ESPN ‘First Take’ Host Molly Qerim Takes On Haters, MMA, And Debating The Tough Issues

The first thing you should know about Molly Qerim is that she does her research, and she does it well. When we hopped on the phone a couple months ago to talk about the success of her quickly-rising show First Take, among other things, her initial thoughts weren’t about sports at all, but astrology. Qerim had found my Twitter profile and noted immediately that we were both Aries, mischievous and impulsive fire signs with an unassailable drive toward greatness and perfectionism.

For both of us — prominent women working in the primarily male-dominated field of media — the sign has become a source of power and self-identification, both to laugh at and earnestly connect with.

“I’m very Aries,” she chuckles, as we begin our interview. “Every characteristic, good and the bad.”

That isn’t at all surprising when you really think about it — you’d basically have to be a fire sign to deal with the kind of pressure Qerim regularly fields as the host and moderator of one of ESPN’s most divisive shows, First Take. But in the age of the Hot Takes, the thinkpiece economy, and never-ending Twitter debates, divisiveness is actually a good thing; at the top of the year ESPN opted to move the show from its original home on ESPN 2 to a slot on the network’s more prestigious, hallmark ESPN channel.

This is in no small part due to Qerim’s quick-witted shepherding of her costars, Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman, who are tasked with creating the turmoil of takes that consistently make the show a hot topic of conversation.

Since First Take moved to ESPN back in January, the show has been steadily rising in profile. Particularly, it’s been a key part of ESPN’s coverage for sports events that are already dominating the conversation by traveling to location — like Oakland and Cleveland as part of the network’s NBA finals coverage — and positioning Qerim as the moderator for some of the most important and compelling conversations in the sports world.

Maybe her fire sign helps her stand the heat, but Qerim has the reporting chops, experience, and expertise to weigh in whenever required. Born and raised an avid sports fan in a suburb of New Haven, Conn., Molly took her early fandom and turned it into a career, earning a Bachelor’s in Communication at UConn and going on to get her Masters in Broadcast Journalism at Quinnipiac University.

From there, she had stints at the NFL Network, CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports 1, and then began her tenure at ESPN, where she has hosted and covered a variety of huge occasions like the Super Bowl, the Heisman Trophy presentation, NBA Draft, NBA All-Star Game and the MLB All-Star game. She was also an early supporter of the flourishing MMA and UFC sports communities, working outside the octagon and even co-hosted the annual World MMA Awards a number of times.

After working on shows like College Football Live, ESPNU’s Campus Countdown and Fantasy Football Now — where she won an Emmy (!) — Qerim began as an interim host on First Take in the summer of 2015, before taking over full-time to replace Cari Champion that September. For the next two years, Qerim developed a reputation on the show, for wading fearlessly into sticky situations, and effortlessly keeping the most heated conversations on track. Even in the age of heartbreaking media layoffs for ESPN, First Take has remained relatively unscathed by the cuts, and that’s in large part due to the show’s continued success; over the last year, the show has increased its audience and standing by substantial gains, and currently it hovers right around 500,000 viewers per show.

Qerim and I talked about everything from ratings, to her tenure as an early MMA reporter, balancing work and play with her fellow ESPN reporter boyfriend Jalen Rose — and even touching on that time Eminem rather lewdly name-dropped her in his 2016 single “Campaign Speech.” Read our conversation below.

First Take moving from ESPN 2 to ESPN is a huge look for you guys. With all this momentum in 2017, what are you most excited about as far as the shift and with getting a little bit more spotlight on the show?

I think the biggest change has been the support behind the show. From the move from ESPN 2 to ESPN, I really feel it and I appreciate it. It’s like we’ve galvanized the troops; everybody’s re-energized and trying to put their best step forward. We’ve also added a lot of different elements, which I think keeps the show fresh — adding more voices and more big name guests. We’ve added the final takes segment, kind of that long, soliloquy monologue at the end, which I think allows a lot of opportunity. It’s a different take, because when you have the debates you’re going back and forth and going at it and you can’t always speak your piece.

Now it’s like, ‘Okay, the floor is yours.’ You can articulate it, and the guys can write it ahead of time if they want, and fully get a point across, uninterrupted. It just feels like the show is constantly moving, it never feels stale or stagnant. That would be the biggest change, along with the exciting prospect of having more eyeballs, more viewers Because we love what we do, we work hard, we have fun. So the more people that we can share that with is always exciting.

It’s interesting that you’re talking about some of the shifts that have been made, because as far as the public perception of First Take, it has been one of those shows initially that people have loved to hate — like they’ve already made up their minds about what it is or what they think it is. So how do you cope with that?

