Fox Sports 1 Powers Through Its First Month

Startup cable net dominates second-tier players

A month after its much-ballyhooed launch, Fox Sports 1 is proving itself to be a much more attractive advertising environment than its predecessor.

According to Nielsen data, FS1’s first 30 days have shown vast improvement over the now defunct Speed. On a total-day basis, the network has boosted its overall deliveries by 29 percent compared to the year-ago period, while men 18-49 are up 49 percent.

Nightly ratings have improved even more sharply, as overall prime-time viewership is up 102 percent while men 18-49 have soared 180 percent. Last week alone, FS1 averaged 302,000 viewers in prime, marking a 54 percent improvement from the 196,000 viewers Speed reached in the period spanning Sept. 10-16, 2012. Moreover, when compared to FS1’s first full week of operations, the network’s prime-time deliveries are up 92 percent.

In that same period, FS1 made short work of the rest of the second-tier sports nets, out-rating MLB Network (235,000 viewers), NBCSN (100,000) and Golf Channel (97,000). (With a distribution footprint of just 48 million homes, CBS Sports Network is not rated by Nielsen in an official capacity.)

While it’s not going to lay a glove on The Worldwide Leader in Sports any time soon—thanks in large part to Monday Night Football and a robust slate of college football, ESPN owns the fourth quarter; last week, the net averaged 4.26 million viewers in prime—FS1 is dominating the rest of the field. In its first month on the air, FS1 topped NBCSN 24 out of 30 nights among men 18-49.

Predictably, the only non-ESPN net FS1 did not overshadow was NFL Network, which began its Thursday Night Football schedule on Sept. 12. NFL Net last week averaged 1.31 million viewers, making it the No. 9 ad-supported cable property.

“We never considered the launch day to be the launch strategy,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Broadcasting svp of programming and research. “As more major events and promotional platforms come online (college football, the NFL), we’ve been able to build awareness among sports fans. The in-game promotion on Fox’s NFL coverage alone is incredibly valuable.”

In addition to all the extra eyeballs, FS1 presents a more compelling audience profile. With a median age of 45, the network has already shaved off seven years from the old Speed number. Household income is up 12 percent to $60,400 and deliveries in the top DMAs now account for 21 percent of the total FS1 audience. (At Speed, that penetration was 18 percent.)

In Mulvihill’s estimation, the national cable sports landscape is quickly becoming a two-horse race. Already, FS1 is demonstrating gains among its individual sports franchises, and some of the studio shows are gathering steam. Since its launch, the 11 p.m. Fox Sports Live show is up 141 percent in total viewers, and the half-hour Nascar Race Hub “is doing so well that we’re going to expand it to an hour,” Mulvihill said.

One FS1 property that hasn’t shown signs of early promise is the 5 p.m. panel show Crowd Goes Wild. Anchored by Regis Philbin and featuring a collective of talking heads (Georgie Thompson, Michael Kosta, Trevor Pryce, Jason Gay and Katie Nolan), Crowd’s weekday telecast last week averaged just over 65,000 viewers. On Sept. 9, Crowd drew a mere 28,000 viewers, its lowest turnout to date.

All told, Fox is pleased by the startup’s initial performance. “We have taken an asset we had in Speed and not only have grown the audience, but made it more attractive to advertisers,” Mulvihill said. “We’ve made great strides without giving anything up in terms of the quality of our audience.”

While Fox execs allow that it will likely take a generation for FS1 to unseat ESPN, its sports rights assets should allow for considerable growth in the near term. Per RBC Capital Markets’ estimates, FS1’s portfolio of Major League Baseball, Nascar, FIFA, UFC and NCAA Division I (Pac-12, Big 12) holdings should give Fox the leverage to boost the current affiliate fee from 22 cents a sub per month to $1. Factor in the requisite inflated CPM and carriage in an additional 9 million homes and FS1 could in short order draw an additional $1.2 billion in revenue to News Corp.’s coffers.

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