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.