Fox Sports 1 takes aim at ESPN's throne; UFC will be key
No network loves to champion its iconoclastic roots more than Fox -- the scrappy outfit fronted by billionaire Rupert Murdoch -- but in its upcoming fight against ESPN, the network that brought you Bill O'Reilly, Homer Simpson and Temptation Island is indeed an underdog. Last Tuesday, in front of more than 1,000 advertising executives, media buyers and boldfaced sports names such as Gary Bettman, Ronda Rousey and Hope Solo, Fox finally unveiled the worst-kept secret in sports broadcasting: The launch of Fox Sports 1.
The 24/7 cable sports network aims to be a viable competitor for ESPN, and during a one-hour presentation at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, Fox Sports executives promised that Fox Sports 1 would be revolutionary on the same scale as Fox broadcasting's debut in 1986 and the launch of Fox News a decade later. "Today, there is one dominant national sports network, and conventional wisdom says there can only be one 24-hour sports network," a deep-throated narrator intoned as highlights played of Fox's launch in 1986 and the Fox News launch a decade later. "But everything is about to change ... again!"
In the upcoming issue of Sports Illustrated, I'll examine the uphill role Fox Sports 1 has in challenging ESPN. Below, we offer the highlights from the launch presentation, some suggestions for programming, and Fox Sports executives making the case for why it will work.
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week)
1. Fox Sports 1 will officially launch on Saturday, Aug. 17, in about 90 million homes, making it the biggest sports cable network launch in history. Network executives said FS1 will air close to 5,000 hours of live event, news and studio shows annually (about 55 percent of the network's overall schedule will be live programming). Fox Sports 1 will be built on seven key pillars -- college basketball, college football, MLB, NASCAR, NFL, UFC, and world soccer. There will also be original programming, including a documentary series.
1a. Why is now the right time to launch a new cable sports network? Fox Sports co-president Randy Freer said the sports rights deals acquired by the company over the past five years have set the ground work to be a viable player against ESPN. "We believe we have amassed enough live events and can package and put programming around it where we can have scale, significance, and be a major player in the market," Freer said.
1b. You'll learn a lot about the editorial ethos of Fox Sports 1 by how it handles breaking news and newsgathering. The show that will attempt to siphon viewers from SportsCenter is "Fox Sports Live," which will air nightly at 11:00 p.m. Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks said no on-air talent has been hired for the show as of yet, but the network has a rough idea of the format, rundown and structure. The initial plans are to air a three-hours news and highlight show from Los Angeles starting at launch; a morning newscast (likely airing from New York) is expected to launch in January 2014. Shanks said Fox Sports 1 would make a significant investment in news to provide around-the-clock coverage. "There is a baseline news investment that you have to have to be credible in a 24/7 environment," Shanks said. "We want this to be a place where people can fulfill their needs for highlights. It's a news-based show, but it is not two people sitting at a desk reading highlights and then breaking down the X's and O's. We are going try to have a bit of fun."
1c. Fox Sports executives say they are interested in bidding on the NBA's broadcast rights for Fox Sports 1 when the league's current deal with ESPN and Turner Sports concludes at the end of the 2015-16 season. Should the NFL create an additional package of games for cable, Fox Sports 1 will certainly be a major player in the bidding.
1d. Beginning in 2014, Fox Sports 1 will air at least one League Championship Series game and select Division Series games from Major League Baseball. The network will carry regular-season games over 26 Saturdays, and the Fox broadcast network will go from its 26-week schedule to 12 regular-season games.
1e. The new network will feature plenty of UFC, including 12 live "Fight Nights" bouts that will air on Wednesdays. There will also be a weekly studio show (UFC Tonight) and 14 Saturday pay-per-view preliminary cards. Fox Sports 1 will air a UFC event the night before Super Bowl XLVIII from the Prudential Center in Newark.
In an interview with SI.com, UFC head Dana White said his organization had been talking with a number of different networks but Fox moved quickly to secure the rights. "They have spread us across big Fox, FX and Fuel, and obviously it has worked out great for both of us," White said. "This is a work in progress, but we knew the light at the end of the tunnel is going to be Fox Sports 1."
