FOX Sports 1 launched in August 2013, with an explicit mandate to challenge ESPN’s hegemony in the sports marketplace. FS1 made some big name hires – Erin Andrews, Gus Johnson, Regis Philbin – and, taking a page from FOX News, stocked its shows with blonde women.
Network executives acknowledged it would be “a slog.” Knocking ESPN off its pedestal, they believed, could “take two to three years.” After two years on the air, FS1 has experienced a programming overhaul and is touting increased percentages from a dismal year one, against ESPN2.
Taking on ESPN has, without question, been a more ambitious project than FOX anticipated. Here’s a look at how the network is faring.
OBTAINING LIVE SPORTS
Viewers watch sports networks for live sports. Sports rights earn ESPN billions from cable subscribers. Sports rights safeguard ESPN’s future in an uncertain marketplace. The fundamental problem for a new sports network is finding sports to televise. ESPN, by design, has made that difficult for potential competitors. Almost all of its prime properties are locked in through the next decade.
Given that constraint, here is an overview of FS1’s rights deals.
MLB: FOX has the Saturday MLB rights. FS1 shows regular season games and postseason games. The latter are huge for ratings. Five FS1 events over its two years have drawn more than four million viewers. Three were NLCS games between the Cardinals and Giants last season.
College Football: FOX shares rights for the Big 12 and the Pac 12 with ESPN. Both are excellent football conferences. Neither draws the SEC’s audience. Bigger games end up on FOX. FS1 shows decent Big 12 afternoon games or late night Pac 12 games. This has not been a ratings boon. Last year’s Oklahoma vs. Baylor game on Nov. 8 attracted 2.04 million viewers, the most of 2014. That was only the eighth-most watched game that weekend. It was outdrawn by Georgia vs. Kentucky on ESPN in the same timeslot.
Soccer: Thanks to FIFA, FOX holds the World Cup rights through 2026. That includes the tournament itself, the men’s qualifiers and the Women’s World Cup. The latter, thanks to the ladies in black, white and neon, proved successful. The USWNT’s Australia opener (3.3m viewers) and the Colombia Round of 16 match (4.7m) were among FS1’s Top 15 all-time telecasts. The semi-final between England and Japan drew nearly four times the viewership of a concurrent Yankees game on ESPN. FOX also holds the rights to the UEFA Champions League and, less significantly, the Bundesliga and MLS.
Other: FOX splits the NASCAR slate with NBC Sports. It is not on the radar of coastal media elites. But, 10 of FS1’s Top 20 all-time telecasts have been NASCAR events. FOX just began a 12-year deal with USGA to air the U.S. Open. FOX also airs the remnants of Big East basketball. Few people have noticed.
FOX landing the World Cups was a major coup. For that month every four years, everything will be coming up FS1, as with NBC Sports and the Olympics. Their total allotment puts them in a comfortable second place ahead of NBCSN.
The trouble is FS1 doesn’t have a consistent, year-round event that will keep viewers coming back and pump up other programming. ESPN and Turner boxed FOX out for the NBA rights. NBC Sports locked down the Premier League rights long term. MLB on Saturday doesn’t have the same effect as MLB on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday night.
FOX can make one decisive move before the mid-2020s: obtaining the Big Ten first-tier rights in 2017. It’s the only major rights contract coming up in the near term. With the conference improving (Harbaugh vs. Meyer, anyone?), it will be valuable. Landing those rights would make FOX and FS1 a legitimate competitor to ESPN in college football. FOX already works with the Big Ten on the Big Ten Network (holding a 51 percent stake). Though, FS1’s ratings vs. ESPN may give Jim Delany and company pause.
OFFERING QUALITY PROGRAMMING
FS1 can’t win the quantitative battle with ESPN in the near future. Can it win the qualitative one? The start has been rocky.
Production value gives ESPN a major advantage. While FOX has multiple decades experience with MLB and the NFL, inexperience elsewhere has been palpable. There have been minor annoyances–not quite capturing the ambience of college football games. There have been major gripes about soccer and golf telecasts.
Live events feel crisper and more professional on ESPN. FOX often feels like it is parachuting in to cover a one-off event (in many cases, it is). The Women’s World Cup coverage was solid. Other sports should improve with repetition. Though, FS1 is still in a place where EPL fans are breathing sighs of relief FS1 did not get the rights back.
