ESPN host Stephen A. Smith has a reputation for shooting from the hip with outrageous takes on sports issues. Today, he turned the attention on himself, candidly admitting his role in having First Take co-host Max Kellerman removed from the show.
First Take is one of the highest-rated ESPN shows, although its audience has dwindled since Skip Bayless left for Fox in 2016. The Smith-Kellerman marriage resulted from that, but apparently soured over the long term, according to Smith, who talked to Hot 97 radio’s Ebro Darden and Peter Rosenberg..
“The rumor’s accurate in terms of me wanting him off the show,” Smith said of Kellerman. It “was not a great partnership anymore and that was something that needed to change.”
Smith felt that the team had hit a wall.
“It wasn’t really about asking him to be off the show, it was about the fact that I knew that we, together, as far as I was concerned, was not a great partnership anymore and that was something that needed to change. The reason why I’m unapologetic about my position, No. 1, is that it’s no knock against him professionally, his work ethic, and all of that other stuff, his talent. It’s not like I wanted the guy to be fired. I knew there were landing spots for him available at this network that would generate just as much, if not more revenue for him and all of that other stuff.”
Smith also claimed it was the network’s decision, albeit one where he was asked for his input and gave a thumbs down on Kellerman continuing.
Kellerman is getting his own hour-long show on ESPN, This Just In, which premieres Sept. 14, at 2 PM ET. Kellerman also joined ESPN’s morning radio show, replacing Zubin Mehenti on the Keyshawn, J-Will and Zubin show.
Meanwhile, Smith is using a rotating cast of ESPN personalities as his sparring partners, with Tim Tebow and Michael Irvin regulars anchoring the week.
Kellerman had appeared on the show alongside Smith and Molly Qerim Rose since July 2016. Soon after Kellerman boarded as co-host, the show was upgraded from ESPN2 to ESPN, where it has been a steady ratings draw and a defining tentpole of the network’s daytime hot-take factory. Kellerman replaced Skip Bayless, who decamped for FS1.
Kellerman’s exit from First Take and a lack of a permanent replacement will result in a brighter spotlight on Smith. His presence on ESPN and Disney has already been expanding of late, as would be expected given his reported annual compensation of $12 million. He recently started a solo show, Stephen A.’s World, on streaming service ESPN+, interviewing non-athletes and sports figures alike. On Monday, he stepped in to guest host Jimmy Kimmel Live, joining a list of substitutes during Kimmel’s summer sabbatical.
A onetime Philadelphia print journalist, Smith has managed to outlast many in ESPN’s talent stable, and often appears multiple times throughout the broadcast day. Occasionally, his intense schedule and propensity for provocation have mired him in controversy. In 2014, he was suspended for a week over comments about former NFL running back Ray Rice, who was shown on security-camera video assaulting his then-fiancée (and now-wife), Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City casino.
Dade Hayes contributed to this report.