Media

How Chris Russo and Stephen A. Smith actually made a sports-debate show enjoyable

Stephen A. Smith is believed to be ESPN’s highest-paid on-air employee at $8 million per year. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images


Trust me, I’d rather listen to a greatest hits album of Tim McCarver’s old soliloquies about Derek Jeter or be forced to endure Erin Andrews’s cringe-inducing “she rich rich” car commercial on an endless loop than watch more than 10 minutes of one of those various embrace-debate sports shows.

Most of these shows, which populate ESPN’s channels and Fox Sports 1 during weekday afternoons, are the equivalent of the worst of sports radio, but with cameras, so we watch a banshee in a Brooks Brothers coat shriek nonsense about the likes of LeBron James as well as hear it.

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What’s that? Why yes, I did have Skip Bayless in mind there. I blame “Cold Pizza” for him. He was just a soulless hack of a sportswriter before ESPN put him on that long-gone show, and no, it does not take one to know one.

So, I suppose this qualifies as a confession. There’s one of these shows I like. Love, actually. I’m talking about the one day a week when Chris “Mad Dog” Russo joins Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s “First Take.”

Russo, who hosts “High Heat” on MLB Network, has his own SiriusXM channel, and hosted the most entertaining sports radio show of all time, “Mike and the Mad Dog” with Mike Francesa at WFAN in New York, has joined Smith on the show for the past three Wednesdays.

Already, it is appointment television. The reason is obvious. They’re authentically bombastic and genuinely hilarious, a tornado meeting a volcano, to paraphrase Eminem. You feel like you’re in on the joke watching them, and yet they carry themselves like it’s not a joke at all. You believe what they’re saying. Better, you believe that they believe them — especially when Russo punctuates his points by flapping his limbs like there’s an electric current running through his chair.

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Smith is a rich man — he is believed to be ESPN’s highest-paid on-air employee at $8 million per year, with another $4 million coming from a production contract with the company — because of his uncanny talent for turning up the heat to fire-and-brimstone levels when he’d deploying his takes.

He’s also a master of pauses, usually when he’s taken aback by something Russo or another co-host said, that aren’t just pregnant, but a couple of weeks overdue. But Smith also deftly downshifts to poignancy and candor when the moment calls for it, such as when he discussed his fears that he might not make it after he returned from a scary case of COVID-19.

Last August, ESPN made the decision to drop co-host Max Kellerman from “First Take” — something Smith acknowledged he pushed for — and instead go with a rotating cast around Smith and moderator Molly Qerim.

It was a wise one. “First Take” averaged 445,000 viewers in February, its most in the month since 2018. February viewership was up 22 percent from a year ago, the ninth month in the last 10 that viewership has risen year-over-year. In January, “First Take” had its best viewership day since its debut in 2007, drawing an average of 918,336 viewers on Jan. 17, the Monday after a weekend of compelling NFL wild-card playoff games

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The show is at its best on those Wednesdays when Russo is in the co-host chair. Antoine Lewis, ESPN vice president production, said the original idea to have Russo verbally duke it out with Smith came during Baseball Hall of Fame voting season, a hot-button sports topic if there ever was one.

“Chris was brought on during the Baseball Hall of Fame voting, working and debating with Stephen A. when we were talking about that on the show,” Lewis said. “We noticed that there was great chemistry from Day One. From there, we really started exploring the possibility of if we could pair them together even more. And that’s essentially how it came about.”

The charmingly bombastic pairing has worked, and it’s done something I wasn’t sure was possible. It’s made a sports-debate show genuinely enjoyable. I might even debate you on that if you disagree.

Buck leaves a void

With Joe Buck all but guaranteed to join longtime NFL broadcast partner Troy Aikman in jumping from Fox to ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” booth, two of the premier play-by-play jobs in sports will be up for grabs. Buck has called six Super Bowls for Fox — his work with Aikman during the Patriots’ comeback over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI rates as one of the best big-game broadcasts in any sport — and he’s been the play-by-play voice of the World Series since 1996. Queue Red Sox fans suggesting Fox should hire Don Orsillo to do it … There’s shameless, and there’s tone-deaf, and then there’s ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeting this after the news came down that Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson would not face criminal charges over allegations of sexual assault and harassment: “This is why Deshaun Watson, from the beginning, welcomed a police investigation: He felt he knew that the truth would come out,” wrote Schefter. “And today, a grand jury did not charge him on any of the criminal complaints.” Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits over those allegations, so it’s uncertain what “truth” Schefter might have thought was revealed Friday. Watson’s agent probably deserved a co-byline on the tweet.

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