ESPN’s flagship shoutfest, First Take, has long and rightly been reviled for degrading everyone and everything it touches. Until co-host Skip Bayless departed earlier this year, that didn’t seem to matter at all to its loyal core audience, which happily tuned in each day no matter how repulsive or just plain stupid the proceedings were.
Compared to same point last year, though, its ratings are down six percent (ESPN contends that it’s actually only four percent), and that actually masks how bad things are. Until June 21—Bayless’s final day on the program—ratings were actually up six percent compared to the same period in 2015. Since his departure, the show’s ratings are down a whopping 26 percent.
Meanwhile, Second Take, the First Take clone Bayless now heads up at FS1, has drawn a respectable average of 90,000 viewers since its debut last month. It still trails far behind First Take—which has averaged 312,000 viewers in the same timespan—but is also way up on what FS1 aired in the same time slot last year, when a combination of mostly reruns and Fox Sports Live averaged 20,000 viewers.
On its face, Bayless’s move look like a clear win for FS1 and a clear loss for ESPN. Under closer scrutiny, both networks look like losers for bothering to play this game at all.
How do the shows stack up?
When discussing First Take and Second Take and their effects on one another, teasing out cause from effect and making accurate comparisons is almost as much art as science, as it often is in television. Should a show’s ratings be compared to the same time period in 2015, or to all of 2015, or to some other time period in 2016? What effect does the flow of the sports calendar, or the steep drop in NFL ratings, have on viewership? What can be attributed to Bayless leaving First Take, and what can be attributed to direct competition from Second Take?
Further complicating things is that all of the ratings data come from Nielsen—compiled by the wonderful site Sports TV Ratings—and some, by their nature, are fairly imprecise. Since each Nielsen panelist represents about 3,000 viewers, on any given day just a few panelists choosing whether or not to watch a show can in some cases significantly impact ratings. (Consider that while by FS1 standards Second Take is successful because its audience size is nearing six figures, as Sports TV Ratings explains, “viewership of around 100,000 or lower is technically what Nielsen refers to as a ‘scratch’ i.e., not enough Nielsen panelists watched for Nielsen to validate it.”)
All of that being said, there is no way to positively spin the trajectory of First Take. Since Bayless left, the show has only had 400,000 viewers five times; before he left, the show was averaging over 400,000 viewers in 2016. The most sympathetic possible explanation is one Sports TV Ratings advances, which is that even without Bayless leaving, First Take would’ve suffered a significant ratings decline because of current trends in sports TV viewership.
But they estimate that the decline would be 5–10 percent. As soon as Bayless left, the show’s ratings dropped 24 percent from to the same time period in 2015; since Second Take started, that number is down 28 percent. It is clear that Bayless’s departure from First Take caused a significant number of viewers to stop watching.
Things are going much better for FS1. While Second Take isn’t a hit in an absolute sense—and FS1 won’t tell me whether it is meeting or exceeding expectations—its ratings are good relative to the rest of the network. They’re certainly much better than those Jason Whitlock’s and Colin Cowherd’s All Takes Matter continues to draw even with the NFL back, especially considering that the morning is a more challenging time slot than the evening.
At a boring-sounding sports media conference earlier this week, Fox Sports National Networks president Jamie Horowitz explained the three areas where Second Take was helping the network:
Horowitz said Skip Bayless’ move from ESPN to Fox has elevated ratings for the morning time slot that Bayless’ “[Second Take]” show occupies and had boosted the lead-in for “The Herd.” It also has cut into ratings for ESPN2’s “First Take.” Horowitz: “One guy has had an impact on three different shows on two networks. It’s been incredible.”
This is worth parsing. Second Take draws 90,000 viewers, but not all of them are rabid Bayless fans who followed him over from ESPN. Before he showed up, nearly 20,000 people were reliably tuning in to FS1 in that time slot, which was consistently FS1's lowest rated where they almost always played reruns. Head-to-head with Second Take, First Take is down 130,000 viewers compared to the same time last year. This means that when the partnership of Bayless and co-host Stephen A. Smith broke up, roughly half those viewers—at most—followed Bayless to FS1, while the other half just stopped watching altogether.
