Shannon Sharpe has spoken with ESPN about becoming a high-profile “contributor,” Front Office Sports has learned.
The contributor’s role would allow the former co-host of FS1’s “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed” to join the rotating cast of stars who debate Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s top-rated “First Take.”
They include contributors Michael Irvin of the NFL Network (if his legal issues are resolved) and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo of Sirius XM, as well as ESPN’s own Ryan Clark.
At the same time, the arrangement would allow free agent Sharpe to continue his weekly “Club Shay Shay” podcast, which now boasts 1.23 million subscribers, potentially scoring a lucrative gig with sports betting operator FanDuel, which allows talent to work with other companies on a non-exclusive basis.
But the Sharpe-ESPN deal is not done, sources cautioned. The three-time Super Bowl champion has spoken with several potential employers since leaving FS1.
Over the past week, Sharpe and his representatives have had a series of meetings with suitors, a source said. He is expected to make a move in August before the kickoff of the 2023 NFL season.
Still, Sharpe makes sense to ESPN.
In a tweet on June 19, Sharpe teased a return to morning television “soon.” What better place to make its comeback than “First Take,” which nearly tripled the audience of rival “Undisputed” in June (with 421,000 viewers to 154,000)?
Smith has publicly lobbied for Sharpe to join him and Molly Qerim on the “First Take” desk. But he later clarified that Sharpe would be “part of the family;” not a full-time co-host like Max Kellerman, who was recently fired.
“I’m not looking for a regular person on ‘First Take.’ So to all of you clamoring for it, get over it…I like the potpourri of contributors,” Smith said. New ESPN hire Pat McAfee has also publicly encouraged Sharpe to join ESPN.
With Irvin still sidelined from “First Take” due to his legal issues, Sharpe could slide into the NFL legend role filled by “The Playmaker” last season.
That way, “First Take” could promote a designated weekday for “Smith vs. Sharpe” debates during the NFL season.
As a part-timer, ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro also wouldn’t have to hand out a big salary to Sharpe, who would raise eyebrows after the painful latest round of layoffs.
The Pro Football Hall of Famer could also make guest appearances on “Sunday NFL Countdown,” “Monday NFL Countdown” and “NFL Live,” sources said.
The 55-year-old Sharpe teaming up with Smith against his old partner Bayless would be a career revenge worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo. But that’s what happens in sports television, where the paychecks are big and the egos are even bigger.
After nearly seven successful years together, the duo split in June after one buyout agreement was reached between Sharpe and FS1. But their relationship had fallen to an “all-time low” by the end of 2022, sources said.
The nadir came in January, when Bayless rudely interrupted Sharpe while his partner was trying to resolve the Damar Hamlin controversy. At the time, Sharpe was still annoyed that Bayless was taking “personal shots” at him for defending his pet quarterback Tom Brady.
Sharpe had also come to the belated realization that he would never be treated as Bayless’s equal — either in pay or direction — by FS1 management.
When Sharpe tried to address Bayless’ radioactive Hamlin tweet, Bayless cut him off within 45 seconds.
“I stand by what I tweeted,” Bayless declared.
Sharpe was fit to be bound.
“You can’t even let me finish my opening monologue without you interrupting,” he told Bayless.
(A Barstool Sports video of their argument has been seen 11.3 million times and counting).
While the former “Undisputed” partners later professed respect for each other, it was more optics than anything else, sources said.
Bayless cutting Sharpe was “the final straw,” a source said.
“The marriage was toast from that point on.”
Meanwhile, Bayless and the team at FS1 have been scrambling to find a successor for Sharpe. As a result, “Undisputed” is on a six-week hiatus until he returns before the NFL season on Aug. 28.
Like Smith and ESPN, Bayless’ producers could choose to have him debate a rotating lineup of guests instead of a full-time co-host.
This could be a smart strategy for Bayless, the acknowledged Godfather of sports debate.
The 71-year-old former sportswriter was able to effectively stage a rolling series of auditions – while maintaining iron-fisted control of the show.
Former FS1 personality Marcellus Wiley has been predicting exactly that outcome for months.
ESPN declined to comment for this story. Sharpe could not be reached.
Update: While on vacation, Smith tweeted that he will solve the Sharpe situation on his podcast Friday and “First Take” Monday morning.
A few hours later, Sharpe tweeted back at Smith. “What do I address to you on Friday? I have some free time, so you are welcome to 2 FT me to my meetings.”