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Get ready for the “Foxification” of cable sports.
Beginning on Saturday, two new round-the-clock national sports channels, Fox Sports 1 and 2, are being launched. They aim to bring “Fox attitude” — that edgy, show biz or no biz, let’s-turn-everything-into-an-event mindset — to a wide range of programs.
For opening day, one “event” is an interview on the signature daily show Fox Sports Live with LeBron James of the Miami Heat, who will be interviewed by columnist Bill Reiter. Mike Tyson will be a guest later in the week.
It remains to be seen whether the new Fox Sports national channels can ever command the same advertising rates, sub fees from cable systems or level of ratings enjoyed by ESPN. But 21st Century Fox’s newest venture arrives with a strong team (in front of and behind the camera), a lot of major sports rights and a cable subscriber count that rivals — but still doesn’t equal — the Disney/ABC sports powerhouse.
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Fox Sports 1, which is a brand new channel, is available at launch in about 90 million homes. Fox Sports 2, taking the position on cable systems previously held by Fuel TV and in some cases the Speed network, is in about 37 million homes.
That compares to the 98 million basic cable TV homes ESPN says both ESPN and ESPN2 can be seen in currently. There are also three other smaller ESPN sports networks.
However, the Fox channels are available in more homes than other rivals from major broadcasters. CBS Sports Network is on air in about 49 million U.S. TV homes (but reaches over 90 million, if those other customers would elect to see it); and NBC Sports Network, about to be renamed NBCSN, is in 80 million homes, according to the network.
If Fox Sports is successful, there is a huge upside. Fox was receiving about 20 cents per month per sub from cable operators, according to SNL Kagan statistics. The latest carriage deals are reportedly for about 80 cents per sub. And if FS1 meets even minimum goals, that could easily jump to $1.50 per sub in the future. ESPN reportedly gets over $5.54 per sub and brings in over $9 billion per year.
Fox Sports also has a much bigger footprint to offer advertisers seeking national exposure than the Fox regional sports networks. It has already brought aboard Ford, already the exclusive auto sponsor for the NFL Sunday Pregame. Ford also is a sponsor on FBC’s American Idol and on many other entertainment and sports shows.
Other advertisers on FS1 from day one include GEICO insurance and the Yum Brands fast food restaurants.
Fox is not a newcomer to sports, of course. Fox Broadcasting Company carries National Football League and Major League Baseball games, as well as many other sporting events. Fox also has the Fox Soccer Channel, Fox College Sports, BTN (co-venture with the Big 10), the FX Network, which has carried some sports, as well as its own sports statistics information provider, STATS Inc.
In addition, Fox has FSN and 22 regional sports channels spread out from California to the Carolinas, from Wisconsin to Florida.
Fox is also ramping up its digital sports operations. On Aug. 15, Fox Sports Digital announced the acquisition of Fanhood, a digital sports start-up, and the hiring of its team, including founder Brandon Ramsey. Ramsey will develop personalized products for Fox Sports, based in San Francisco at the Fox Sports Digital technology center.
Fox has also hired new on-air talent and announced plans to bring existing stars to FS1 like its heralded football announcing crew that includes Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson, Michael Strahan and Troy Aikman.
If there is an example of how Fox likes to bring showmanship to sports, you will see it on Monday when Regis Philbin, 81, returns to TV as host of a daily afternoon sports talk show called Crowd Goes Wild. It will air on FS1 at 5 p.m. ET. He will be surrounded by a regular crew of commentators and will host guests who, in the first week, are expected to include Oscar De La Hoya; golfer Rickie Fowler; and NBA player Metta World Peace.
In the lead up to the launch of Fox Sports 1, the network has been acquiring even costlier rights, including amateur golf, auto racing, boxing, horse racing, UFC, soccer, high school, college football and more. The biggest events will go on FBC, many others on FS1 or FS2 and some, if it is geographically appropriate, on Fox regional networks.
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks said one of the driving forces behind formation of the network was the need for a bigger platform that would provide more money and leverage in sports rights negotiations. In the past few years, as sports has been recognized as one of the few forms of programming people watch live, the cost of rights has rapidly escalated.
An example was the recent amateur golf deal Fox concluded — which includes the U.S. Open — that raised the license fee from about $36 million a year to a reported $100 million a year.
Fox will have the 2014 Super Bowl, a powerful advertising and promotional platform, but doesn’t have any NFL games it can put on FS1. Under its $9.9 billion NFL package, all those games are to be aired on FBC, while ESPN has pro football on Monday nights during the season.
Besides Monday Night Football, ESPN’s power lineup of sports rights includes the majority of NBA regular season games and some playoffs and finals games; regular season Major League Baseball games; most of the big college football bowl games; golf majors The Masters, British Open and, until 2015, the U.S Open (which then moves to Fox); Nascar; Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in tennis, among others; and the 2014 World Cub soccer qualifiers.
NBC Sports lineup includes the Olympics every two years, NFL on Sundays, National Hockey League games, Major League Soccer, IndyCar, the Triple Crown (horse racing), boxing, MMA and more.
CBS Sports has college basketball (four conferences), college football (three conferences, Army and Navy), Arena Football, pro bull ridings, beach volleyball and major league lacrosse.
Of course, the CBS network also has lots of NFL football.
CBS also just announced that the sports network is moving up on DirecTV from channel 612 to channel 221.
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The new Fox networks have also hired a lot of people both to handle technical and craft duties and as on-air talent. An announcement boasts that FS1 will present 5,000 hours of live events, news and original programming annually. And that is before the new major league baseball deal kicks in next year when they will be able to carry regular and postseason games on FS1.
What Fox doesn’t have is ESPN’s ratings for its sports-only networks. According to Nielsen, ESPN, for the year to date (through July 21), averaged 1.2 million viewing homes at any given time. Overall in 2012, adds Nielsen, ESPN averaged 1.7 million viewing homes in primetime.
NBC Sports, by comparison, averaged 273,000 homes; and Fuel, when it existed, averaged only 39,000 viewing homes.
There are also about two dozen other networks with national reach, large and small. Some are broad and others very specific. They include the Golf Channel, NBA TV, MLB TV, NHL Network, Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel, The Ski Channel, World Fishing Network and the WWE Network.
Beginning Saturday, we will find out just how competitive Fox Sports will be with ESPN and the rest. Let the games begin.
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