent company, Walt Disney. He believes he was among the first to agree to the new terms. “For me, it was a no brainer,” says Smith. “I actually consider it something that was very, very necessary” to keep other people at ESPN working and fully employed. He says the show would not work without Lewis, Borque, Dunn and Dominique Collins, an associate producer.

There’s no telling at this point how long “First Take” will operate in pandemic mode, but the staff is committed to more hot talk. “We never had a thought for one minute about taking the show off the air,” says Lewis, adding: “People love to yell at us and yell at their television sets and disagree with Max and Stephen A. and talk sports. We are filing a void.”

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