Skip Bayless Joins Fox Sports from ESPN: "I'm Taking Off the Handcuffs"

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Skip Bayless

“Too many people in charge at ESPN, for my taste, were a little too fearful,” says the outspoken host, who leaves the Disney-owned network after 12 years for a new show that will launch Sept. 6.

Skip Bayless says his move to Fox Sports 1 — with a new daily program that is set to bow Sept. 6 — will allow him to remove the "handcuffs" he's been compelled to wear at ESPN, where he hosted the popular ESPN2 program First Take with Stephen A. Smith.

"Too many people in charge at ESPN, for my taste, were a little too fearful," Bayless tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview officially revealing his move. "It's a Disney network. There are just certain boundaries that you can't even tiptoe along. Not that we won't have boundaries at Fox, because we will. [But] they will trust me to go a little deeper. I can be completely honest on everything."

The long-rumored announcement is expected to be made Monday from Fox Sports National Networks president Jamie Horowitz, who had oversight of First Take while he was a vp at ESPN. And Bayless' FS1 show will air from 10 a.m. to noon, going head-to-head with First Take. (Max Kellerman debuted July 25 as Smith's new co-host.)

Bayless, 64, declines to offer specifics about the new show or his co-host (NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe has been rumored), nor will he discuss topics that were verboten at ESPN. And he notes that leaving the network after 12 years was "extremely difficult." But he often offered a contrarian and controversial take on sports leagues and athletes, delivering pointed criticism of superstars including the NFL's Aaron Rodgers and the NBA's LeBron James, who he said was overrated. Bayless had an infamous and much-criticized on-air run-in with the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman in 2013, but unlike many of his ESPN colleagues (including Smith and former columnist and Grantland creator Bill Simmons), he was never suspended.

"I'm not suggesting I'm going to become some sort of shock jock because that's not me," he adds. "I say what I say because I believe it from the bottom of my soul and I can back it up. Now I feel like I can be completely honest, heart-and-soul, with full support from the people above me."

ESPN tried to keep Bayless; he'll be getting a raise at Fox Sports 1 with a four-year deal worth close to $6 million annually. (Bayless is represented by CAA.) But he'll be on a network with far fewer viewers than he had on ESPN2.

"If you understand me, you know that I live for challenges," he says. "And what bigger challenge than to go up against the juggernaut that is First Take?"

Bayless compares his entree at Fox Sports 1 which will soon mark three years on the air to his early days on Cold Pizza, the precursor to First Take.

"So many of my friends told me I was nuts to risk joining a show at that point [in 2004] that had yet to even register in the ratings," he says. Bayless describes Horowitz, who is credited with ushering in the "embrace debate" era at ESPN, as the "smartest man I've ever worked with in television." He added that when Horowitz blew up Cold Pizza in favor of First Take, a two-hour live debate program, "a whole lot of people at ESPN told Jamie and told me that this would be a disaster and that we would fail miserably. And we did not."

So a big reason Bayless defected to Fox Sports 1 is to work with Horowitz again. (He's only the latest ESPN staffer to leave for Fox; Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock are also there, along with several executives.) In a statement, Horowitz, who is president of Fox Sports National Networks, characterizes Bayless as "one of the most incisive opinionists in all of media. He's equal parts fearless and relentless, and his rebellious spirit is a tremendous addition to the lineup of talent and shows that we are building for FS1."

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