Remember 1996? It was a pretty cool year. The Cowboys last won a Super Bowl in ’96. The internet was about to blow up and lead to the dot-com boom. Alanis Morissette won a Grammy for writing a song about a failed relationship with Joey from Full House. There was that cute dancing baby. The first digital HDTV broadcast was made in North Carolina, setting the stage for a new broadcasting world. And until 1996, ESPN ruled the national cable sports world, with regional channels like MSG and SportsChannel satisfied to reign over their fiefdoms.
Two heavy hitters decided to enter the scene. Turner launched CNN/SI, an all-sports-news network to compete with the also-1996 launch of ESPNews. Fox decided to buy stakes in a bunch of regional sports networks (like SportsChannel) and rebrand them as Fox Sports Net. Tied together by a handful of national sports news shows, FSN had a difficult time finding a balance between locally-oriented content and genericized national content. Fox Sports head David Hill famously called sports “tribal” and favored his company’s confederacy-like approach as a challenger to ESPN. Hill hired Keith Olbermann, Jim Rome, and Van Earl Wright to bring in big names with bombastic voices. Eventually the bombast faded away and viewers watched the same thing on FSN they’d always watched: their teams and pre/postgame shows. Fox sold some of the RSNs to partners such as Comcast. Meanwhile, ESPN continued to gobble up national broadcast rights to numerous properties and made huge shifts in the process (signing the NBA, dropping the NHL, giving up SNF for MNF) and established a market power and hegemony that is easy to hate and impossible to ignore.
Now, in 2013, Fox has belatedly decided to launch a new national sports network of its own. Launching in time for the NFL season, Fox Sports 1 will start broadcasting on August 17 in 90 million households, replacing racing-focused Speed. FS1 will find itself surrounded by competition, as it will be the 20th English-language national sports network in the US, with potentially more to come.
As a Johnny-come-lately, FS1 can’t sew up the kinds of long-term content deals ESPN or even slightly newer networks like NBCSN and CBSSN has. The latter two are dealing with their own growing pains and identity crises, as they struggle to find meaningful content that doesn’t come in the form of game telecasts. NBCSN made the biggest coup of the 2012 by stealing future Premier League seasons from Fox Soccer Channel, which may force Fox the reevaluate how it uses that slot. For now all of these media companies can be thankful that there is so much content from colleges and conferences to make deals for. Still, ESPN has the cream-of-the-crop, getting rights for the BCS, SEC football night games, and Big East and Big Ten basketball. That’s not to ignore the role of the big four broadcast networks, who have the biggest deals, and other national cable players who have their own rights secured (TNT, TBS, FX).
What does that leave for Fox Sports 1? Well, if you believe the press release, quite a lot.
- MLB – Some League Divisional Series and League Championship Series games, plus regular season games on 26 Saturdays. Putting a few LDS games on FS1 makes sense considering the spread among the networks, but the LCS? Not sure how that’s going to work between FS1 and the Fox broadcast network. On one hand, maintaining cable control over some series may push cable providers to carry the networks. On the other hand, limited carriage may cause reduced ratings, which would piss off MLB and its advertisers.
- NFL – No games, but FS1 will have its own hourlong NFL news show just like every other network.
- NCAA Football/Basketball – Mostly remainders of non-premier games not carried by other broadcast and cable networks. Key to this observation: the press release features Conference USA. Meh.
- NASCAR – Speedweeks leading up to the Daytona 500, some Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series races, daily and weekly news shows. For a couple of years there was talk that Fox and NASCAR would launch a NASCAR-branded network, which may have led to the delay in launching FS1. In any event, the NASCAR network didn’t come to fruition, and Fox Sports 1 appears to be taking on additional NASCAR programming, so that looks like the compromise struck between the two.
- Soccer – While Fox Soccer Channel lost the Premier League, UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches will move over to FS1
- UFC – Wednesday Fight Night, a card on the network’s launch day, and a weekly news show.
- Sports news and original programming – Fox Sports Live to go head-to-head against SportsCenter, Rush Hour, an afternoon talk show hosted by Regis Philbin designed to compete with the Around the Horn/Pardon the Interruption combo, and a series of documentaries that look a little like the “30-for-30” series.
Fox claims that over 5,000 hours of live programming will air every year, which means more than half of the network’s slate will be live or original broadcasts. FS1 is trying to grab a bunch of niches, which should help it build a solid niche fanbase while it waits for less sport-specific fans to tune in. Frankly, I’m surprised that none of these networks has tried a show that would appeal to sabermetricians and numbers geeks in other sports (no, ESPN’s lightweight “Numbers Never Lie” doesn’t count). Eventually, the extreme sports-focused Fuel is expected to switch over to a Fox Sports 2 branding, though it will probably continue to carry extreme sports. If Fox can angle its programming in a less self-referencing, self-promoting hypefest manner than ESPN, it can lure fans who have been alienated by ESPN’s presentation. Of course, NBCSN and CBSSN are trying to do the same and are struggling to gain traction. As a sports fan who doesn’t hate ESPN, I still want at least one of these networks to succeed if only to make ESPN honest and more competitive. Otherwise we’ll get our sports through one national filter. When that happens, you get a host talking hockey when he clearly has no expertise to do so. We deserve better.