It is kind of a polarizing show. Here’s the thing, sometimes we’re the bad guy. You know what, though? If haters are still paying attention to you, they’re really fans. When people say, ‘Oh, we hate so-and-so. Or all they do is talk about blah blah …’ Well, how do you know? Because you’re watching! At the end of the day that’s my attitude towards it. It’s a sports debate show, so you’re not supposed to be left just feeling blasé or whatever. We’re supposed to invoke emotion, raise passion. We’re sports fans, you’re a sports fan, you know what that’s like. If you’re just kind of vanilla with it then we’re not doing our job. If you don’t have haters you’re doing something wrong.

So, how do you want to change the dialogue around the show moving forward? What would you like it to be known for?

I want it to be known as what it’s always been, the hottest sports debate that there is. I want people to feel like they’re getting all sides of the debate and argument, and they’re hearing a lot of different voices. That the argument is fully represented, especially when it’s a polarizing issue, that you’re not just getting a one-sided view or one-sided opinion. These are well thought out arguments and you’re going to hear both sides. That’s what First Take is predicated on, that’s what it will continue to be.

Yeah, there are little tweaks here and there, but the debate is still the meat and potatoes of what this show is. It’s debate, and it’s the same thing that you’d be hearing whether you’re in the barber shop, or whether you’re with your dad on a couch on Sunday yelling at the TV. It’s kind of that watercooler conversation, and I hope they walk away from our show and they’ve learned a little something at the same time. We’re starting the conversation, we’re starting the debate, and I hope the viewer leaves and goes to talk to someone at the gym, or someone at work and say, ‘Did you just hear what Max said? Did you hear what …’ — and that sparks more debate.

I want us to be starting the conversation and starting the debate.

Is that debate element what sets First Take apart from the rest of ESPN’s programming? What do you think really sets it apart?

I think it’s not only the debate, I think it’s also the personalities. Obviously anybody that’s working at ESPN, the worldwide leader, is very talented and great at their craft, at the top level. But as far as Stephen A. and Max — and we talked about the show being polarizing — these guys are brilliant. They are brilliant, and they’re wordsmiths, and they’re talented. I think it’s not only the actual content and the debate we’re discussing, we’re going further than surface level analysis where you’re really going next level. You know, there’s levels to this, right? I think it’s the combination of that, but I think it’s also the delivery. That passion and the facial expressions. Everything that flavor that First Take brings with it. Our show has flavor.

You’re talking about your co-hosts who are men and talking about how brilliant they are — and I do agree — but I think it’s still hard for women to get that same kind of credit. There’s a lot of stereotypes and prejudice — even as a woman who is a sports fan, people will still assume we don’t know what we’re talking about — and it can still difficult to be taken seriously as a woman in the sports world. What do you think your role is in the process of changing that mindset?

As far as feeling like I need to prove myself or this or that, I don’t feel that way any more. I’ve been in this business for ten years so I’m kind of past all that. I was there where, as a female you always feel like you have to prove yourself, you have to outwork them. But all I worry about now is being prepared. I know that I’m passionate, I know that I’m watching everything because I want to, I know that I’ve done my homework, and I know that I’m going to try to bring my ‘A’ game every day.

You can’t make everybody happy and they’re going to think whatever they want to think — and we talked about the hater thing earlier. As far women in sports in general, I mean, the growth that we’ve already had in terms of how many more females there are, females not just hosting, not just on the sidelines, but also as analysts with opinions and having opportunity to have that voice is incredible. Just the ten years that I’ve been in the game I’ve seen tremendous change. All I can do is do my job and continue to try to prove it to myself, not to other people. That’s what I’m doing.

Do you have a memory of a moment where you felt like you hit that mark where you stopped feeling like you had to be the one that was constantly overachieving just to get a spot?

I feel like I have to prove myself every single day because I want to keep my job, I’m sure there’s somebody else that wants it. But I no longer feel like I have to prove myself for everybody else. It’s for myself. I’m always my toughest critic. I’m setting the expectations for myself, and that’s enough pressure. I don’t need to worry about the haters or the Twitter trolls or what everybody else thinks. The people that I’m concerned with are my team. Are they proud of what I did? Are my bosses proud of what I did? Am I proud of what I did? Because that’s who matters. As far as worrying about what everybody else thinks, I think you’re more concerned you are with that the more it can can bog you down and keep you away from being focused on the task and what you have to execute.

