Curt Schilling may be unhittable, but in the first round of the playoffs he failed to retire a single Fox prime-time show. Despite the network's $2.5 billion deal for exclusive rights to playoff games through 2006, viewers tuning in to Fox for Game 1 of the St. Louis-Arizona division series found themselves staring at the soapy reality series Love Cruise. Schilling's three-hit shutout over St. Louis, like seven other playoff games, was on the Fox Family Channel—an odd marriage between playoff baseball and a channel that later this month serves up an Olsen twins marathon.
"It's strange from the perspective of thinking about playoff games on a kids' channel," says sports marketing analyst Dean Bonham, "but it's not so strange when you consider that it's a channel that's important to Fox. This is a trend you'll continue to see."
One of three Fox cable channels (along with FX and Fox Sports Net), Fox Family reaches 83.8 million households, slightly fewer than ESPN (85.2 million) but more than Fox Sports Net (77.0 million). Because of contractual obligations to air college football and the NHL, Fox Sports Net wasn't available for division series games. Fox officials say Fox Family was the better option anyhow. "It wasn't a hard decision to put games on our most widely distributed cable channel," says Fox Sports spokesman Lou D'Ermilio. "We trust that with the aid of the remote control, viewers could find the games."
It's safe to say baseball brought plenty of first-time visitors to Fox Family. When Bob Costas dropped by the booth during the Cardinals- Diamondbacks series, he wondered aloud if Suzanne Somers's Thighmaster infomercial was part of the net's programming. Still, Fox Family division series ratings were down only slightly from games on ESPN last year, and the playoffs attracted nearly three times as many viewers as the average Fox Family show. Those newcomers better keep the clickers handy, though. Disney, parent of ABC and ESPN, is close to acquiring Fox Family, and with it the cable portion of the playoff package.