UPDATE---Wed. June 13, 2012---- The First Take team is featured in ESPN's pre-game coverage of the NBA Finals. The sports network is broadcasting its own show, while big sister ABC is using its regular team of Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry, Magic Johnson and Chris Broussard.
Sportswriter and critic Jason Whitlock lit up Twitter last night with his criticism of Bayless in general and ESPN's decision to use him to cover the premiere event in the sport of pro basketball. Bayless and Stephen A. are everywhere now.
First Take has officially added Stephen A. Smith as permanent co-host along with his good buddy and the man fans love to hate, Skip Bayless.
Gone in the course of its format changes that began late last year, are popular host Dana Gordon and soon to depart is Jay Crawford, who is reportedly heading to a Sports Center host chair sometime soon.
Crawford is the last line of defense against the verbose and bombastic twins of Stephen A and Bayless but ESPN is taking the plunge anyway.
In a long piece posted on deadspin.com that chronicled the ups and downs of First Take ratings, it was demonstrated that overall the new debate format has increased viewership by 34% on a year-over-year basis.
There was a pronounced spike in ratings from October 2011 through January 2012 that coincided with the decision to focus on what Skip Bayless talks about most -- Tim Tebow.
The ratings slide started immediately after the Super Bowl but picked up once again in March when Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos and the team subsequently announced the Tebow trade to the N.Y. Jets.
Ratings then continued to slide but as the network said about the situation, "The suggestion that there may be some concern at ESPN about the show's ratings success is absurd and the exact opposite of the actual sentiment," a network spokesman told us in an email. "The audience for the show is up 34% from year to year and we continue to invest additional resources to enhance its already strong performance."
Those additional resources are money first and foremost. First Take has taken up residence in Oklahoma City for the NBA Finals games between the Thunder and the Miami Heat.
The NBA Finals are big business to ESPN's parent company Disney and the games will be telecast in primetime on ABC. ESPN had broadcast the Eastern Conference Finals as well as sharing the previous two rounds with TNT.
Bayless and Stephen A. stirred up a lot of hot air last fall with wall-to-wall Tebow talk and his name is still the most mentioned on the show, even during the NFL off-season. References to Tebow are thrown into conversation by Bayless even when covering the NBA.
Recently, an entire two-hour First Take was promoted and executed during which Skip Bayless was prevented from uttering the words Tim Tebow and fellow broadcasters and analysts were brought on to torture him.
Bayless might as well have been tied to a chair with his mouth taped shut as he used his over-the-top expressions of horror while feigning outrage about the opinions expressed about the N.Y. Jets backup quarterback.
The man behind the format change to debate television is producer Jamie Horowitz. "I looked at research, and the brand that resonated most for our fans was debate," said Horowitz. And debate it became.
No more were viewers treated to one-on-one interviews of sports personalities or feature stories. No longer would Jay Crawford and Dana Gordon occupy the two chairs at the anchor desk or share the chore on a rotating basis.
Skip Bayless is a holdover from when First Take was called Cold Pizza and the days of him butting heads with the now departed Woody Paige. But his segments were limited and he would be introduced as a guest.
Slowly but surely he found his way to the anchor desk and was part of the entire show. Producers would slot hip hop artists to sit across from Skip Bayless to try and counter his arguments about some particular game, penalty call or an athlete.
If an athlete wanted to come on and put the wood to Bayless about opinions expressed about himself, well so much the merrier. Stephen A. Smith became more of a presence on the debate format of First Take and the old friends' talking points were expected and not novel after a short time.
By installing Stephen A as a permanent presence across from Bayless, particularly with the LeBron-filled news stories surrounding the NBA Finals, one already knows the way the morning talk show will go each day.
As much as Bayless idolizes Tim Tebow, he criticizes LeBron James, using names like "LeBrick" or "Prince James." James is timid in the big moments says Bayless and won't be a superstar til he can close games regularly, particularly on the biggest of stages like the NBA Finals.
Now that the ratings for First Take have come back to earth, while still up significantly over previous iterations of the program, it will be interesting to chronicle what happens after the NBA Finals are over, before the NFL season commences.
It might only take the opening of training camp in July to set the ratings meter all aflutter with cameras trained on Tebow in New York. No matter what one thinks of the new debate-only First Take, ESPN has gone all in on it and hopes to ride it for a long time.
Image: Wikimedia Commons