ESPN is Stephen A.’s world now. He wanted Max Kellerman off “First Take” — and now Max Kellerman is off “First Take.” He wanted to host a late-night talk show — and he filled in as host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on Monday. He wanted $12 million a year — and he got $12 million a year.
Love him or hate him, Stephen A. Smith works. And for that, ESPN has awarded him a lot of airtime, money and power. So “First Take” will be even more Smith’s show going forward. In the eyes of ESPN’s executives, he has earned that.
Smith, 53, has four years left on his five-year, $60 million contract, but you can see how he is building toward his ultimate goal of hosting a late-night talk show. It’s all right in front of your eyes, from his ESPN+ show, “Stephen A’s World,” in which he has been interviewing more people from outside of sports, to Monday’s hosting spot for Kimmel on ABC, which, like ESPN, is owned and operated by Disney.
Since he has become a giant in the industry, his moves reverberate. Smith has wanted Kellerman off “First Take” for years. Though it wasn’t personal, according to sources, Kellerman has a “smartest guy in the room” attitude, and Smith wanted more of a debating challenger. And ultimately, he wanted it to be him versus the world.
Whatever you think of the hot-take shows, they live on sparks, and Smith and Kellerman never had the flair of Smith and Skip Bayless. Smith has told everyone who needs to know, including Kellerman, that it didn’t work well enough, according to sources. After Smith’s wishes were executed, a fault line from Bristol to New York followed.
Let’s start with radio, since ESPN makes more changes there than a high schooler looking for the perfect Instagram outfit.
Kellerman will go to ESPN Radio mornings, replacing Zubin Mehenti. Kellerman will be teamed with Keyshawn Johnson and Jay Williams, beginning next month.
Kellerman will also receive a daily TV show, which will likely be at 2 p.m. on ESPN, potentially impacting the spots of “Jalen & Jacoby” and “Highly Questionable.” Kellerman will have the chance to show he can be a No. 1 on a national sports variety show. He will continue his once-a-week boxing program on ESPN2.
The morning stability that ESPN once had with “Mike & Mike” is now long gone. After Mike Golic and Trey Wingo lasted just three years, ESPN is changing its mornings again a year later.
Mehenti, who has been on medical leave due to complications from diabetes, will return to “SportsCenter.” Alan Hahn, who mostly filled in for Mehenti and was a frontrunner to replace him, will go back to middays with Bart Scott.
“Bart & Hahn” will add an hour (noon-3 p.m.), which likely will result in 98.7 FM’s ESPN New York’s “The Michael Kay Show” moving its start time back to 3 p.m. Chris Canty will leave ESPN New York’s 5-8 a.m. morning show, which will now feature just Rick DiPietro and Dave Rothenberg.
Canty will partner with Mike Golic Jr. on national afternoons (not heard in New York) from 3-7 p.m. Golic’s former partner, Chiney Ogwumike, will see her role expand on the NBA and college hoops.
Got all that? Good, because ESPN executives will probably change it all again next year.
All the moves are a result of Smith feeling he and Kellerman were not connecting with the audience. He is not wrong. Kellerman is smart, but he hasn’t shown the command of the screen or a memorable delivery yet to fully resonate.
After Bayless left for Fox Sports five years ago and Kellerman arrived, it was Smith’s show. The program moved from ESPN2 to ESPN to maintain hot-take supremacy. It still makes ESPN money. The next iteration will have Smith verbally sparring with folks inside and outside of ESPN — all likely approved by him.
So why is Kellerman no longer on “First Take”? It wasn’t really personal. It was just business. Stephen A. Smith wanted the breakup. And so it was.
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