Max Kellerman is leaving one of ESPN's highest-rated studio shows for another. The SportsNation personality will join First Take starting July 25 as the replacement for Skip Bayless, ESPN announced Monday in a press release.
“I’m thrilled to join the excellent team at First Take,” Kellerman said in a statement. “Years back, on-the-air and in the hallways of ESPN Radio New York, Stephen A. and I would engage in detailed and thoughtful discussions on sports and every other topic you can imagine. To do that again, now for the First Take audience, is going to be a lot of fun.”
Kellerman, 42, has been one of the hosts of SportsNation since 2013. He will leave the program and his ESPN Radio gig, both of which are based in Los Angeles, on July 15. Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports, who previously worked at ESPN, said in June that Kellerman moving to First Take was a "done deal."
Bayless, 64, left First Take on June 21. He had been with the program since its inception in May 2007, coming over after the previous show, Cold Pizza, was rebranded in his image as a debate-style program. First Take featured a rotating cast of contributors until ESPN hired Stephen A. Smith as Bayless' full-time sparring partner in 2012.
Together, Bayless and Smith became a ratings success—even as critics (and fans) sometimes lambasted the show's quality. Their debate-heavy style, a mutated form of what already appeared on Pardon the Interruption, helped inform many of ESPN's recent programming decisions. Programs like His & Hers owe some of their formatting to First Take.
Bayless will join Fox Sports 1 after his contract with ESPN expires in August. He signed a contract that will pay him more than $25 million over four years, according to Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch.
While Bayless was the host who most consistently drove ratings with his hot takes, ESPN is refashioning the show again in Smith's image. Smith told reporters at ESPN's upfronts that First Take is now "[his] show" and that it'll be "better" without Bayless.
“I’m ecstatic to have [Kellerman] on board. We’ve known one another for years. We worked at ESPN New York together and we both love our boxing," Smith said in a statement. "More importantly, Max is smart, quick on his feet and is never—ever—afraid to go at anyone. Just the kind of partner I wanted. It’s time! Let’s go! Can’t wait!”
Smith's qualitative statement is one for which we must reserve judgment. It's possible First Take becomes a smarter, less shout-oriented program with Kellerman in place of Bayless. Kellerman is coming from the more reserved and jovial environment of SportsNation and previously spent time as the host of Around the Horn. He knows how to navigate strong personalities.
But the real question at ESPN is whether Kellerman-Smith can be as financially viable as Bayless-Smith.
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