This means a few things. One is that Skip Bayless is a bigger draw than I’ve given him credit for. Deadspin’s general position is that pretty much no one tunes in to sports programming to watch specific announcers and studio hosts, and that ESPN is such a behemoth that they could broadcast two schmucks thumb-wrestling and a couple hundred thousand people would watch. But Skip Bayless’s exit seems to have caused First Take to lose a quarter of its viewership, and convinced an NFL stadium’s worth of people to flip over to a channel they rarely watch otherwise.
It also, though, portends major trouble for FS1's now three-years-old quest to overtake ESPN. Bayless was ESPN’s biggest star, whom they were desperate to hold onto, and his defection represented a major coup for FS1. Yet half of the people who stopped watching First Take when he left didn’t bother to follow him to FS1, and even with a very solid debut, Second Take still draws less than 30 percent of a relatively poorly performing First Take. If making Skip Bayless one of the highest-paid people in sports media is what it costs to simply stop getting dunked on by ESPN, and even that isn’t enough to come close to competing, what chance does FS1 possibly have?
I asked Fox Sports how they feel Second Take is doing, and for any ratings data they wanted to show me. Their comments echoed Horowitz’s above, and their data were basically the same as mine. They emphasized how well Second Take is doing compared to the same time slot last year, but a 358 percent increase on almost nothing still isn’t very much. They also had numbers showing that the audience is trending younger and wealthier with Bayless in the fold, and that Second Take has served to raise the ratings of the show that follows, The Herd. This last point may be the one most worth considering here.
The Herd, a simulcast of Colin Cowherd’s radio show, runs on FS1 most days from 12:00 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern. In the month before Second Take debuted, it averaged 52,000 viewers. Since then, it has averaged 91,000.
Think about that for a second. To make Second Take happen, Fox Sports is paying Skip Bayless $6.5 million annually and co-host Shannon Sharpe doubtless makes a lot, too. They hired who knows how many producers and PAs, built a brand new set, and paid for promotional billboards in Bristol. Beyond that, they’ve paid a tangible cost in terms of their reputation; some Fox Sports employees are embarrassed to work at the same network as Bayless, and the move has solidified the network’s image as the home of ESPN castoffs and the sports alt-right, the place where hacks go to die.
What all of this investment has bought FS1 is an audience nearly large enough to be semi-reliably measured, and the best proof they can offer that the strategy is working for the network overall is that the audience doesn’t turn the channel when a simulcast of a braying donkey’s radio show comes on. For all the money and attention that has been lavished upon Second Take, slightly more people are watching a damn simulcast of a radio show.
Why bother playing this game at all?
For all the words written here, and all the time the ESPN and FS1 research and communications staffs put into giving out information that presents their networks in the best possible light, and all the huge salaries paid to some of the people named above, the hard-to-avoid point is that none of this matters. The overwhelming belief of the vast majority of sports-media decision makers is that people subscribe to and watch sports networks based upon the live sports they offer at night, and the ratings of those programs dwarf any of the changes discussed above.
A while back, I asked a high-ranking sports media executive at a major rights-holding network whether daytime opinion programming matters. This is how the executive responded:
Any of the studio shows, it is 100 percent around the game. And to me, to drive meaningful cable rates, it is probably the top three to five leagues, sports. Once you get beyond that, you’re not driving enough. If you were an independent company and not tied to massive companies ... maybe you’d be okay with the type of outlook you could get from [daytime opinion shows], but it is so meaningless in these massive companies.
The live sports that drive cable ratings draw, at worst, an order of magnitude more than Second Take, and many times that for the most popular sports. A loss of 130,000 viewers, a huge drop for First Take, is a rounding error for Monday Night Football, NBA on ESPN, and most other programming ESPN runs in the evening. Skip Bayless’s departure has been catastrophic for First Take and yet hasn’t mattered in the least to ESPN, or, really, to FS1, a major cable network with a flagship show watched by as many people as read a run-of-the-mill post on Deadspin. Which leaves us with a question: If there are no stakes in this game, why, exactly, is anyone playing?