The difference is also manifest in studio coverage. ESPN has multiple sets and travels to multiple locations. They have dedicated production manpower for each sport. FS1 shoots almost everything from the same studio, recycling couches and sets.
Versatile, professional hosts are vital. Those are people networks keep. ESPN has Bob Ley, Chris Fowler, Rece Davis, Mike Tirico and a lengthy list beyond that. NBC Sports can trot out Bob Costas, Dan Patrick, Josh Elliott and Rebecca Lowe. FS1 has Rob Stone. He does a commendable job. But, if FOX has to dig deeper (covering two events at once), their answer has been Curt Menefee trying to wing it outside the NFL.
ESPN trumps FS1 in news coverage. The WWL has national reporters, local reporters, columnists and dedicated bloggers. They break stories. When they don’t break them, they flood the zone in the aftermath. They get a reporter and camera crew on site. They have someone in the studio who can offer quality context.
FOX can draw on established reporters. Jay Glazer and Bruce Feldman will be first on Twitter their share of the time. But, the network isn’t trying to close the gap. It is cutting back on news staff and travel budgets, a development one staffer described to SI as “grim.”
Charissa Thompson is capable. Fox Sports Live’s Canadian hosts (Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole) are witty. That and the odd hockey highlight has not been enough to make FOX Sports Live a viable Sportscenter competitor. Average audience may be up. Ratings without a major sport lead-in have struggled to crack six figures.
FS1 did assess ESPN’s weakness correctly when launching. Personalities slip through, but the WWL can feel conventional, stuffy and self-serious. It’s rare to see someone, radio simulcasts aside, discussing “the National Football League” not wearing business formal attire. With recent departures – Simmons, Cowherd, Olbermann – challenging commentary will be rarer, especially about The National Football League.
What FS1 has not done, yet, is exploit that. “Jocularity” has not worked. Being funny is hard. Most athletes aren’t funny on camera. Charles Barkley and Terry Bradshaw are the exceptions. Big name signings for FS1 did not go so well. Andy Roddick was not renewed. Gary Payton was suspended amidst assault allegations. Donovan McNabb was suspended after his second DUI. Brian Urlacher quit after a year.
FS1 does take risks. Some are laudable. Katie Nolan, albeit buried on Sunday night, is one of the few women in any media genre with control over a half-hour of programming to be funny. Michelle Beadle features on every influential/powerful sports media list. She has almost always been flanked by at least one man to keep things on the rails.
Some risks are not so laudable. No one wants Piers Morgan on soccer studio coverage (or anywhere).
FS1 does have space to become an edgier, more personality-driven challenger to ESPN. Media members appreciate sober, reasoned analysis. Everyone else watches sports coverage for entertainment. Media members hate First Take. First Take is one of ESPN’s most popular shows.
Opinion and personality are as popular in sports as any other medium. That should increase as television becomes even more fragmented and on demand. Whatever criticism one wants to level at FOX News, it has been a phenomenally successful TV network.
FOX Sports hired Jamie Horowitz, the creator of First Take. FS1 now features Colin Cowherd and Clay Travis, two of the best in the industry at getting others to care, one way or another, about what they are saying.
Neither has been primarily a television star. Cowherd is more fluid on radio. Travis makes waves with his website. He hasn’t brought viewers flocking over to FS1’s college football coverage from Gameday. But both, when its not clear what television may look like 5-10 years from now, are versatile and can be used on multiple platforms.
Going bolder and edgier comes with its attendant risks. Go too far and you have hosts discussing whether RG3 is black enough. Don’t go far enough and you have The Best Damn Sports Show Period or Crowd Goes Wild.
ESPN is a monolith. It has secured itself well against upstarts. NBC Sports has the Olympics. FOX has the World Cup. ESPN has Monday Night Football, College Football, NBA and MLB feeding viewers and propping up other programming year round.
That said, being a smaller shop without billions in liabilities and bloated rights fees may not be such a bad situation, with cable unbundling on the horizon. We’ve already seen a seemingly invincible ESPN scaling back and cutting costs.
FS1 has done enough to show its staying power in its first two years. But, it’s clear, after the opening publicity blitz, FOX Sports underestimated what mounting a serious challenge to ESPN meant.
FOX has outbid ESPN for talent. But, as ESPN has shown, most talent is replaceable. To improve, FOX must obtain more rights deals in the long term and increase production value in the short intermediate term. From the corporate perspective, that means writing large checks with an uncertain return. Doing just enough may be the more viable option.
[Photos via Getty]