Stephen A. Smith has consistently been one of ESPN's most polarizing and successful personalities. After leaving the network in the late 2000s, Smith found his way back to ESPN in 2012, where he joined First Take, a debate showing starring the likes of Skip Bayless. Bayless had been the main analyst on the show since its inception in 2007 and it was becoming clear that Bayless needed someone opposite of him who could handle his ridiculous hot takes all while offering some comedy and entertainment. As soon as Smith and Bayless linked up, they created TV magic. Every single episode was packed with gags and ridiculous debates that would leave you with splitting sides and an extra helping of frustration. Needless to say, it was the best thing that ESPN had going on.
In 2016, Bayless left the network and joined FS1 where he eventually started a similar show called Undisputed where he now sits across from NFL Hall of Famer, Shannon Sharpe. With Bayless gone, ESPN decided to yank boxing reporter Max Kellerman away from SportsNation and brought him over to First Take where he would get his very first taste of what debate-focused television is all about. Throughout the first few months of his time on First Take, Kellerman had to work out the kinks as it was clear that he didn't have the same type of basketball and football knowledge as Smith. Despite this, Kellerman worked through his shortcomings and eventually became a breath of fresh air as he would deliver solid social justice takes, all while offering perspectives that fans weren't always used to.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty ImagesThe dynamic between Kellerman and Smith seemed to be quite strong, although, during the pandemic, things began to go awry. It was becoming quite clear that Smith was simply fed up with Kellerman. Stephen A. was angrier during debates and he was insulting Max's intelligence a lot more than usual. In August, the tense nature of their relationship was made crystal clear as ESPN announced that Kellerman would be removed from First Take and he would be replaced by a multitude of familiar characters, such as Kendrick Perkins, Dan Orlovsky, Michael Irvin, and Jay Williams. As for Smith, he was asked directly about the move by Hot 97, and he was very frank about how he felt as though Kellerman needed to leave.
"The rumor's accurate in terms of me wanting him off the show. Let's get that out the way -- yes, I did," Stephen A. said. "We don't have a bad relationship. I think he's a real good guy, I appreciate what he did for the show, we were number one for five years, we stayed number one, and I appreciate that. It wasn't really about asking him to be off the show, it was about the fact that I knew that we, together -- as far as I was concerned -- was not a great partnership anymore and that was something that needed to change."
Immediately after Smith's revelation, fans started to question the broadcaster's ego and whether or not he is a good person to work with. The whole situation seemingly backfired on Smith, as he went from a loveable hot-take merchant to a bit of a villain. At the end of the day, Kellerman was a personality that the fans had grown accustomed to, and to see him treated so poorly, was a massive red flag that had viewers questioning their support of the show. In the immediate aftermath of Kellerman's exit, the ratings reflected a viewership that felt scored.
In the tweet below from Bobby Burback, you can see that First Take went from being one of the best-rated shows on ESPN's main station to the absolute worst-rated. Just last month, the show logged ratings lower than that of Get Up! which is a show that has consistently been criticized for its lack of success in the morning time slot.
If you've been watching First Take as of late, then you know that it has devolved into the "Stephen A. Smith Power Hour." Instead of having a consistent co-host that Smith can build a rapport with, he is given a steady stream of analysts and insiders which creates absolutely zero consistency. Without Kellerman, there is no one to act as a foil to Smith, which creates an uninteresting one-way conversation that could be consumed on Smith's Twitter, or better yet, his Disney Plus show, which he actually hosts all by himself.
First Take's bread and butter was always the vastly opposing views of the show's co-hosts. Now, the show has completely abandoned those principles, and it has made it very difficult for fans to tune in. At this point, the show needs to thank the likes of Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving, because, without them, no one would even be uttering the words "first" and "take" in a sentence anymore. Simply put, First Take is in a lot of trouble right now, and the fix is very obvious.
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for ESPNMoving forward, bringing back Kellerman is out of the question. Smith's public comments have pretty well deaded any sort of chance at a reunion. Meanwhile, Bayless' contract with FS1 was recently renewed which means there is no way Smith and Skip could reunite like we all want them to. This means ESPN simply needs to find themselves a young reporter who has opinions that are just as strong as Smith's. This person could then help reel in the show so it reverts to its previous, winning formula. Of course, this is easier said than done as the current crop of reporters are a lot more interested in stroking egos for access to the players, instead of saying how they really feel. Having said that, there has to be someone out there who could recreate some of the energy that Bayless and Kellerman left behind.