First Take’s first few days on ESPN: what to make of its ratings?


ESPN moved its flagship morning debate show First Take to the ESPN mothership effective January 3, 2017. I was not a big fan of the move when it was announced primarily because of “negative asymmetric risk.”

Considering everything it seemed like there were was more downside risk potential than upside reward potential.  I figured First Take would see a bump for a week or two and then settle back around where it had been on ESPN2.

Time will tell if that’s right though early on it looks like it will take a little bit longer than I thought it would for the numbers to get back to ESPN2 levels.

The big question for me was what would happen to the shows on ESPN that moved to ESPN2 from 10-noon (namely SportsCenter). It was reasonable to figure they’d go down in the same way it was reasonable to figure First Take’s numbers would go up as a result of the move. The question was: how much?  For me  the answers are:

  • First Take went up a little more than I thought it would
  • SportsCenter went down a LOT more than I thought it would

It’s still early days but the first few days results are in. How to look at them?

Way 1: All Hail First Take!

Imagine a world where your primary objectives are to make the stars of First Take happy while bludgeoning FS1’s Undisputed in the ratings even more than you were before. I don’t imagine there are very many people at ESPN with this world view, but it is one way to look at it.


With the “All Hail First Take” world view and those objectives we score week 1: a big success!

Up 24% over the first few days versus last year (when there was no Undisputed and Skip Bayless was still there). After being down 35% versus last year for the first few months of Undisputed’s run, up 24% sounds very good, especially if your goals are to make the First Take stars happy and crush Undisputed. First Take averaged 552,000 viewers its first few days of 2017 versus 445,000 on ESPN2 in early 2016.

Day First Take 2017 ESPN First Take 2016 (ESPN2) % Change
Tuesday 647 438 48%
Wednesday 478 423 13%
Thursday 530 473 12%

Way 2: Big Picture!

The “All Hail First Take” world view is, sadly for ESPN, far too myopic. Realistically “All Hail First Take” will get all the attention because however one can rationally frame the numbers, the “First Take” vs “Undisputed” narrative is a more interesting, But we can’t forget that ESPN has multiple networks and multiple shows. How did SportsCenter do in its move to ESPN2 from 10a-noon ET?

Horrible, terrible, no good, very bad days.

Day 10-Noon ESPN2 2017 10-Noon ESPN 2016 Column2
Tuesday 133 480 -72%
Wednesday 130 332 -61%
Thursday 121 359 -66%

Over those same few days First Take was up 24% in its move to the ESPN mothership, the 10-noon SportsCenters were down 67% from a 390,000 average to a 128,000 average.

Did I mention those SportsCenter declines were awful?

So what’s it look like when you put it all together, i.e., what does the combined 10-noon average of ESPN + ESPN2 look like for the first few days of 2017 versus the first few days of 2016? I come up with down 19% from an average of 835,000 in 2016 to 679,000 in 2017.

So the big picture is down 19%, but…

Way 3: Bigger Big Picture

Even as a big picture,  “Way 2” is still a bit too myopic.  Remember, ESPN made the First Take move based on current conditions. The combined ESPN/ESPN 10-noon block was down 19% versus last year but how far down was the block year over year say for the week after Thanksgiving?

I have the combined ESPN/ESPN2 block down 27% Y/Y for the week after Thanksgiving.

Down 19% is better than down 27% and assuming those numbers hold (I make no such assumptions) ESPN has at least marginally improved its position as a result of the move.

What, if anything, can ESPN due to stem the SportsCenter losses on ESPN2? Will many of those AM SportsCenter viewers find their way to ESPN2 merely as a function of time? I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s too soon to rule it out.

Grading the move on a ratings basis so far: C-

All other things being equal I make the assumption that First Take and SportsCenter make roughly the same amount of ad revenue, i.e. advertising and in-show promotion for two hours of SportsCenter that averaged 500,000 viewers would not be measurably different than advertising and in-show promotion for two hours of First Take that averaged 500,0000.

Still, early on overall ESPN is a little bit better off as a result of the switch. I think cases could be made for any grade from a B to an F!

I’d have given this move a D so far figuring it was basically a wash. However, it’s a wash where the First Take folks are a lot happier and the ESPN PR folks have a much better “First Take vs Undisputed” ratings story to tell so far. I discount the value of such things (I have a Don Draper “That’s what the money is for, Stephen A.!” sensibility) but observationally the networks do value such things and I graded on that curve.

This article has 5 Comments

  1. I’m just glad I no longer get to hear Skip Bayless talk about the Cowboys and hate on Lebron James anymore on First Take.

  2. Skip Bayless has phoney, insincere opinions, and Stephen A talks just to hear himself talk. They’re both obnoxious and will both be off the air within a year.

    1. Yep,who wants to hear a guy yelling when your wakeing up in the morning, on top of that those 2 are way to byest and they neaver talk about West coast teams

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