The MEDIA Circus
The worst-kept secret in sports broadcasting finally revealed itself on March 5 with a presentation worthy of its Broadway locale. Inside a theater at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, in front of potential advertisers and such bold-face sports names as Gary Bettman, Adam Silver and Hope Solo, Fox Sports executives declared the company's new 24/7 cable sports network, Fox Sports 1, open for business with a drunk-on-bravado sizzle reel that went directly after ESPN. "Fox Sports 1 will become the national sports network that fans choose first," a narrator intoned, as highlights of the Fox network's debut in 1986 and the Fox News launch a decade later played for the crowd.
Why launch a national cable sports network? For profit, of course, but Fox Sports executives believe they have the live-game inventory to be considered a viable challenger to ESPN. Fox Sports 1's programming will revolve around seven pillars: college basketball, college football, MLB, NASCAR, NFL, UFC and world soccer. "We're not expecting to knock ESPN off in the first week or two," said News Corp. senior executive vice president David Hill. "It's going to take two to three years. It will be a solid slog."
Privately, Hill and company know it will take longer, and there are other players in the game, including CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network, both of which launched in the last two years. Of course, the $42 billion gorilla is ESPN, which costs cable providers an average of $5.54 per household per month, according to research firm SNL Kagan—more than any other cable channel. Most analysts predict Fox Sports 1 will command between 75 cents and one dollar per household at launch. (NBC and CBS sports networks cost 33 cents and 24 cents, respectively.) As ESPN president John Skipper told Ad Week: "We'll be hard to displace."
Fox will convert its motor-sports channel, Speed, into FS1 on Aug. 17 and launch in about 90 million homes nationwide. (ESPN is in 98.5 million.) But how will it differentiate itself from its competitors? Fox Sports execs claim their on-air personalities (Erin Andrews, Terry Bradshaw, and yes, Regis Philbin, etc.) are popular and appealing, but every sports network says the same about its talent. For an early indication of whether Fox Sports 1 is serious about competing with ESPN, pay attention to Fox Sports Live, a three-hour news and highlight show that will air nightly from Los Angeles and attempt to siphon viewers from SportsCenter. Fox execs say they'll invest heavily in the news-gathering process and promise the show won't simply regurgitate the debate topics of the day. It's paramount for FS1's credibility that its signature daily show have editorial chops, something Fox Sports has struggled with on its live events.
Asked what would be a mark of success a year from now, Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks is realistic: "If you walk up to a friend and ask what channel Fox Sports 1 is on, we've become a big enough and credible enough voice where people will remember the channel number."