Fox’s Sports Network To Debut Saturday, With or Without the Sound

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Kevin Lynch for FOX SPORTS 1

The FOX Sports Live team, from left: Ephraim Salaam, Andy Roddick, Gary Payton, Jay Onrait, Dan O'Toole, Charissa Thompson, Donovan McNabb

Four days before launching the first serious challenge to ESPN’s decades-long domination of televised sports, the executives of Fox Sports 1 — the 24/7 national sports network set to launch this weekend — were telling jokes. Slightly dark jokes, in fact.

“The goal is to get through Saturday without strangling anybody,” said Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks.

“We’ll just step over the bodies,” responded Bill Wanger, the executive vice president for programming.

Fox Sports execs appear to be having fun these days, and that attitude is something they hope filters down to the on-air personalities they’ve hired and the slate of sports shows set to debut tomorrow. After several years of planning and strategic acquisitions, at 6 a.m. EST on Saturday, Fox Sports 1 will take over from the Fox-owned Speed motorsports channel in roughly 90 million homes, blanketing the nation with 24/7 sports coverage in a bold attempt to chip away at ESPN’s hegemony.

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But the Fox executives say their strategy for taking on ESPN is not merely to imitate it — and a strong dose of irreverence is one of the characteristics they hope will differentiate their new offering. Perhaps most notably, its line-up will include Fox Sports Live, a nightly highlight show that will compete directly with ESPN’s SportsCenter, but be hosted by Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, a Canadian duo better known for their comedy behind the Canadian SportsCentre anchor desk than for their sharp sports insight.

Still, Fox Sports 1 will have plenty of what you’d expect from a full-blown 24/7 sports network by the company that brought us Fox News. The channel is launching with instantly recognizable on-air talent, including Regis Philbin, former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, and former tennis star Andy Roddick. And it has bought up the rights to broadcast big-time sporting events like Pac-12 and Big 12 college football, U.S. Open golf, Major League Baseball, World Cup soccer, and the increasingly popular Ultimate Fighting Championship.

As it turns out, the channel’s execs says that Fox News itself provided ideas and inspiration for ways the new channel could distinguish itself from its powerful competitor. That makes sense given the parallels between the challenges faced by the two Fox channels. Back in 1996, the 24-hour cable news world looked a bit like today’s TV sports landscape: A single behemoth that appeared unbeatable: CNN. But by the early 2000s, Fox News had already surpassed CNN in the ratings and has maintained its lead ever since. The strategy relied heavily on big personalities and the extensive use of visuals and graphics to keep viewers interested — all elements the Fox Sports 1 execs have taken notice of.

“The topic bars and the graphics will constantly be telling you what’s going on,” Shanks says of FS1. “They may even be paraphrasing what some of the talent are saying, or what some of the guests are saying, so you can get the gist of the conversation even with the sound off.”

In fact, Shanks says Fox Sports 1’s programming will generally be required to pass what he calls the “bar test” — meaning that a viewer should be able to glean some information or otherwise grasp what’s happening while sitting in a bar where the TV is muted. “Traditionally, regular news does that very, very well,” he says. “You can sit down and watch news with the sound off and still very much keep up with what’s going on.”

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The “bar test” approach also appears to be aimed at millennials who aren’t likely to be focusing their attention on the TV whether they’re in a bar or their own homes. Instead, they’re tweeting or texting friends on their smartphones or checking scores on their tablets — and displaying bits and chunks of information visually will make it easy for such viewers to tune in and out on the fly.

Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California who studies how news is consumed, says the average media user rarely spends more than two or three minutes with a single news source, and often far less, something news organizations need to stay cognizant of to be relevant. “You have to tailor your experience more and more to something that is going to be consumed on-the-go with other distractions,” Kahn says. “You can’t expect to have their attention for very long, and the more malleable you can make that experience so it can work in different environments, the more success you’re going to have.”

The industry will be watching the FS1 debut closely. Few rivals have emerged since ESPN launched in 1979, and the ones that did withered away. The only serious threat over three decades was CNN/SI, a network that lasted from 1996 to 2002, and that failed largely because it didn’t have rights to enough popular sporting events to truly challenge the monster in Bristol, Conn.

Most other upstart sports networks took a regional approach, buying up rights to broadcast local games in more targeted areas. NBC Sports Regional Networks (also known as Comcast SportsNet) owns or partly owns a dozen such networks, like Comcast SportsNet Bay Area or Comcast SportsNet Chicago. Fox owns 22 of them, including Fox Sports Wisconsin and Fox Sports New Orleans. But neither strategy was meant to challenge ESPN on a national scale.

