It was a perfect Fox moment. Big names, huge egos, plenty of hyperbole, a little nonsense and a blockbuster of an announcement that promised to catch the rival networks flat-footed. Promoter Don King, who looks like a character sprung to life out of The Simpsons, announced at a press conference last Thursday that while flying across the Atlantic on the Concorde, he had been visited by a little birdie that whispered, "Rupert." Now, King proclaimed, heavyweight Mike Tyson, whom King handles, would fight his latest stiff of the month, Buster Mathis Jr., live on Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV the night of Nov. 4, just as television's critical November ratings sweeps period begins. "It was spiritual," said King. "Like a revelation."
Fox was certainly treating the Tyson coup as a gift from the gods. Tracy Dolgin, executive vice president of marketing, called the fight "manna from heaven," and Chase Carey, chairman and CEO of Fox TV, actually said, "We really do believe it's as exciting an event as has been on television in many years." Right. Mr. Excitement himself, Buster Mathis Jr. Still, some exaggeration was in order in light of the fact that the Tyson-Mathis bout will be Fox's first boxing telecast and Tyson's first live fight on network television since 1986, when he took all of 30 seconds to dispatch Marvis Frazier on ABC. And from the reaction of rival television executives, you would have thought Fox had managed to land the second coming of Ali-Frazier. "I'm shocked," said Lou DiBella, a senior vice president of TVKO, a pay-per-view cable network owned by Time Warner (SI's parent company). DiBella, interviewed by The New York Times, had good reason to be pained, since TVKO had already scheduled another marquee heavyweight bout, the rubber match between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, for Nov. 4. "This is the ultimate act of war against us," DiBella declared.
Reacting to King's announcement, promoter Bob Arum, his bitter rival, told the New York Daily News, "If this is true, it's the end of the pay-per-view business."
Not likely. Murdoch will pay King a reported $8 million to $10 million for the Tyson-Mathis fight, a mere fraction of the $96 million that the recent 89-second Tyson-Peter McNeeley fiasco raked in over pay-per-view. The clear winner in the deal, though, is Fox, which has become a major player in sports since landing the rights to the National Football Conference in 1993. Not only should the Tyson-Mathis program carry the night of Nov. 4 in the U.S. ratings, but Murdoch, who acts globally while others just talk it, will also beam the bout to Great Britain over his Sky Television satellite service. Further, according to sources, on the back end of the deal Fox will get rights to a dozen more King-promoted fights.
Just 13 months ago Fox had never so much as televised a live sporting event. Now the Fox name crops up every time an event comes up for bid. "We're just the new kid on the block trying to make our way in the world," says David Hill, the innovative president of Fox Sports, who, like Murdoch, is a native of Australia now in L.A. "Underpromise, overdeliver. That's the sports division's credo."
That must be a brandnew credo. Last November, Fox didn't exactly underpromise and overdeliver on golfer Greg Norman's ill-fated $25 million World Tour, which Murdoch had made an agreement to broadcast. Nor did it overdeliver on its vain efforts to lure Wimbledon from NBC and HBO, or on its $701 million offer to the IOC for the rights to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, which Murdoch eventually lost to NBC and its $715 million preemptive bid.
Still, you have to give the new kid credit for stepping up to the plate. In addition to acquiring the rights to the NFC, which Murdoch snatched away from CBS for the staggering sum of $1.58 billion over four years, Fox is entering the second year of a five-year, $155 million contract with the National Hockey League. It also struck a deal earlier this year with the powerful International Skating Union to televise five events in a new grand prix of figure skating. And it's considered a strong contender in upcoming bidding to land the rights to Major League Baseball. Indeed, baseball may need Fox's youthful demographics as much as it needs Murdoch's cash. That baseball doesn't seem to turn on younger viewers is viewed by Fox not as an obstacle but as a challenge. "We think we could bring some excitement to baseball broadcasts that hasn't been there in the past," says Carey.
The jewel in Fox Sports' crown, of course, is the NFC. "It made us a real network," says Murdoch. "The next sport we take can't do for us what the NFL did."
Fox will lose money on its 1993 football deal: At the end of last season, Fox's parent, News Corporation, took a $350 million write-off to cover the anticipated losses. But the ancillary benefits of having pro football are incalculable to the young network. In addition to helping to strengthen its affiliate lineup—Fox can now be seen in 99% of the country—the network's successful NFC coverage and its top-rated pregame show, The NFL on Fox, has given its sports division credibility that couldn't be bought. Says Ed Goren, the executive producer of Fox Sports and a former senior producer at CBS, "Rupert gave us a budget that allowed us to do things we couldn't do at CBS."
From the outset Fox beefed up the audio from the sidelines and employed at least the same number of cameras (12) and replay machines (eight) in its weekly national games as CBS had used to cover its final NFC Championship Game. It introduced the much-ballyhooed Fox Box—a visible-at-all-times scoreboard in the top left corner of your TV screen—a viewer-friendly innovation that has been picked up by both ESPN and TNT. Not to be outdone, NBC, too, increased its cameras and replay machines to 12 and 10, respectively, for its national games, though NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol says that the Fox Box is one innovation his network will never copy. "I'm not giving the viewers a road map to go somewhere else," Ebersol says of fans' tendencies to use their clickers once they find out the score. "But I'll give Fox credit: Their entrance into the game has forced all of us to be on our toes."