White said the UFC studio show on Fox Sports 1 will be similar to the one on Fuel. As for the live bouts, UFC will air 12 fight cards on Wednesday nights between the network's August launch and a to-be-determined date in 2014. "We want to make sure that when we deliver fights, we deliver fights that people want to watch," White said. "I think you saw in the old days when boxing went away from [over-the-air] TV, they put crappy boxing on TV that people did not want to watch. We are doing the exact opposite."
1f. Fox Sports 1 will air a primetime Thursday Night college football game and a tripleheader on Saturdays. The teams will be drawn from among the Pac-12, Big 12 and Conference USA.
1g. Prime-time college basketball games will air Monday and Thursday nights, plus Saturday and Sunday coverage of the Big 12, Pac-12 and Conference USA
1h. The network will have select NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races as soon as 2015 as well as NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races, NASCAR Sprint All-Star race, and Speedweeks events leading up to the Daytona 500.
2. Fox Sports executives repeatedly mentioned soccer as a significant pillar of its programming and the plan is to air international games (Champions League and UEFA Europa League, in particular) on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. "While our competitors are showing talking heads [in the afternoon], Fox Sports 1 will be showing live games with stars like [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo," said William Wagner, Fox Sports executive vice president of research and programming. Fox Sports 1 will be the home of the FA Cup, CONCACAF Gold Cup and CONCACAF qualifiers. Long-range plans include coverage of the 2015 and 2019 Women's World Cup, men's World Cup coverage in 2018 and 2022, and weekly magazine and highlights shows.
2a. Asked about the future of Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports executives deflected the answer. "We absolutely want to maintain the leadership position we have in soccer," Shanks said. "If you are in the business, you have certain responsibility to help grow the sport by putting the best games and shoulder programming on Fox Sports 1. We will continue to have a soccer business no matter what happens to Fox Soccer Channel."
3. Attempting to expand its NFL presence beyond Sundays, Fox Sports 1 will air "Fox Football Daily" (6:00-7:00 PM ET), featuring NFL on Fox staffers Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jay Glazer, Gus Johnson, Erin Andrews and Mike Pereira. Light on specifics at this point, Fox says the show will "provide a daily dose of news, interviews and commentary from pro and collegiate football worlds."
3a. The network formally announced that Regis Philbin will host "Rush Hour" (weekdays 5:00 to 6:00 PM ET), a roundtable talk-show show originating from New York City. Why is Fox bringing in 81-year-old with little connection to sports broadcasting outside of his public love of Notre Dame? Said Shanks: "I honestly think once this show goes on the air, people will think: 'Why didn't I think of that?' He really is an amazing sports fan and a likeable person."
3b. Fox Sports executives told USA Today they plan to develop an early-morning Sunday NFL pregame show to compete against ESPN and the NFL Network pregame shows.
3c. The Catholic 7 schools - a group of basketball-only institutions within the former Big East conference - are expected to be a major part of Fox Sports 1 winter programming. "I am cautiously optimistic that a deal will be done," Shanks said.
4. Sports analytics is a genre where Fox Sports 1 could create programming unique to any multi-sport cable network. With the growing interesting in advanced metrics in the NBA and NFL and major support for such stats in baseball, Fox could succeed where ESPN ceded the terrain (Numbers Never Lie, sadly, is nothing more than a watered-down debate show.) There's a high-income demographic to be had with a long investment on a smart show, and clearly, there is plenty of talent out there. The same goes for Fantasy sports, where someone such as ESPN's Matthew Berry could front an interesting franchise.
4a. Fox's sell to advertisers at its presentation was that Fox Sports 1 will be one of two viable 24-hour sports cable channels, but NBC Sports Network, which will get a huge boost from the English Premier League (which it won from Fox) and the Sochi Olympics, will have a major say in that conversation. The relationship between Fox and ESPN has certainly captured the attention of NBC Sports executives (who have referred to the ESPN-Fox combo derisively as "FOSPN"). Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand examined the dynamic between the three networks in this terrific piece.
