Debate shows are heating up the rivalry between ESPN and Fox Sports

One of most bruising battles in TV sports these days isn’t taking place on the playing field.

In September, Fox Sports 1 launched “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed,” in which sports writer turned TV commentator Skip Bayless and NFL Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe take their positions at a glass table in a studio on the 21st Century Fox lot in Los Angeles. Each weekday morning, they engage in fierce debate over the previous day’s games and the matchups for the weekend ahead.  

Their 2½-hour show has pumped up Fox Sports 1’s ratings, airing directly against Bayless’ former ESPN2 debate show “First Take.”  The programs are similar in format right down to the hip-hop theme songs used in the opening credits. (Wale performs for “First Take” and Lil Wayne delivers for “Undisputed.”)

The progress of Fox’s upstart is not going unnoticed across the country at ESPN’s headquarters in the rolling hills of Bristol, Conn.  On Jan. 3, “First Take” is moving from ESPN2 to the Walt Disney Co.-owned sports media behemoth’s main channel, ESPN. “First Take” has been displaying a countdown clock every day to promote the shift.

The showdown is more than just a rivalry between finger-jabbing commentators weighing on the latest NFL quarterback controversy or LeBron James’ decision to take a night off. Successful studio shows are vital to the financial health of cable TV sports networks, which have to work harder than ever to justify their value to consumers and the cable and satellite providers that fill media conglomerate coffers with subscriber-generated revenue.  The shows make up 48.6% of ESPN’s programming, while live event coverage accounts for 24.6%. “SportsCenter” alone takes in more than $700 million annually in ad revenue.

Fox Sports 1’s aggressive move into the field also poses another challenge for ESPN, which is contending with the loss of subscribers in recent years as consumers look to smaller bundles of channels or cut the cord altogether and get their programs online. ESPN has lost more than 9 million subscribers since 2013, according to Nielsen data.

Studio shows with bold personalities who connect with fans having the same conversations around the office water cooler or at the barber shop provide hours of cost-effective original programming. Such programs, which require a table, a few chairs, some flat video screens, and on-air personalities with an unrelenting belief in their viewpoints, can be produced at a fraction of the cost when compared with the staggering rights fees networks must pay for live sporting events. A daily studio show can cost less than $100,000 a week to produce before talent salaries are figured in.

“When you get the right talent in there, these are high-margin shows that help the ratings in time periods that otherwise might not be doing that well,” said Lee Berke, president of the TV consulting firm LHB Sports, Entertainment and Media. “Ultimately, ESPN doesn’t make a lot of money on ‘Monday Night Football’ or a lot of their marquee events. They are low margin because of the high rights fees and production costs. Here, you’re spending the money on talent and putting them on a set. The shows also provide content for online platforms and radio.”

Fox Sports 1, which launched in 2013 and carries Major League Baseball and Big East College basketball, doesn’t have as large a portfolio of major live sports as ESPN. But it  poached two of ESPN’s biggest name commentators when it signed Bayless (reportedly for $5.5 million a year with a $4-million signing bonus) and Colin Cowherd ($6 million a year). Most recently, Fox Sports 1 is reported to have made a run at Bomani Jones, co-host of the quirky Miami-based ESPN2 talk show “Highly Questionable,” before he re-signed to stay on.

Although the spending binge on talent means Fox Sports 1 will have to be patient to see a significant return on its investment, the moves have given the channel some traction in the Nielsen ratings. “Undisputed” is averaging 103,000 viewers since its debut. That’s not exactly a blockbuster audience total, but 386% better than what Fox Sports 1 had in its time period a year ago and qualifying it to be promoted as “America’s Fastest Growing Sports Show.”

“Undisputed” also helped boost  “The Herd With Colin Cowherd,” which is up 52% year-to-year since getting Bayless and Sharpe as a lead-in.

Fox Sports 1 is up 11% overall in 2016 with an average of 179,000. Thanks to its carriage of the Major League Baseball playoffs, it scored its first weekly ratings victory ever over ESPN in October (giving a significant promotional boost to “Undisputed”). 

ESPN is still the dominant cable TV sports leader, averaging 772,000 viewers in 2016, but it did slip 12% from the previous year. “First Take” recast Bayless earlier this year with Max Kellerman, who now sits alongside the show’s stalwart provocateur, Stephen A. Smith. The show still has three times as many viewers as “Undisputed,” but has seen its audience decline 36% year-to-year since September.

The landscape for sports talk programming will expand even more in the coming year. Fox Sports National Networks President Jamie Horowitz said he is looking for personalities for a new live morning program that will air from 6 to 9 a.m. ET out of New York.

Horowitz, who used to oversee talk programming at ESPN, was hired by Fox this year and has made noise for his new home by positioning it as an edgier alternative for sports fans.

“The Fox culture allows us to talk about sports news in ways that perhaps would be frowned upon at other companies,” Horowitz said. “There is an appetite here for raw fearless talk.”

Horowitz said he has taken advice from 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch, who is now overseeing the opinion-driven Fox News Channel he founded 20 years ago.

“In one of the first corporate events I went to, Rupert Murdoch said to us ‘beware of the allure of the elites,’” Horowitz said. “When you produce shows, produce them for the customers. Don’t produce them for one influential journalist. You have to speak to the fans.”

Burke Magnus, executive vice president for programming and scheduling at ESPN, dismisses Fox Sports 1’s pronouncements as “bluster.” He added that the competitor’s emphasis on debate shows came after its studio programs failed to make inroads against “SportsCenter.”

“The bone I pick with it is that the opinion programming they are doing is differentiating the two of us,” he said. “All day long we offer this type of programming, and Jamie Horowitz had a hand in it when he was here. It’s really not something that makes them distinct. They attempted to compete with us on news and information and eventually abandoned that notion. That’s not because news and information is dead; it’s because they couldn’t compete with ‘SportsCenter.’”

Magnus noted that ESPN created the sports opinion genre with the shows “Pardon the Interruption” and “Around the Horn,” and has expanded it with the popular “Highly Questionable.” He acknowledged that such shows are attracting viewers who want more than scores and highlights, which they can now get anytime on their computers or smartphones. It’s why “SportsCenter” is evolving into a more personality-driven program with hosts who can command a following each night on TV.

ESPN has seen the approach work with Scott Van Pelt, who has brought a late-night comedy feeling to the midnight edition of “SportsCenter,” now TV’s No. 1 show in its time period among men 18 to 34.  The network’s next move along those lines is shifting Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, the hosts of the ESPN2 opinion show “His & Hers,” to the 6 p.m. ET “SportsCenter” desk starting in February.

As for “First Take,” Magnus said the network expected to take a ratings hit when Bayless — a Dallas Cowboys-obsessed villain fans love to hate — vacated his seat across from Stephen A. Smith.

“I would never tell you that breaking up that team was a good thing,” he said. “Those successes are hard to come by.”

But moving “First Take” to ESPN — where sports fans typically turn first —  is a statement that the company believes in the team of Smith and Kellerman and its long-term chances against “Undisputed.” 

“We look at it as healthy competition,” Magnus said. 

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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An earlier version of this story said "Pardon the Interruption" and "Around the Horn" are shows on ESPN2. They originate on ESPN and re-air on ESPN2.
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