So yes, 100% I feel like I have to prove myself every day, but it’s just for certain people. When did I get to that? It seems like that’s been more recently … I think that’s come with experience. And, I think that comes with making mistakes and realizing what matters, and who matters. I feel like I’m still green and I have such a long way to go and there’s so much more I want to do. I think it also comes with experience and time where you’re more comfortable in your own skin. You’re not going to put in energy into things that don’t serve you, and you’re going to ignore noise that’s not going to help you reach your ultimate goal.

I do think the increased representation matters so much. When there’s discussions of, like the Stanford rapist case last year, and you stood against some of the comments that Max was making about drinking and victim-blaming. Or when you made comments about Penn State honoring Jerry Sandusky, it was super meaningful to me — and probably a lot of other women who watch your show — that there’s a woman voicing this perspective on there. Sports can so often be blindingly paternalistic in a lot of ways, but on First Take there is a balance there. Can you talk about the balance of challenging expectations without alienating people?

So here’s the thing with that. A lot of times you don’t want it to be, ‘Okay, we’re only calling in women when it’s issues involving women.’ Whether it’s domestic violence or a rape case or anything of that matter, or any other subject that involves women in general … okay, now women have a voice? No. That’s silly. It should be that women should be able, if they’re qualified, to have a voice at all times. On all subject matters. Whether it’s the X’s and O’s, or what happened in the game, or what happened with this coach, regardless of the subject matter. We shouldn’t just be prompted when it involves women.

For our show in particular, I’m the host. I’m not the debater. For me, in terms of my role, it’s okay, we’ve left something on the table and that’s when I need to interject. Either further the conversation or bring up another angle, not to debate the guys. Again, being a woman and having that perspective, when those subjects came up I felt the need to get involved in the conversation. At certain times I will come in with a counter argument, or play devil’s advocate, or remind them of what they’ve said earlier.

It’s not really my job to come in and debate them, but when it comes to, again this is from my particular show and I’m not speaking for any other show at ESPN or any other network, when it’s the female issues specifically there has to be, in my opinion, a female voice. When certain topics are brought up and certain angles are neglected, that’s when I feel that need to speak up. Again, I don’t want it to become a thing, that’s the only time women can have a voice. Because it shouldn’t be that. If First Take had a female debater, then she would debate on every subject. But again, I’m in a host role so it’s a different position.

I know that you’ve been a fan of UFC and MMA for a long time, and working in that field even before it got as big as it has lately in America. How does it strike you to see the sport getting more and more mainstream coverage?

I love it. Initially when I got involved with the UFC was in 2007, and I worked for them when I was at ESPN, when they were the WEC, in a bunch of different capacities. That kind of felt like where I started, they’re family to me, and with that, I also started working out in MMA gyms. Muay thai, jiu jitsu, boxing, so that really gave me my love for martial arts. Now I’m just boxing, but I’ve been doing that for ten years. It really opened my eyes in terms of what MMA is all about. Because people are looking at it like, ‘Oh, it’s so brutal.’ But really, martial arts takes such discipline. I love to see it. Dana White gave me a shot, and some of the other folks up at the UFC, and gave me opportunities when I first started. So I want to keep seeing it grow, and keep seeing it expand, and I hope new stars keep coming.

The thing that I think is going to be really interesting to watch is, so, when I got into this, obviously a lot of people were just coming from different principles in martial arts. Randy Couture is a formal wrestler, or BJ Penn is Brazilian jiu jitsu. Everybody came from a particular discipline, but their background was not MMA. Now we have this younger generation and they’re studying, and they’re training as MMA fighters. They’re going to have all the tools now. I think we’re going to see a new level of fighters moving forward, and I think that’s really exciting. It’s such a global sport, and I really love that aspect of it, of how international it is.

So yeah, I love seeing that it’s growing and I hope in continues to. I recently got to go to the MSG fight with Conor McGregor, and I hadn’t been to one in a while, and when I was there, I really missed it. There’s no better sporting event then being at a UFC fight in person. It is so electric. Unless you can’t handle blood, but that doesn’t bother me. I love it. The crowd, the energy, you’d hear the pop, I mean there’s just nothing like it. I used to be in Vegas constantly at all those fights. Obviously now I don’t do that, I work a Monday through Friday job, but I’m so happy for all their success.

It’s funny because earlier this year during the Golden Globes when Meryl Streep gave her long Lifetime Achievement Award speech, she randomly took a stab at MMA, and said ‘Oh, that’s not the arts.’ But things have changed so much, that the reaction wasn’t agreeing with her! The reaction was more like ‘Wait, what are you talking about? Meryl you’re out of your league here.’ I thought that the reaction was really positive and in support of MMA, when even ten years ago I don’t think that would have been the case. People didn’t even know what it was back then. I just thought it was funny to see her disagreed with, so many people were reacting like, ‘No, this is an art form.’