4b. ESPN executives will be closely watching the August launch of Fox Sports Go, a mobile app for iPhone, iPad, Android devices and the web which will stream sports content from Fox Sports, Fox Sports 1 and the company's 22 regional sports networks. This is Fox's product answer to ESPN's immensely popular WatchESPN, which allows for mobile viewing of all of ESPN's live sports on an authenticated basis. Fox said its live games and events will be available to subscribers of participating cable, satellite, and telco providers at no additional cost. Fox is also redesigning Fox Sports.com and will re-launch all of its mobile apps in April.
4c. Fox Sports executives will not comment publicly on distribution but there is no way they would launch a new network on this scale without assurances of being on the basic cable tier of most cable systems. Keep in mind Speed is on most basic tier packages.
4d. Regarding the possibility of a Fox Sports 2 channel, Shanks said it was still too early to be definitive. "We have to still figure out if we want to put a Number 2 out there," Shanks said. Most observers believe it will happen soon. l
4e. Fox Sports 1 plans to use the "double box" commercial format to keep viewers engaged throughout breaks during live events. When a game goes to commercial, a second box will come up showing the ads, with live video from the event in a smaller box still on the screen. "The goal will be to get it in all live events," Shanks said.
4f. During Fox's presentation last week, the network mocked ESPN by showing a robot in a video repeating the phrase "Tim Tebow" over and over again.
5. Longtime ESPN Radio host Chuck Wilson, a voice of intelligence amid a sea of chest-beating opinion-offers, is no longer with the radio network. His contract (he worked the last three years on a freelance basis) was not renewed. His last day on ESPN's airwaves was Sunday. Wilson said Scott Masteller, ESPN Radio senior director, told him they were moving in another direction. "I thank ESPN for bringing me back the last three years in a freelance role. "Wilson said. "They treated me well." Wilson spent nearly 17 years at ESPN Radio during multiple stints. Here's hoping someone picks him up.
5a. Jason Stewart, the longtime talent coordinator for The Jim Rome radio show, has left the show after 14 years. Said Stewart, in an email: "I'm still weighing options for my next broadcasting job, and, believe it or not, looking to further my acting career. I've signed with a commercial casting agent, so you might see my wooden and laconic self in a beer commercial or something." Stewart's final show was Friday -- a three-hour tribute to all things J-Stew -- which you can download here.
6. Among the memorable sports pieces this week:
• Gregory Lee Jr., the president of the National Association of Black Journalists, examined the lack of sports columnists of color at the top circulation newspapers and websites.
• ESPN's "Outside The Lines" examined the Steubenville Rape Case on Sunday. Strong work and kudos to associate producer Michael Sciallo.
• Here's the hub to every piece of content from SI's Power Week.
• Deadspin's John Koblin smartly explained why ESPN2's First Take, like a incurable virus, hurts the ESPN brand and those in Bristol trying to do thoughtful work.
• For "Game of Thrones" fans, here's a podcast with creator George R. R. Martin. GRRM, a diehard Giants fan, says Patriots coach Bill Belichick reminds him of a Greyjoy.
• Sarah Spain of espnW asked an important Q: Why don't women have higher-profile sports broadcasting jobs beyond sideline reporting?
• A non-sports piece all should take note of: "The Professor, the Bikini Model and the Suitcase Full of Trouble" from this week's New York Times Magazine.
7. The real power in the sports-media space sits in the executive suite, and heads of sports television networks littered SI's 50 Most Powerful People In Sports list. As part of SI.com's Power Week, I compiled a list of the most powerful figures in the sports media, excluding executives, behind-the-scenes people and SI staffers. Only those in front of the camera or with bylines were considered.
Defining the group wasn't easy. How did I do it? I drew on my years of covering sports media as well as conversations about the topic this month with people at different networks and publications. Power is perception, of course, and the likelihood is if you polled 10 other media writers, no list would be the same. Not surprisingly, the list drew significant reaction, ranging from thoughtful suggestions on omissions to colorful ways of calling me an idiot. Most disappointing were those who conflated power and talent in an attempt to sell why certain people were not on the list. Had this been my list of the most talented people in sports media, anyone who has read this column or follows me on Twitter knows how different that list would be. (Skip Bayless on my list for most talented? Come on now.) Doris Burke and Mary Carillo would obviously be on that Top 10 list as they were when I honored both in my best of the decade piece.
