‘Most Hated Man in Sports’ Tries to Get Viewers to Love Fox
Skip Bayless starts Tuesday with new show on ESPN rival
Former ESPN producer Horowitz builds network around opinion
In a Los Angeles barbershop taping a promotional spot for his new TV show, the country’s most divisive sports commentator was in an argument, naturally.
There was Skip Bayless, igniting a fury by insisting that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is overrated. A Super Bowl champion! A former MVP! The barbers and customers were apoplectic.
It’s just the type of sports sacrilege Bayless uses to excite and enrage viewers. The 64-year-old former newspaper columnist, called “the most hated man in sports” by the Washington Post, has parlayed his wit, work ethic and lifelong passion for arguing into a career as one of the most prominent sports commentators in the U.S. After 12 years at ESPN, Bayless is embarking on his greatest challenge yet: going head-to-head with his former employer, the most profitable of the world’s media giants.
Bayless has reunited with former producer Jamie Horowitz at Fox Sports 1, a 3-year-old cable network that’s paying him $5.5 million a year, according to Sports Illustrated. With scores and highlights circulating instantaneously across apps and social media, Horowitz is betting that big personalities are the foundation of cable sports networks of the future, a strategy that echoes the way Fox News unseated CNN as the highest-rating news channel.
Bayless is the centerpiece of this effort to put Fox Sports 1 on the map, a provocateur with a populist streak in the mold of Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. Alongside former NFL star Shannon Sharpe, he will host “Undisputed: Skip and Shannon,” a morning talk show debuting Tuesday that will air at the same time as “First Take,” the show he turned into a hit at ESPN.
“We are climbing Everest here,” Bayless said in an interview. “I’m now challenging the juggernaut I helped to build.”
To lure viewers and advertisers, sports networks rely foremost on sporting events. While Fox has boosted its cable network by securing the rights to Ultimate Fighting Championship, Major League Baseball and college sports, ESPN has a three-decade head start, a mountain of cash and deals with the National Football League and National Basketball Association.
Sporting events are expensive, so the cable networks fill most of their airtime with studio shows and documentaries. That’s where Fox Sports 1 sees an opening to lure viewers away from ESPN.
ESPN still fills most of its schedule with hallmark daily highlights show “SportsCenter,” even though the program’s power has waned in the era of mobile phones. At the same time, opinion shows like ESPN’s “First Take” and “Pardon the Interruption” have thrived. While ESPN has begun retooling some of its editions of “SportsCenter” to emphasize a particular anchor, Horowitz is going further than that at Fox, ditching traditional news altogether.
Opinion shows appeal to Horowitz for another reason: they’re cheaper. Fox’s new studio shows cost less than $10 million a year, according to two people familiar with the matter, with most of that going to talent like Bayless and Colin Cowherd. By comparison, in its first year, Fox Sports 1 spent more than $20 million apiece on “Fox Sports Live” and “Crowd Goes Wild,” said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private information.
Fox says the shift is already paying dividends. Cowherd’s show, which started a year ago, is drawing bigger ratings than its predecessor, and Fox Sports 1 is getting almost as large a daily audience in prime time as ESPN2, with 409,000 average viewers, according to Nielsen data. ESPN’s prime-time audience is still five times larger than that of Fox Sports 1.
Horowitz’s strategy depends on talent, and Fox has recruited personalities like Cowherd, Jason Whitlock and Katie Nolan. For Horowitz, Bayless was the biggest coup of all.
A few hundred thousand sports fans woke up every morning to watch Bayless and Stephen A. Smith argue on “First Take.” Bayless is giving that up for a fresh start, a chance to move back to Los Angeles and a big paycheck.
Growing up, no one else in his family shared his passion for sports. His dad wanted his kids working at his barbecue joint. While Bayless’s brother Rick loved chopping peppers -- and went on to become a celebrity chef -- Skip was eager to get back to the baseball field.
He landed a job at the Los Angeles Times a few years out of college, then asked at age 26 to be a columnist. His editor didn’t think he was old enough to have perspective, and Bayless left at 27 to write a column at the Dallas Morning News. A few career steps later, he became a contributor to the show now known as “First Take.”
Horowitz took over as producer of “First Take” in 2011. After noticing that ratings spiked during debate segments, he scrapped the rest of the show and turned it into a two-hour argument.
“If the customers tell me they want more of something, shouldn’t I do more of it?” Horowitz, 40, said in an interview.
Sports journalists and media critics have criticized “First Take” and Bayless for inane commentary that devalues conversation. He dismisses his critics as “insignificant bloggers,” and Fox is betting his style is good television.
“What they were doing wasn’t working,” said Chris Bevilacqua, a sports media consultant, said of Fox Sports 1. “It’s good in that they are willing to try something new, and it’s a hell of a lot less expensive than buying more live rights.”