News Corp. Betting Big On ‘Fox Sports 1’

By Alex Weprin 

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There is no denying that ESPN is the 800 pound gorilla of sports TV networks. Executives at Fox Sports know this.

“ESPN, quite frankly, is a machine,” says Billy Wanger, the head of programming for Fox Sports. “We are coming in trying to take on the establishment; it is no different than what happened with Fox News, or Fox Broadcasting back in the 80s. We are going to have to scratch and claw our way all the way to the top.”

Shanks was talking about Fox Sports 1, the upcoming national cable sports channel that News Corp. is launching in August. News Corp. COO Chase Carey called it “the worst kept secret in TV,” but it is no longer a secret. At a lavish upfront for media buyers in midtown yesterday afternoon and evening, executives at News Corp. formally unveiled the channel.

The beating heart of sports TV is live games, and FS1 will be coming out of the gate with the strongest lineup outside of Bristol, CT. Major League Baseball games–including playoff games–will be available on the channel, as will NASCAR races, UFC fights, college football and basketball and UEFA and World Cup soccer.

“We believe that right now the market for sports is–I don’t want to say vast–but it is,” News Corp. senior VP and Fox Sports founding president David Hill says. “There is a huge percentage of the population for whom sports is vitally important, for whom sports is the best entertainment there is.”

Of course, live sports can only take up so much time. It is the studio shows that help brand a channel, as “SportsCenter” and “Pardon The Interruption” have for ESPN. Original studio programming will include a daily show called “Rush Hour,” hosted by Regis Philbin.

“I am thrilled!” Philbin said at the upfront party in New York’s Roseland Ballroom. “I have always been a sports fan, and I have admired these guys over the years, so this is going to be a lot of fun.”

A media buyer in attendance said that while the presentation was “pretty much what we were expecting,” the lineup of live sports was “really strong.” The studio shows are the biggest question mark.

FS1 is the biggest bet in years for News Corp, substantially larger than the 2007 effort to launch Fox Business Network. FS1 will be available in nearly twice as many homes as FBN was at launch, with 90 million. In a dramatic video showed at the upfront, clips from CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and ESPN were played to emphasize the point, as  voiceover boomed that things were changing.

In 1986, there were three broadcast networks, and conventional wisdom said that there could be only three broadcast networks. And then everything changed.

In 1996, there was one 24-hour news network. And conventional wisdom said that there could be only one 24 hour news network. And then everything changed.

Today, there is one dominant national sports network, and conventional wisdom says that there can be only one 24-hour sports network. But everything is about to change… again.