After months of speculation—and 15 years of behind-the-scenes machinations—Fox Sports on Tuesday officially announced plans to launch a national cable sports network. And while the ultimate goal is to topple ESPN from its pedestal, executives were effusive in their praise of the Bristol juggernaut.
Speaking to a horde of sports-media reporters gathered in a ballroom in the New York Marriott Marquis, News Corp. svp David Hill said Fox Sports 1 will launch on Tuesday, Aug. 17, with an eye toward offering a viable alternative to ESPN.
Hill, who has been an indelible part of the landscape since he spearheaded the creation of Fox Sports 20 years ago, said that FS1 hopes to play in the same sandbox as ESPN, which he characterized as an “absolute world class” organization. “It’s going to take a while. We’re not expecting to knock ESPN off in a week or two,” Hill said, adding, “It’s going to take two to three years” before FS1 can compete with ESPN on equal footing.
But make no mistake, FS1 is going to take some early shots at the hegemonic sports brand. Out of the gate, FS1 will televise an 11 p.m. ET news and highlights program that is pretty clearly meant to function as a challenger to SportsCenter.
In addition to leveraging Fox Sports’ multiple sports-rights packages, a portfolio that includes Major League Baseball, Nascar, UFC, college football and international soccer, FS1 will also produce a roster of original shoulder programming. TV mainstay Regis Philbin has signed on to host the weekday drive-time chat show Rush Hour, while the Fox NFL Sunday gang will bring their expertise to an evening gridiron show, Fox Football Daily.
When asked how his presence would help draw the 18-49 demo, the 81-year-old Philbin feigned deafness.
Hill always has been cheerfully combative, but he refused to entertain a few leading questions about ESPN’s perceived “weaknesses.” Instead, he said that FS1 is going to do its best to help fans overcome the “inertia” of the past 33 years, “until there are two viable alternatives.”
Fox Sports evp of programming and research Bill Wanger echoed Hill’s sentiments, calling ESPN “a machine” before making an apt analogy to a pair of earlier News Corp. launches. “We’re trying to take on the establishment, no different than what Fox Broadcast did in the 1980s and Fox News did in the ’90s. We’re going to have to scratch and claw our way to the top.”
FS1 will assume the space on your cable dial presently occupied by the auto sports channel Speed. If nothing else, ESPN won’t have to contend with sharing elbow room with its presumed usurper; in Time Warner Cable’s New York footprint, for example, Bristol’s flagship net is on channel 28—101 rungs up the ladder from Speed/FS1.
For its part, ESPN isn’t exactly quaking in its gargantuan boots. For one thing, it enjoys an enviable head start over Fox. “It’s difficult to be disrupted if you don’t allow somebody to flank you, right?” ESPN president John Skipper told Adweek. “As long as we don’t let anyone else get a market share lead in mobile, or in apps or in something new that comes along, we’ll be hard to displace.”
At launch, FS1 is expected to reach 90 million households. Its live events will utilize Fox Sports’ “double box” commercial format, which demonstrably keeps viewers more engaged during ad breaks.
If much of the FS1 presentation covered familiar ground, some ancillary questions went unanswered. Rather than muddy the announcement with talk of a second cable network (FS2 is expected to replace Fuel at some undetermined date), Hill, Wanger and FSMG co-presidents and COOs Randy Freer and Eric Shanks focused on the historic implications of the primary launch sequence.
“Our ‘secret,’ admittedly a very poorly kept one, is now revealed,” Shanks said. “Fans are now ready for an alternative to the establishment, and our goal for FS1 is to provide [that].”
FSMG execs were not prepared to offer further guidance on negotiations for a package with the seven Catholic schools that are looking to break from the rapidly disintegrating Big East Conference. The so-called Catholic 7 includes perennial basketball powerhouses Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette.
“We applaud the schools for taking hold of their own destiny,” Freer said. “Those are iconic basketball brands … and hopefully, [the split between them and the Big East’s football schools] will get wrapped up in the near future.”
As for the advertising sales picture, the ascendancy of live sports suggests that FS1 is simply another well-organized opportunity for marketers to secure reach and a rich demographic mix. “The marketplace and the appetite for live sports remains insatiable,” said Toby Byrne, president of sales, Fox Broadcasting. “There is plenty of room for competition … and we will work with advertisers to ensure that their messages can break through. As of today, [FS1] is open for business.”