Not the New York Yankees, not the Los Angeles Lakers and not the Dallas Cowboys. No dynasty has dominated the sports landscape the past three decades like ESPN, which draws up the sports fan’s diet, prepares the food and then instantly critiques every bite.
Beginning today, hungry sports fans will have a new option as Fox launches a 24-hour sports network, Fox Sports 1, aimed at cutting into ESPN’s profit-filled pie and offering viewers an alternative to the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader.”
“We would like it to stand out as the best visual presentation of sporting events and programming out there,” said Randy Freer, co-president and chief operating officer of Fox Sports.
Industry observers say challenging a behemoth like ESPN is no easy task. In fact, they say, ESPN is such a giant that its cable throne likely won’t be at risk any time soon.
“The idea of competing with ESPN is almost silly. ESPN long ago developed a strategy where they’re going to compete with themselves,” said John Ourand, who covers media for the Sports Business Journal.
But Fox doesn’t have to be No. 1 in the ratings to be successful and profitable. For years industry executives have scanned the sports media landscape and seen opportunity, which had little to do with beating ESPN.
“Everybody looked at ESPN and said, ‘Hmm, they’re making a lot of money,’ ” said Michael Weisman, a longtime executive producer for NBC Sports and later Fox. “Big media companies kept saying, ‘Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we compete?’ . . . Companies like Fox and NBC-Comcast look at ESPN and figured even if we can’t knock them off and beat them, even if we don’t make the billions that ESPN is making, we can still make a very nice profit center.”
Said Freer: “The marketplace for sports is big enough to have two significant, scaleable, robust business assets. And I think we can make Fox Sports 1 over time a strong asset for 21st Century Fox.”
Industry observers say it’s likely the launch of the new Fox startup is a bigger threat to the other sports cable entities, notably NBC Sports Network, which was re-branded in January 2012 and has had its share of growing pains despite some success in the ratings during the London Olympics.
The truth is, the second-ranked sports network isn’t NBC Sports or NFL Network or any of the others. It’s ESPN2. ESPN’s brand is attached to a dominant Web site, a magazine, multiple channels and exclusive rights to many live events.
“ESPNers are not sitting around worrying about Fox,” James Andrew Miller, the co-author of “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” said in an e-mail. “Some are curious about what FS1 will look like, others have taken notice of how much Fox is spending, but they are more concerned with their own programming challenges and improving their own ratings.”
The game plan for Fox Sports 1 appears simple enough. The network, which previously had been called Speed and was focused on motor sports, hopes to launch in 90 million homes. Fox has spent millions luring some big names — including tennis star Andy Roddick and daytime king Regis Philbin — and securing deals with NASCAR, Major League Baseball, the Big 12 and Pacific-12 conferences and the Ultimate Fighting Championship among others. It also locked up the rights to the U.S. Open golf championship, which had been on NBC for nearly two decades.
The parent network is broadcasting the Super Bowl in February, and the NFL will play a big role in Fox Sports 1’s daily programming. The freewheeling, chuckling banter from Fox’s Sunday pregame show will carry over into “Fox Football Daily,” which will feature former NFL stars such as Ronde Barber, Brian Urlacher and Randy Moss dissecting the game with reporter Jay Glazer and others.
“Not an X’s and O’s show. We’re going to have fun,” executive producer Bill Richards said.
Said Glazer: “I think we look at this more as NFL uncensored — NFL after dark.”
Fox executives stress how “fun” their programming will be, featuring the personality, edginess and technological ambition that became hallmarks for Fox. The tone for Fox Sports 1 will be set by the nightly update show, “Fox Sports Live,” the channel’s answer to ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Fox recruited Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, popular anchors in Canada but relatively unknown in the United States, and will rely on a cast of analysts such as Donovan McNabb, Gary Payton and Roddick to fill the gaps among highlights, scores and news.
Already, the attitude is apparent. The show tweeted last weekend: “You officially have ONE WEEK to enjoy whatever else might be on television. We’re coming.” Bill Simmons, ESPN’s online tour de force, responded: “Settle down.”
By publicly taking aim at ESPN, Fox Sports 1 has created some buzz — and certainly has attracted the attention of ESPN brass. There have been bidding wars for some talent, and ESPN executives say the arrival of new competition played a role in the recent hirings of Keith Olbermann, Nate Silver and Jason Whitlock, who had been at Fox the past six years and was making plans to launch a show of his own before coming to terms with ESPN earlier this week.
“We’ve faced competition from the early days of ESPN,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming. “Competition is nothing new. We have respect for the folks at Fox. At the same time, we think we’re at a very strong position in many facets.”
While ratings and advertising dollars pose a constant challenge, ESPN’s coffers are constantly refilled. Cable companies currently pay less than a quarter per month per subscriber for Speed, which pales in comparison with what ESPN charges: more than $5 per customer each month. That means with nearly 100 million subscribers, ESPN pulls in around $6 billion before airing a single ad — and that’s only for its flagship network.
Industry insiders say it would take years for Fox Sports 1 to charge the kind of money and because ESPN has exclusive rights to so many live events locked up, plus an ever-present brand, its position at the top is safe.
For now, Fox executives are happy to have a place on the dial, eager to show that ESPN’s way of covering sports isn’t the only way.
“This is all great for sports fans,” Weisman said. “They’ll be able to see more programming of the sports they follow, and they’ll be exposed more to more minor sports, those that aren’t televised as much. You’ll see sports covered much greater than you have before.”