Fox Sports 1, ESPN’s latest challenger, aired Aug. 17. Bankrolled by media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, the network is the world wide sports leader’s first real threat since CNN and SI paired up in 1996 to start another 24-hour sports news channel. CNN/SI, like most who go after ESPN, died with a whimper in 2002.
Murdoch’s Fox Sports 1 is unlikely to meet a similar fate, and given their wide range of wins on programming and pulling in top tier and innovative talent, the fight over which station the next generation of sports fans have playing in the background all day long is certain to be fascinating to watch play out.
First, let’s set the expectations. ESPN, launched in 1979, has a considerable head start on the upstart Fox Sports 1. Two generations of sports fans have grown up knowing ESPN is their one stop shop for all things sports.
The majority of the top sports media personalities fall underneath ESPN’s broad umbrella. They have come a long way from George Grande reading the news in his crÃ¨me colored jackets, now touching virtually every aspect of the sports experience. From their magazine, to their game coverage, to even their advertising, ESPN is the ubiquitous, but high quality place for sports.
And ESPN has positioned themselves well for this moment. Innovating in recent years with the highly entertaining and successful “30 for 30” documentary series, handing Bill Simmons his own website-the now two year old Grantland, recently poaching Nate Silver from the New York Times, bringing the explosive Keith Olbermann back into the fold, and finally, most recently the call to bring back another controversial character, Jason Whitlock, to start up what he’s called “a black Grantland.”
Most of these moves have been attributed to ESPN chief executive John Skipper, and you have to think he would not have made quite as an aggressive play for any of these talented folks without the threat of Fox Sports 1 in the back of his head, because there are some definite chinks in ESPN’s armor that Fox Sports 1 can go after.
First, the nuts and bolts of TV programming. The first test for a sports network is winning the bidding war for programming. Fox Sports 1 has shown them selves highly adept at this competitive game. Among others, they will broadcast UFC fights, college football games, major league baseball games, the US Open golf tournament starting in 2015, and the 2018 World Cup.
Now to the entertainment piece: there is one place that Fox Sports 1 can cut into ESPN’s market share right away-and that is in what used to be ESPN’s flagship program, “Sportscenter.” The show is simply no fun anymore. The days of edgy writing and witty banter have fallen away for a boring, almost CNN like news report on what is happening in sports.
But sports coverage must be fun. ESPN used to know that, and Fox Sports 1 appears to know that, judging by their marketing strategy and decision to use two unknown anchors for their flagship, Sportscenter copycat, Fox Sports Live. Jay Ontrait and Dan O’Toole come form Canada’s TSN, and their early ratings are not so great (a little over half of the numbers “Sportscenter” is pulling in), but it is easy to overstate the importance of the first few weeks, or even months.
David Letterman’s “Late Show” crushed Jay Leno’s version of the “Tonight Show” for almost two years before Leno took over the lead in 1995, never to seriously relinquish it again. Now a late night TV show is different than a 24-hour sports channel, but the point remains.
TV is about talent. The only way to beat an entrenched champion is to get new talent. New people do not have much experience on the big stage. It will take them some time to mature, but once they do, if the entrenched champ does not continue to improve and innovate, the upstart can, before we know it, become the establishment.
This is the would be model for Fox Sports 1 to become the ESPN for kids in middle school and elementary school just now getting bit by the sports bug.
I love sports largely because of my obsessive viewing of ESPN during my formative years. If Fox Sports 1 becomes the fun, smart option like ESPN once was, the much-ignored 5-15 demographic could be the fuel for their success.