Max Kellerman signed off First Take for the final time on Wednesday. Before the show’s end, Stephen A. Smith, who is off-air for surgery, called in to say goodbye.
“All I wanted to say, was to call in and to thank my man Max for the five years,” Smith says. “Originally, when we talked it was supposed to be a three-year run. The next thing you know, it was a five-year run. And we’ve been number one every single year and you had an awful lot to do with that.”
— First Take (@FirstTake) September 1, 2021
That exchange was incredibly awkward, not because Smith wasn’t there in person, but because Smith is the reason ESPN is removing Kellerman from First Take.
As OutKick reported (which other outlets pretended to first report weeks later), Smith tried to get Kellerman removed from the show before the three-year mark to which Kellerman had originally agreed. But, thanks to Smith’s
boss instrument, Dave Roberts, Smith finally got his way this summer:
While Kellerman’s future will get the attention right now, Stephen A. Smith’s backstage politics are the real story. Smith’s disdain for Kellerman as a co-host is the worst kept secret in sports media circles. Kellerman’s removal was even a topic in Smith’s 2019 contract negotiations. Smith lost that battle at the time, and Kellerman stayed. ESPN did raise Smith’s salary to over $10 million a year though, so it wasn’t for nothing.
But Kellerman’s time on First Take always had an expiration date because of Smith’s relationship with ESPN Senior Vice President Dave Roberts, who oversees First Take.
While the hostility Smith felt toward Kellerman may not have been personal per se — how much can you really like a guy you are actively trying to kick off a show?
Sources say Smith had several issues with Kellerman as a co-host. Smith felt Kellerman did not routinely take a definitive stance in a debate. When Smith co-hosted First Take with Skip Bayless, Smith would take one side and Bayless would take the other. Next, they would defend their positions by cutting animated promos. Smith enjoyed this — it elevated him to the face of ESPN.
Second — and Smith will never admit this — Kellerman is more intelligent than he is. A lot smarter. Smith felt uncomfortable discussing social issues with Kellerman on set, which became a fixture after 2016. Kellerman ran circles around Smith. And while, baselessly yelling white privilege is Smith’s go-to, Kellerman often beat him to that destination.
Finally, Stephen A. Smith didn’t respect Kellerman as an equal. Aside from Skip Bayless and Michael Wilbon, Smith doesn’t think anyone else is on his level. Thus, to appease Smith, Roberts will replace Kellerman with a rotation of analysts, rather than a single partner.
As OutKick reported (which other outlets also pretended to first report weeks later), ESPN is planning for Michael Irvin to appear in First Take’s lineup. Sources say Irvin is likely to sit opposite Smith on Mondays.
“Stephen A. had a lot of say who was gonna be his partner after Skip left the show,” Kellerman said in response to Smith.
He did. And he had more say on who won’t be his partner moving forward.