By 2011, though, Fox noticed that the rights to a number of big-time events would soon become available to the highest bidder. It quickly bought up rights to air Pac-12 ($3 billion over 12 years) and Big 12 football games ($1.2 billion over 13 years). It signed a seven-year deal to broadcast UFC matches ($700 million for seven years). It renewed contracts with Major League Baseball to air regular season games and the World Series ($4 billion over eight years). Throw in some NASCAR races, the World Cup, and Big East Conference men’s basketball games, and suddenly Fox had enough events to consider going national. It just needed a place to air it all.

For that, Fox is transforming Speed, a channel for which cable operators pay Fox only 20 to 30 cents per subscriber household but was already in tens of millions of homes. Analysts expect those subscriber fees to triple for the new all-sports Fox channel, potentially bringing in $1 billion in revenue. That’s still nowhere near the more than $5 per subscriber ESPN is reportedly able to command, but some advertising analysts believe that Fox will be able to bring in five times the advertising revenue that Speed and a sister channel brought in in the first year alone. That says a lot about the increasing importance of live sports for advertisers: Most sports fans prefer to watch games live instead of recording them, making it more likely that they’ll also sit through ads instead of fast-forwarding through them with DVR.

On Saturday, Fox Sports 1 will kick off its inaugural day with 16 hours of live coverage and programming, including a NASCAR race at the Michigan International Speedway and UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen, along with the premiere of their flagship show, Fox Sports Live, an irreverent program that will likely set the tone for the network. It may resemble SportsCenter. It may at times even look like SportsCenter. But Fox Sports’ execs plan for it to be a different animal altogether.

“We knew we had to be different than ESPN,” says Robert Gottlieb, Fox Sports 1’s head of marketing, who used focus groups a couple years ago to help chart a path for what sports fans were looking for on TV. “If we came on the air and just copied ESPN, we would fail. You have to have a little bit of a different angle. This is sports, and sports is supposed to be fun.”

Correction: A previous version of the story stated that Fox Sports 1 will be airing Big 10 football games. They will instead air Big 12 football games.

33 comments
JeffWalker
JeffWalker

It's no wonder SPEED saw it's demise.  They killed it years ago when half their programming no longer covered anything speed related at all.  

ddavids9
ddavids9

@ RufusPondskipper: I completely agree.I never thought of FoxNews as “fair and balanced,” but I think it brought balance to the cable news system as a whole and forced other stations to pick up their game.I find that ESPN analysts focus on a few athletes, a few teams, and a few sports.The rest of us are forced to watch their narrow-focused agenda. Maybe its laziness and doing real research on something beside their favorite topic might cause them to work.

I live in Kansas City and was travelling, and one Saturday night turned on ESPN in my hotel room to catch the MLS scores on the bottom of the screen since the Eastern Conference is so close. ESPN never even showed the scores.I don’t remember what was on but they must have been on some “beat the dead horse” topic because I changed the channel and pulled up the internet to see the scores.There are so many fascinating stories in sports, but ESPN only shows their pet favorites. If Fox will bring in real analysts who do actual research on multiple topics, it would be a big improvement.

RufusPondskipper
RufusPondskipper

At best it will be an awesome 24/7 sports news channel that I'll start watching instead of ESPN.  At worst it will fail completely but will hopefully light a fire under some asses at ESPN.  Years of zero competition have destroyed the quality of programming and talent they offer on ESPN.  They've managed to get away with it for this long.  Even if Fox fails in this endeavor, with a little luck it will make ESPN step up their game and get them back to where they used to be.

scunnurt
scunnurt

" Faux Spots" just as Faux News will be aiming for the dumbest people they can find and proceed to make them dumber. That's Faux/Murdoch way.

ddavids9
ddavids9

I'm not a "FixedNews" fan,  but ESPN is nothing but a lot of commercials, overexposure of  Kobe, Lebron, and Tim Tebow, and being apologist for rapist, murderers, and steroid users.   I wish I could just see sports.  

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I'm not sure drawing parallels between Fox News and Fox Sports is wise.  If Fox does to sports what it did to news, many of the games would be fixed and they'd always report the scores differently for whoever was watching so that their team always won (then they'd air a "correction" a few days later in the wee hours of the morning).

Either that or they'd only ever report wins from teams based in Red states and politicize it to their ends.

I don't especially care one way or the other.  ESPN isn't a channel I ever watch.  I won't be watching Fox Sports.  In fact, Fox is the only mainstream web presence I actually have blocked on my browser because their reporting is too sensationalized, too biased or (most commonly) both.  I'm considering doing the same for NBC, but I hardly ever visit their sites anyhow.

alien702
alien702

I'm sure FS1 is not going to just take over ESPN in a day. This is going to be a long a process. In 10 years time, FS1 will be good at some sports and ESPN will be good at other sports. As of today, when it comes to the NFL, nothing beat NFL network's Red Zone. That is the best channel to have on and watch on Sundays, hands down.

auronlu
auronlu like.author.displayName 1 Like

That's nice. Cut cable 3 years ago and get my sports via the internet and subscription to the sport I actually follow so I can watch all the games, not just the ones that the networks think I want to see.

