ESPN’s new “SportsCenter AM,” meet Fox Sports’ “First Things First,” airing 30 minutes earlier and only 100 miles from the headquarters of the Worldwide Leader.
With its debut Tuesday morning, a week after ESPN welcomed Sage Steele back to Bristol, Conn. for the start of a morning “SportsCenter” edition, FS1’s first-ever New York City-based show marks the network’s next step toward gaining traction on its competition.
“This is really the next piece of the puzzle in the FS1 strategy,” Fox Sports president Eric Shanks said at a preview event in Midtown Manhattan last week. “From the very beginning, almost four years ago, we knew that we had to be live and relevant for as many hours of the day as we possibly could.
“And when we decided to pivot away from news and highlights after seeing the ratings trend … toward investing in big personalities and talking about the day’s stories in sports, we will now be live and relevant 11 hours each and every day.”
“First Things First” pairs NFL Hall of Famer and former ESPN personality Cris Carter with lesser-known hosts, Nick Wright and Jenna Wolfe. Wright, 32, joined Fox Sports last year after a nine-year career in sports radio. Wolfe, 43, is returning to sports television after nine years at the “Today” show broadcasting alongside Lester Holt.
It’s a cast that looks looks like a misfit on paper, but one Carter said he would have hand-picked if it had been up to him. He calls Wright “the next Skip Bayless or Colin Cowherd” with whom he’s wanted to work since they first met and hit it off in Las Vegas. And of the 15 or so people who auditioned for the lead anchor’s role, Carter said he knew the quick-witted Wolfe would win as early as the first round.
“The name-recognition value that I’m bringing to the show is almost nothing, so it’s going to have to be the content that overcomes that,” Wright told The Post when asked what he expects his role to be on the show. “Cris lived it, learned it and that’s how he knows. … I’ve spent my whole life watching and learning, so it’s my job to bring accurate information and strong opinions because I don’t have the credentials he has.”
“I’m not gonna lie, I’m doing a ton of homework for this,” said Wolfe, who only agreed to do a sports show if she could move away from highlights and partake in debate. “I don’t want to make a mistake, I want to be able to go toe-to-toe with these guys, and none of these guys took nine years off. I always pride myself on trying to be as prepared as possible.”
Each of the hosts is adamant, though, that “First Things First” will not be a carbon copy of FS1’s “Undisputed,” which is two-and-a-half hours of head-to-head arguing between Bayless and Shannon Sharpe. But they are aware their strong personalities will clash at times, especially when it comes to discussions surrounding social and political issues from a sports perspective, which Wright said will “100 percent” filter into the show.
“You can’t effectively talk about sports without being able to effectively talk about particularly race and particularly violence, and so you have to be equipped to talk about those things,” Wright said. “I would say sports will be the prism through which we will discuss things, but you can’t talk about the NFL last year without talking about Colin Kaepernick.”
It’s clear that some form of disagreement will be a part of the program as FS1 has pushed forward with the embrace-debate mantra even after Jamie Horowitz, the Fox Sports president who headed up the initiative, was fired in July amid a sexual harassment probe.
Carter, a former wide receiver who spent nearly a decade at ESPN as an NFL analyst upon retirement, pointed to comments he made on “Undisputed” about Ezekiel Elliott’s domestic violence case, four days before the NFL hit him with a six-game suspension, as an example of their willingness to confront controversy.
“I think one of the reasons Eric brought me to Fox is not only my ability to be on multiple shows, but also the wealth of resources that I have in the business,” he said. “I think I was one of the first people who said that ‘Zeke might get suspended, and that was on our network.
“So we will talk about the conversations that sports bring us to regardless of the race, gender or anything else. We will not avoid it.”
Carter and the network are hoping that starting those conversations at 6:30, a half-hour earlier than ESPN’s live programming, will give them an advantage.
Shanks, who folded Horowitz’s responsibilities into his own job, cited that Fox Sports is the only sports network to end the year with more paid TV subscribers than the year before, and he is confident this show will help carry the momentum forward.
The fresh-faced Wright isn’t willing to make predictions like that just yet.
“People congratulate me — they’re like, ‘Congrats on the show’ — and what I will say to all those people is, ‘Don’t congratulate me until I actually do something,’” Wright said.
“Getting the show is not the accomplishment. Having the show be successful and them wanting to keep doing the show, that’s the accomplishment.”