According to a report about FS1’s Shannon Sharpe’s expiring contract this summer, anonymous sources told Front Office Sports that Sharpe should make the same amount of money as his Undisputed co-host, Skip Bayless, claiming it would look bad if the black co-host doesn’t make the same as the white.
“At a time when the country is wrestling with racial equality, Fox has an incredible opportunity to make a statement,” one of the quoted sources said. “Give Shannon Sharpe a contract that is equal pay for equal work. Do you really want to be paying a black man half what his white co-star’s making? That’s a tough look these days.”
These quotes sent a clear message to Fox’s execs: Give Shannon that money, or we will leak, probably to the Washington Post, that you are racist.
This is undoubtedly a strategic approach. Whoever said this clearly had the intention to drive up the price for Sharpe. And given how networks make decisions now — out of fear, not logic — it could work. But it’s a poor, misleading, race-baiting comparison. Sharpe making around $3 million annually compared to Bayless’ $6.5 million has nothing to do with race at all.
Let us first look at why Bayless makes more than double Sharpe. When FS1 originally signed Bayless in 2016, it had to outbid ESPN, which was making Bayless aggressive offers to stay. Bayless’ annual salary came in around the same range as the salaries agreed to for Colin Cowherd (at Fox) and Mike Greenberg (at ESPN), both of whom inked those deals around the same time. At the time, the industry viewed Bayless, Cowherd, and Greenberg in the same echelon.
FS1 was building from the ground up and needed to make a splash after an unsuccessful first iteration. Though there’s an argument that FS1 did slightly overpay for Bayless, they feel it was worth it to them. After Bayless left First Take, its ratings with Stephen A. Smith fell, at one point, as much as 35%. It got so alarming, ESPN moved First Take from ESPN2 to the main channel, subsequently killing ESPN2, which has never recovered. Losing Bayless hurt ESPN in that regard, and it elevated FS1 to over 100,000-150,000 viewers in key timeslots. While that may not be a massive range, it’s about as high as it can go on that channel. I’ve followed daily studio TV ratings as close as anyone, and there are two people in sports media who definitively raise the viewership well above a slot’s base audience: Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. (You can add the duo of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon in there too.)
By contrast, Shannon Sharpe was unemployed in 2016 after CBS moved him off its pregame show. Sharpe had only recently returned to media, filling in as a guest host on First Take with Bayless. FS1 had to pay Bayless over 6 million annually to get him, but FS1 probably could’ve gotten Sharpe for $500,000-$1 million.
These same reasons still exist today. Bayless remains one of few difference-makers on TV. So much so, sources say ESPN strongly considered making him a high salary offer last year before it was cuffed by the pandemic. If ESPN brought Bayles back, not only would it take back, say, 25% of the 150,000 viewers who watch Undisputed, it would crush FS1. Furthermore, Bayless could likely make close to $6.5 million on his own. Moving forward, the most well-positioned sports media personalities own some of or all their content. Through ad agencies, partnerships, or sales, Dave Portnoy, Bill Simmons, Dan Patrick, Colin Cowherd (who has his own podcast network Volume and works for Fox Sports), Pat McAfee, and Dan Le Batard are going to make more on their own than they would at a network. A lot more. As a draw, Bayless is equal, above, or just below each of those names.
Sharpe is a talented TV personality, and he is popular on Twitter, but so what? Bomani Jones, Jemele Hill, Pablo Torre, and Nick Wright are popular on Twitter, and all four have failed on TV. Except for the top-top stars, salaries in the industry have declined significantly over the past few years, so $3 million annually is already higher than Sharpe could get elsewhere. He could not make that as an independent media personality, and ESPN will not make him that kind of offer either. What would he do at ESPN? He’d likely contribute to Get Up, ESPN Radio, and the NFL shows. That’s not a $3 million a year gig, and he would trail behind Marcus Spears and Dan Orlovsky in that role.
The black vs. white argument is cringe-worthy and devious. “Give Shannon Sharpe a contract that is equal pay for equal work,” the quote read — does that mean Max Kellerman, a white man, should make between $7.5 and $10 million a year like his black co-host Stephen A. Smith does? Of course not. Like Bayless is to Sharpe, Stephen A. is the bigger draw on First Take. What’s more, again, contracts are mostly based on market value. ESPN and Stephen A’s agents know what Stephen A. could make elsewhere or on his own. Unlike Kellerman and Sharpe, Stephen A. could launch his own podcast network or steaming show and eventually sell it for tens of millions, so I’m not seeing how race is a factor here.
“Equal pay for equal work” is not how the media industry operates, not now, not ever. Talents are not paid based on workload or hours put in. Tucker Carlson and Chris Hayes have the exact same roles. They both host one-hour cable news shows at 8 pm. But there’s a reason Carlson makes around $10 million a year and Hayes does not.
Undisputed host Jenny Taft works the same on-air hours as Sharpe and Bayless. She’s also a sideline reporter for Fox’s college football coverage. Should we expect similar quotes to emerge regarding her next contract? It’s just about hours, no?
Still stuck on the race argument? Michael Wilbon, who is black, hosts a 30-minute daily show and, according to some estimates, makes over three times what Paul Finebaum, who hosts a four-hour daily show plus various network hits, makes.
Dianna Russini, Jason Fitz, and Matt Barrie work way more hours than Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre but make way less per year. And in those cases, the first three produce more results.
These quotes from anonymous sources merely prove the direction of the country: it’s all about race. Many Americans now see people only by the color of their skin. An objective executive doesn’t look at Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe and see “white guy, black guy,” but their value to the show. In a hypothetical sports media draft to start a daily TV show, Bayless would go somewhere between 2nd and 4th, but Shannon Sharpe might not go in the top 25. Shannon Sharpe isn’t getting $6.5 on the open market, but Bayless can.
Perhaps, this warning that a racial narrative will be written against FS1 if Sharpe isn’t handed $6.5 million will drive Fox to do it. And if so, it will cause a Michelle Beadle situation, where Sharpe is vastly overpaid and the rest of the industry is angrily underpaid.
Disclosure: Outkick’s founder Clay Travis is an on-air talent at FS1.