It was billed as the biggest cable network launch in history.
It may be billed as the biggest cable network flop in history.
It has now been exactly a month since Fox Sports 1 finally hit the airwaves, after an interminable summer of hype and commentary. In a way, it was brilliant. The summer months are brutal for the sports world, especially in the 24-hour, instantaneous news cycle we live in. Just ask Johnny Football about that.
The Earth is still round. Sports fans still watch ESPN. Whatever Fox executives were hoping for, the results have been the opposite. At times, the proverbial test pattern would draw better ratings than Fox Sports 1.
One month is too soon to declare a cable network a failure. Or is it? Another Fox launch, FXX, got off to an excellent start with the debuts of Always Sunny and The League retaining most of its audience from FX. The first day marathon of Parks and Recreation generated positive social media buzz. The name FXX may be clunky but the network is working.
Fox Sports 1? Not so much. But how has it fallen so flat?
Fun, Fun, Fun
It does not take a rocket scientist to ascertain that the network’s biggest mistake was taking shots at ESPN. Why poke the bear? Fox Sports 1 was never, ever, ever going to overtake ESPN in its first year, let alone its first month.
As full disclosure, I’m a PR guy. I’m currently the Director of Communications for the Newspaper Association of America. In my 11-year career, I’ve been a reporter for 6 and a PR/marketing guy for 5. I know the drill. And I know the trap that Fox fell into.
They struck upon an angle – “We’re going to compete with ESPN!” and a tagline – “We’re going to be fun!” – that hit the sweet spot of sports reporters and bloggers. They wanted to write those stories. They lapped it up like my dog at her water dish after a long walk. It was a perfect message for the slow summer months with space to fill.
There was, however, one small problem. It did not resonate with the sports fan. I was interested in Fox Sports 1 purely from a sports perspective – “Hey, there’s a new channel with sports on.” I had zero interest in watching Fox Sports 1 try to yuck it up and have more fun. And heaven help you if you’ve tried to watch Crowd Goes Wild for more than 5 minutes.
The fatal flow is this promotion was the simple fact that no one has ever accused ESPN of being too serious. When a Fox executive said that they were going to stop taking sports too seriously – like who cares about steroids, am I right? – they were essentially insulting the sports fan.
We do care about steroids. We do care about concussions. We care about the serious issues.
If we wanted to see forced laughter, then the NFL Today on CBS would be our #1 rated sports show. It’s not. If you were to ask a sports fan why they watch sports, where do you think “fun” would rank?
We watch ESPN when live sports aren’t on because we watch ESPN when live sports are on.
And no amount of fun could change that.
The Rights Stuff
ESPN president John Skipper brought up an excellent point about Fox News. “If CNN had exclusive rights to the inauguration, election results and weather,” he said, “Fox News wouldn’t have snuck up and whupped them.”
Sports are all about live programming. It is about the games. ESPN doesn’t make its money on First Take or Around The Horn or the 1pm Wednesday SportsCenter. It gets $5.50 from every cable home in America because of Monday Night Football, the NBA Playoffs and Notre Dame/Michigan in primetime on a Saturday night.
Despite Fox’s proclamations that they would have the live sports right to compete with ESPN – they are in a different stratosphere. And not in a good way. Their college football games have left a lot to be desired through the few first weeks. Last Thursday, ESPN drew more than 2 million viewers for a tight (if atrocious) game between Texas Tech and TCU. Fox Sports 1 was airing Tulane and Louisiana Tech. ESPNU, somehow, aired a far more exciting and interesting game between Arkansas State and Troy. ESPN’s third channel was better than its supposed first channel competitor.
The Fox games may get better as the season progresses – their main contracts are with the Big 12 and Pac-12, which conspired to play a nonstop string of cupcakes to kick off the season. Once the conference matchups start, the games should improve. To a point.
On Sept. 7, ESPN aired Miami/Florida, South Carolina/Georgia and Michigan/Notre Dame. Fox Sports 1 will be lucky to air 3 games that good all season. That’s just the second Saturday in September for ESPN.
The lineup should start improving next year, when some NASCAR races and MLB games move to the network. But it’s still not ESPN. Even its ploy to create a new Big East seems misguided, unless Syracuse, UConn and Pittsburgh have rejoined the league and I missed it. You think ESPN is sweating a Xavier/Creighton battle on a Tuesday night? Talk about ESPNU material.
In fact, Fox Sports 1’s only success has come in a place you’d expect. In a place where they are the only rights holder. The UFC.
Second String Talent
NBS Sports Network, now NBCSN, was ESPN’s last great challenger. But their rhetoric died down when their plans for global domination were thwarted by the Worldwide Leader. They aggressively bid for the Pac-12 television package, but lost. They made no secret in their desire to gobble up the “old” Big East, only to see ESPN and Fox conspire to destroy it. They desperately wanted the Thursday Night NFL package that the NFL (smartly) kept for their own network.
NBCSN quickly changed course. They are not an ESPN competitor. But they could be eventually. They have quietly assembled first string talent for first string broadcasts in four sports – hockey, auto racing, soccer and horse racing.
This is key because it makes NBCSN feel like a major network. When the network tries again down the line to acquire game-changing sports – the NFL’s, NBA’s and Big Ten’s of the world – they will be prepared. And fans have come to respect and trust that NBCSN will have the best announcing teams possible. In short, they won’t have second string talent.
On Fox Sports 1? Where to start? Let’s go with college football and its motley crew of leftovers, newcomers and questionable hires. Clay Travis is a JV version of Paul Finebaum. Petros Papadakis is the imitation Lee Corso. Eddie George is what Desmond Howard has nightmares of being on television. Erin Andrews is…well, she’s terrible.
The game announcers are equally uninteresting, past the #1 team of Gus Johnson and Charles Davis. ESPN quite literally has 10 announcer pairings that are better than Fox Sports 1’s #2 team. Don’t blame me, Fox, you invited the comparisons. And right now, your network looks terrible in comparison.
If you don’t agree, try to decipher anything Joey Harrington has to say during a game. As North Dakota State was pulling off an incredible upset of Kansas State in week 1, Harrington was borderline unwatchable with his “commentary.” Quotes necessary because I don’t know what he was talking about.
The Elephant in the Room
In the end, none of this matters. The previous 1400 words? Just me giving my fingers a workout. Why? Because until the end of time, ESPN will be the #1 sports cable network.
Once ABC Sports died in 2006, that ship had sailed. ABC is now home to college football, the Indy 500, the NBA…and that’s it. NASCAR will hang around for one more year, potentially, before disappearing. This was a calculated decision by Disney. ABC doesn’t air sports anymore. ESPN does.
The bulk of Disney’s sports properties air on ESPN. Think of all the former ABC Sports properties or potential broadcast-worthy events that have migrated to cable. The Rose Bowl. The upcoming College Football Playoff. Monday Night Football. The British Open. The US Open. Wimbledon. NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup. The NBA conference finals (once an NBC staple).
In short, ABC is the only broadcast channel in which the sports cable partner is valued more. CBS will always put its top events on broadcast as opposed to the CBS Sports Network. NBC will do the same for NBCSN. And until proven otherwise, the top sports properties in the Fox stable will air on Fox proper, not Fox Sports 1.
That’s why ESPN is the Worldwide Leader in Sports. And that’s why it always will be.
But where’s the fun in that?
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