Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless are two of the most polarizing sports personalities on TV. Both known for loudly giving “hot takes,” their lively banter seems to be working because they are two of the highest-paid TV personalities.
The pair used to work together on ESPN’s First Take morning show, but Bayless left the network for a similar show on FS1 in 2016. Now rumors suggest there may be a reunion of Smith and Bayless at ESPN. How likely is that to happen?
Skip Bayless leaving Fox for ESPN?
When Bayless bolted ESPN to go to Fox Sports three years ago, he signed a four-year contract with his new network. This means his contract is up next year, and he will be a free agent.
At Fox, Bayless stars on Skip and Shannon: Undisputed, which is essentially a First Take clone where Bayless debates former NFL player Shannon Sharpe instead of Smith. The network signed Bayless to make a big splash and draw viewers to the fledgling FS1 network — and they’re paying him handsomely for that.
Bayless reportedly earns more than $5 million. While Undisputed‘s ratings have steadily gone up since it premiered three years ago, it still only draws about 150,000 to 200,000 viewers for an average episode. First Take viewership is about three times that number.
Stephen A. Smith re-ups with ESPN
While Bayless is on the verge of being a free agent, Smith just re-signed with ESPN a year before his previous contract expired. The five-year extension makes Smith ESPN’s highest-paid on-air talent, reportedly earning close to $8 million per year.
Under the new pact, Smith will leave his radio show in exchange for a bigger TV presence, with more frequent appearances on SportsCenter and the network’s NBA coverage, in addition to continuing his daily work on First Take.
Max Kellerman is Smith’s current debate partner on the morning show. He’s a possible choice to take over Smith’s radio show when he leaves that gig. Could Kellerman switch to radio and leave First Take, opening up a spot for Bayless?
How likely is a Smith and Bayless reunion?
So how likely is it that Bayless could return to ESPN and reunite with Smith in the morning? Smith and Bayless are reportedly both interested. Smith has called his former partner his “brother from another number.” One potential obstacle is money.
With a salary north of $5 million, Bayless probably won’t want to take a pay cut — especially knowing Smith will be making a salary of around $8 million. But Fox may balk at renewing Bayless for this much money. Mark Silverman, Fox’s president of national networks, has worked to control costs lately. Plus, Undisputed‘s ratings may not be high enough to justify such a big salary for Bayless.
ESPN, meanwhile, has had a couple of high-profile rounds of layoffs in recent years but still breaks out the checkbook for talent that it thinks justify a high salary. But First Take already enjoys rating highs with the Smith-Kellerman combo, so ESPN may not see any reason why it should give Bayless this type of money.
Smith and Bayless may have had good chemistry together, but the show seems to work fine with Kellerman as Smith’s partner. A Bayless reunion at ESPN seems unlikely at this point.