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Saturday Night Fever: Fox Beefs Up Sports Footprint

Network attacks sleepy night with MLB, UFC and more
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Fox is going all in on Saturday night, energizing the sleepiest night of the broadcast week with a full complement of live sports coverage.

Beginning this weekend, the top-rated network will air an array of sports programming in prime time for 28 of the next 32 Saturday nights.

The new Fox Sports Saturday lineup kicks off on April 14 with live coverage of the Nascar Samsung Mobile 500 race at Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth. 

From now through the end of May, Fox will air two other Nascar races in Saturday fringe or prime, including the Sprint Cup 400 from Richmond, Va., on April 28 and Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C., on May 12.

Auto racing represents just a fraction of Fox’s new Saturday sports lineup, though. Through Dec. 8, the broadcasters will air eight prime-time Major League Baseball games; 13 college football games, including the Big Ten Championship; and three live Ultimate Fighting Championship events.

In a sense, the UFC proved that Saturday can still draw a cohort of young, engaged viewers. Fox’s inaugural Nov. 12 UFC broadcast delivered 5.7 million viewers and a 3.1 in the demo, holding its own against ABC’s coverage of the Oregon-Stanford game and crushing NBC’s Notre Dame-Maryland telecast.

Because HUT levels are at their lowest on Saturday nights, the beefed-up sports slate is practically a risk-free enterprise. At 8 p.m., Fox’s old standby, Cops, is averaging around 3.5 million viewers and a 1.2 in the 18-49 demo, while the 9 p.m. showing is drawing 4 million viewers and a 1.4 rating.

A recent attempt at drawing viewers with new unscripted programming failed to get off the ground. On March 3, Fox bowed the Jennifer Lopez-Marc Anthony competition series Q’Viva: The Chosen to a mere 2.21 million viewers and a 0.8 rating in the demo. After the show fell to an unsustainable 1.37 million viewers and an 0.6 in the demo, Fox shuttled it to late night.

“We see Saturday nights as the perfect home for quality sports programming, especially in spring and fall,” said Eric Shanks, co-president and COO, Fox Sports Media Group. “We’ve been working hand-in-hand with our entertainment division and partners, and we’ve put together a solid schedule that gives us a consistent Saturday night franchise for the first time ever.”

Fox’s baseball boost adds five prime-time regular season broadcasts to last year’s roster of just three games in regionalized coverage. The night games begin on May 19 with five interleague matchups, including a Boston-Philadelphia scrap and a crosstown Chicago Cubs-White Sox dust-up.

Naturally, prime-time sports can command far higher ad rates than the current crop of Cops and Bones reruns. Buyers estimate that a 30-second spot in Saturday prime costs as little as $45,000 a pop.

MLB sales to date are pacing about even with last year, although the Fox sales team is seeing a single-digit increase in pricing. The eight prime-time games are already well sold.

Fox pays $257.1 million per year for its seven-year MLB package, which expires at the end of the 2013 campaign.