ESPN has spent months tweaking its nearly ubiquitous flagship program, “SportsCenter,” transforming some hours into a late-night showcase and others into formats that rely on stronger personalities. Now the Disney-owned network is trying something even more radical: Swapping two hours of the program for Stephen A. Smith’s “First Take.”
ESPN said Friday it would exchange the two hours of “SportsCenter” that currently air on ESPN for the Smith program, which also features Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim. The move will be effective as of Jan. 3. “We think this gives the show, really, the best chance to thrive with the new lineup,” said Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming and scheduling, for ESPN. “We like the lineup,” he added. “We think it’s a crisper show and we think this will really sort of put its audience on a rocket ship.”
The executive was referring to the recent departure of the outspoken Skip Bayless, who previously co-hosted “First Take” with Smith. Bayless now hosts a competing program, “Undisputed,” on rival Fox Sports 1. Since the Bayless departure, ratings for the show have tumbled, a dynamic Magnus said that ESPN had anticipated. He also noted that ratings appear to have stabilized and have begun to climb as viewers grow more familiar with Kellerman. “As Max and Stephen A. get their own footing and their own rapport established, we are happy with those results, and this move will only help,” he said.
The swap also represents the latest change to “SportsCenter,” the backbone of ESPN’s schedule. In recent months, executives at the sports-media outlet have worked to tie each edition of the program more specifically to the time in which it airs. A midnight edition of the show that launched last year features Scott Van Pelt and a dose of humor. Starting in February, ESPN2 duo Michael Smith and Jemele Hill will take over the early-evening edition of the program, leaving behind their popular “His & Hers” on ESPN 2. “We will continue to make moves that will associate particular personalities with particular episodes,” Magnus said.
When Smith, Kellerman and Querim join the ESPN lineup, the two hours of “SportsCenter” currently airing on ESPN from 10 a.m. to noon will move to ESPN2, also on January 3. “SportsCenter Face to Face,” the interview-based program that is hosted by Hannah Storm, will air from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m, while the first hour of “SportsCenter Coast to Coast,” hosted by David Lloyd in Bristol. Conn., and Cari Champion in Los Angeles, will run between 11 a.m and noon. A second hour of “Coast to Coast” will pick up on ESPN, though not during the period between January 3 and January 6, when the final week of “His & Hers” will run on ESPN between noon and 1 p.m.
“SportsCenter” does air on other ESPN properties. Editions of “SportsCenter” air on ESPN2 Saturday and Sunday mornings, as well as on ESPNNews between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. weeknights.