It's fine except when Fox blocks out the game so that I have to listen to it and watch the archive afterwards.

So Fox is basically that 20th century dinosaur that occasionally lumbers into the middle of my sports entertainment, and I have to wait for it to cross. I hope they don't use this as an excuse to get in the way more often.

-- female sports fan, something that I'm sure Fox 1 will try their best to alienate, following the pattern of their news and business channels. 

cjwalker24
cjwalker24

I'm all for it. I mainly leave my TV on ESPN so to have a 2nd sports station to switch between will be nice.

Channah
Channah like.author.displayName 1 Like

Have much right wing jargon can they get into a sports game?  I am sure they will try.

Channah
Channah

Opps!  I meant HOW much jargon----------it is too early in the day for me, I guess.

aztecian
aztecian like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Channah how much of the kkk can we stand.  fox in sports...hmmm???  what is their motive now?  this news agency needs to be shut down.

AJPerko
AJPerko

The word FOX doesn't exactly ring with credibility..   You can't run such an absurd news station and not alienate over half the nation to your network.

Gedge911
Gedge911 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@AJPerko  Spot on A.J. 

Every last second loss will be Obama's fault. And every injury won't heal in time because of Obamacare. Team attendance will be down because of Liberals. Fox Sports 1 will be like Fox Business: Red-headed stepchild....

douglynn23
douglynn23

@AJPerko  I think you are wrong.  That absurd news station is number one. Frankly, if they stay away from political correctness, all the negative off the field stuff and stick to sporting events and recaps, I think they do better than ESPN eventually. If we must see off the field stuff, I want to hear the stories about Athletes that are making a positive difference, not the ones that act like rich, spoiled, selfish and foolish college kids. ESPN has become too political, too left leaning, too tabloid. 

Gedge911
Gedge911 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@douglynn23 @AJPerko  

 Fox News #1? Yep. McDonalds is #1 in burgers. Doesn't mean it's good.... ESPN left-leaning?  Real examples please. Have you looked at Foxnews.com today? Besides the liberal-hating rants it's all about Hollywood scandals and sensationalist "news stories" about miserable people.


JamesBruin
JamesBruin

Can't NOBODY beat ESPN but to each his own. 

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@JamesBruin 

espn has sucked huge balls for the last decade. sports nation? around the horn? first take? get real

SteveAustin1
SteveAustin1 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

If they are going after the "millennials", one wonders at the choice to bring in Regis Philbin as one of their big names...

I wonder also at the strategy of "sound bite" sports.  That works (or seems to) with news, but my experience is that hard core sports fans are pretty dedicated watchers of sports programming - they don't tune in and out every couple of minutes and they don't like the action on the screen covered with bars and graphics.  We'll see how successful that is.

eric.jackson028
eric.jackson028

Jay and Dan are amazing! Cannot wait to see them on TV down here. TSN just isn't the same without them...although Dutchy tries. 

KyleScaff
KyleScaff

I guess all of us in the flyover states are soaking up all the lies at Fox News Channel.  You "enlightened" ones keep your heads in the sand while the country goes down the tubes.  Libtards

digitalclips1
digitalclips1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Will they be able to lie and make stuff up like their main News programs?

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@digitalclips1 

what a hilarious and original comment. however did you come up with such a zinger?

netscanr
netscanr

If it's anything like their 'news', they'll report things like teams that, in reality won, didn't win, because it's counter to their wishes...

pcseller001
pcseller001

I can not support this venture seeing as they are paying McCrybaby.

uzimodem
uzimodem like.author.displayName 1 Like

About time. Tired of the LEFTWING slant of ESPN.

Axolotlwobblemaggot
Axolotlwobblemaggot

@uzimodem Recipe for observing a left wing (2 words) slant at [fill in media outlet of choice].

1) Watch Fox News.

2) Continue to watch Fox News.

3) Watch Fox News some more.

4) By so doing, fail to realize that you are on the very far right wing tip of the ship.

5) Look leftward, and you will see everything else.

MarkPadgett
MarkPadgett

@uzimodem yeah, stupid left wing slant. I would rather be spoon fed my "news" by an Aussie thug and a Saudi prince, what could go wrong there?

Canadaontop
Canadaontop like.author.displayName 1 Like

You'll love Jay & Dan......I doubt you'll feel the same about producer Tim though.  *shakes fist*  Good luck with your new digs boys and we miss ya up here in the great white.