One interaction I'm glad I had was with Michelle Kinsey Bruns, the online manager for the Women's Media Center in Washington D.C. She asked why there were no women in on my Top 10, and we engaged in a healthy discussion on it. "The issue of gender representation on various online 'power lists' is a perennial topic for us, which is unfortunate, since we know that media recognition begets more media recognition," Bruns wrote in an email. "But we're always pleased if a constructive, productive dialogue can result, so thanks very much for that."
Had my list extended to 25 people, ESPN's Hannah Storm, a prominent anchor for SportsCenter and a growing documentarian with her 30 for 30 work, would have been on it. Storm also has direct access to ESPN's top executives, which was a big factor in my evaluation. Given most of my honorable mentions were interchangeable after No. 15, I'd have no issue putting Storm in the Top 20. My Top 10 remains my Top 10. Wrote Bruns: "Power is subjective too, and lists like these become self-fulfilling prophecies. Is it possible that you're defining power in a narrow, and, forgive us, but-male-centric way? [There is] huge power in Jemele Hill's breaking barriers/broadening assumptions of what sports journalism can look like (literal+figurative). We can't all be Bill Simmons: a fair point. But Hannah Storm is not even a Bob McKenzie...?"
She continued. "It's apples-to-oranges [comparisons], but that's the nature of these lists. So is the reification of existing power and influence. Even if the goal is simply to assess power, you end up reinforcing it. No women even in honorable mention does send a message. Our point-of-view is that cracking these lists gets harder for women with each all-male one that comes out."
Bruns gives me something to think about heading forward regarding defining sports media power in a male-centric way. If I end up doing this list again next year, it will certainly be part of my thought process.
8. The Golf Channel debuts an enterprising new original series -- In Play With Jimmy Roberts -- on March 12 at 10:30 p.m. ET. The monthly show will attempt to travel the terrain of E:60 and Real Sports with a journalistic focus on long-form stories about golf. The first episode examines an inmate at Attica State Prison, who passes the time in his cell by drawing famous golf holes from around the world, and also features a conversation with LPGA golfer Christina Kim about her battle with depression.
9. According to Sports Business Daily, ESPN had 780,000 viewers for the UConn-Notre Dame women's basketball game last Monday, the second highest viewed women's college basketball game this season behind Baylor-UConn (982,000 viewers) on Feb. 18.
10. Miscellaneous: ESPN's Selection Sunday coverage March 17 concludes with a "30 For 30" documentary ("Survive and Advance") on former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano and his 1983 Wolfpack team. The film is directed by Jonathan Hock, who has a great track record in the sports doc genre.
10a. Fox Soccer would be wise to hold off pairing Ian Wright with Gus Johnson in the future, as Wright bludgeoned Sunday's FA Cup quarterfinal broadcast between Manchester United and Chelsea with an endless stream of commentary.
10b. ESPN owns the Spanish-language rights to the World Baseball Classic and is airing most of those games on ESPN Deportes, but Sunday night aired the mega-showdown between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico on ESPN. (MLB Network aired the game in English at the same time.) ESPN2 will simulcast a WBC game in Spanish again on Tuesday at 1 p.m. That game will also be available on ESPN Deportes and on MLB Network in English. No doubt the ESPN simulcast will hurt MLB Net ratings, but fans (especially those in places that don't get MLB Net) win out with multiple options.
10c. The CBS Sports Network will air a one-hour documentary Monday (8:00 p.m. ET) on the Danny Manning-led 1988 University of Kansas national champion college basketball team.
10d. NBC Sports announcer Al Michaels gets inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame on Monday.
10e. The NFL Network will air nine hours of free agent coverage this Tuesday and Wednesday beginning at 10:00 a.m. ET. I'd list all the on-air people involved in the coverage, but it's about the same as the population of Sri Lanka.
10f. Twenty current and former NFL players, including Ravens lineman Bryant McKinnie. will be part of the second annual Business of Music Boot Camp at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music in New York. Among the instructors: Darryl (D.M.C.) McDaniels, one of the founding members of the pioneering rap group, Run-DMC.