The New York Observer profiled Skip Bayless who surprisingly is far different off camera than on it. Well, not surprisingly since he’s an actor who plays the equivalent of a wrestling heel on television. Deploying that character properly doubtlessly involves some measure of introspection. Here are some of the highlights from the profile.
Agreeing with Mr. Bayless is a disorienting experience. He argues about sports for a living. For two hours every weekday on ESPN’s First Take, the man nicknamed “The Diabolical Hater” debates a rotating cast of journalists, athletes and even rappers. He is the most polarizing figure in sports journalism, a real shit-stirrer—lobbing grenades and hurling insults without a second thought, kind of like how Kobe Bryant keeps on shooting.
This makes me want to hurt things. Bayless is not “polarizing.” To polarize one must send significant numbers of people to each pole with few left in between. Whitlock is polarizing. Bayless is disliked. He’s disliked by viewers who find him irritating and disingenuous. He’s disliked by colleagues who feel there were multiple, less hurtful ways to capture Barry Switzer’s nuttiness than publicizing “Troy Aikman is gay” rumors.
Here is your money quote.
After the show, he often lifts weights. “I’m pretty ripped,” he said confidently. “The pressure of the show drains me. It’s why I work out so hard. It’s why I’m jacked. I have to be to stand up to the beating of it.”
Here is why he graces your TV set.
Then in August, producer Jamie Horowitz took the helm of First Take and changed the format—once a confusing mishmash of debate, SportsCenter highlights and Good Morning America-like vignettes—to two hours of live debate centered around Mr. Bayless: Crossfire for jocks. “I looked at research, and the brand that resonated most for our fans was debate,” Mr. Horowitz said…
First Take’s numbers are up 33 percent from last year and the show’s top 10-best-rated telecasts have all aired since August.
The research Horowitz looked at is ratings for small increments. “Resonated with fans” is code for spiked viewership. Bayless’ rants raised viewership. Horowitz amplified him and built the show around him. It’s the same thing he did with Sportsnation. The show condenses what spikes viewership within the male, 18-34 demographic (controversy, blondes, dunk videos) and fires them from a cannon into viewers’ faces.
People look at the crazy guy yelling nonsense on television, for the same reason they look at him (or pretend not to look at him but listen intently) in a subway car. He quenches this base thirst for car wrecks and nudity in a television-friendly fashion. ESPN’s big wildly important purpose is to drive ratings for ESPN2 and, edifying or not, Bayless serves it.
[Photo via Getty]