I think when people speak out like that and they’re just seeing a bloody, brutal sport, whether they’re referring to MMA or they’re referring to boxing, and they don’t understand the sweet science. Or they don’t understand the steps behind a jiu jitsu belt, or they don’t understand the sacrifices of a wrestler. This is somebody’s craft, they’re putting their heart and soul into this. I think that’s naivete. Now, if you’re somebody that doesn’t like to see ‘brutality’ then that’s cool, that’s not for you. If you don’t want your kids maybe to see it and you think it’s a little brutal, then that’s okay, that’s not for you. But I don’t think you should go out and dog something just because you don’t like it.

I think sometimes people are ignorant to what it actually is, but if you’ve spent time in these gyms and talked to these MMA fighters … These guys are so humble. I know people are probably laughing at me saying that when they think of a guy like Conor McGregor, his whole bravado, but nobody talks trash better. They’re not signing multi-million dollar contracts. They’re putting their body on the line essentially for peanuts and just trying to come up. That’s the love that they have for their sport.

People aren’t MMA fighters for the money. That’s something that when I was covering it, and dealing with these guys, that you really notice. If were comparing the monetary benefits between each court it’s not even close, what an MMA fighter makes compared to NBA or MLB, etc.

First Take has been traveling a lot in 2017 to get closer to certain sports events like the NBA Finals, which just wrapped up. How has taking the show around to such enormous events changed the tenor of the program? How does it feel to be embedded in the major narratives of sports in 2017?

It’s important for our show to have a presence at all the major events and be at the forefront of sports’ biggest stories. We were at the Super Bowl… the College Football National Championship Game… we spent a week on the West Coast shooting in downtown LA and we just got back from a two-week trip for the NBA Finals in Cleveland and Oakland. Not only do remote shows allow us to get great guests, but they also bring fans the flavor of the city and keeps them on the pulse of sports major moments. The best part of the remote shows is our fans, who I like to call our “First Take fam.” They always travel, get there early, waiting in line for hours and pack the house. Their energy is a game changer for me. Having them in the crowd reminds us why we do what we do, they are the best. I’m so hyped for our upcoming road trips: We’ll actually be in Vegas twice for the Triple G-Canelo Alvarez fight and Mayweather-McGregor. Then in September we’re headed to Jerry’s World when the Cowboys host the Giants — and if you watch First Take you know we have a very special relationship with both those squads.

You recently went public with your relationship with Jalen Rose. How do you guys balance both being members of a relationship, but also both being in the spotlight and still sport of maintaining your private, personal connection? Especially when you are traveling so much?

I think balance is everything we’re all trying to figure out, right? Regardless of what phase of life we’re in, regardless of your career and of your relationship. That’s just something that I’m still continuing to learn and still continuing to juggle. Obviously my career is demanding, but I love what I do at the same time. It’s just kind of prioritizing and working your schedule so you can make everything happen. I look at people, a lot of people that I work with, I don’t have any kids so I look at people and they’re balancing having three children at home and a career. It seems like you’ve just got to kind of figure it out. You feel like you can always do better, and you want more time in the day. Just trying to figure it out I go.

I primarily write about music, so I know that Eminem mentioned you in a recent freestyle. I know that people asked your boyfriend about it and he said it was all love, but the verse was fairly explicit. So I just wanted to ask your personal reaction to it when you heard it.

When it happened I think a few people texted me and they were like, ‘Eminem just shouted you out,’ or ‘Eminem name-checked you!’ And you know what my initial reaction was? I’m like, ‘Eminem knows who I am? Eminem watches First Take? That’s all love.’ I’ve been a fan of his for years, for his music. I love hip hop. That kind of tripped me out for a second, that was honestly, that was my initial reaction. When I heard what the song was on, I’m going to blank on what it is… wasn’t it like the Donald Trump, it was like a campaign speech, right? Yeah. It was just also kind of funny.

I don’t know if funny is the right word, but that it was a part of a campaign speech and not just your typical song. Listen, I appreciate that he’s a fan and I appreciate that he shouted me out. He’s definitely one of the best lyricists in the game. As far as what was actually said, I’m not going to get all beat and get all into it. I don’t think a hip-hop artist is going to say, ‘I want to take long walks on the beach with you.’ I’m just going to leave it at that, and that’s it. Not get all holier than thou, keep watching our show.