By Ben Koo, Awful Announcing
It's finally here. The whirlwind of commentary, PR noise, talent additions, analyst projections, competitor banter, and distribution talks have led us to this exciting moment in sports media history. A while back I wrote some thoughts on the high expectations that await FS1 and FS2's pending launch. How will things go from here? Who the hell knows. If I had to guess, I'd say things will be smooth on the live events front but to expect a very bumpy road on the original programming front. Basically a similar story as NBCSN, albeit with the benefit of a larger portfolio of live programming to get out of the gate a bit faster.
As you keep tabs on FS1's rookie year, here are some things to keep a close eye on going forward. These are 10 questions for Fox Sports...
A little over a month ago, I penned an article in which I basically kicked SportsCenter in the nuts. I kicked field goals and punted in high school so it was a painful kick, one that brought a ton of comments and social shares of people sharing the same sentiment.
A couple weeks back ESPN aired a countdown of their top "This Is SportsCenter" commercials. I watched the entire thing nostalgic for SportsCenter in its prime and kept thinking "more like This was SportsCenter."
SportsCenter is a habit for many. The product has gone downhill, but it's still where many of us turn although there is a growing trend of fans turning towards league owned networks for highlights or shows like PTI to get their daily fill of sports.
Enter Fox Sports Live and what many conclude was a shrewd hire in bringing in two goofy Canadians to lead the charge. But two shrewd hires alone won't put a dent in SportsCenter's ratings. Production quality, chemistry of other unproven on air talent (Andy Roddick, Gary Payton, Donovan McNabb), general set and graphic anesthetics, and quality of features and segments will all be key.
Fox Sports Live will certainly not be a clone of SportsCenter and where they differentiate will be very interesting. At the end of the day it could be like a refreshing cold gallon of water for sports fans wandering the barren sports media landscape or it could end up being something you spit out realizing it's gone bad.
If Fox Sports Live can get any significant traction (regular low to mid six figure audience), then the network will be off to a great start.
Rewind to 2008/2009 and there was a bit of a building intrigue on just how big MMA could get? Would it challenge some of the pro leagues in terms of popularity? Unloved by ESPN and winding down a relationship with Spike, Fox made a splash by partnering with the UFC. It was a bold move, one that probably accelerated internal enthusiasm for Fox to launch an all sports channel.
But of late the popularity of the UFC has seemed to plateau. Ratings and pay per view buys have zigged and zagged but for the most part the core metrics have shown a decline of viewership and interest in the sport which you can probably attribute to a lack of any "super fights."
Fox certainly has been clear they'd like to target the younger male demo and that's where the UFC's strength is. Still though, the UFC seems to be facing a familiar problem for many sports where it's seen as niche and faces too much friction to become mainstream. Fox aims to get increasing mileage out of the UFC in the years to come and I've even heard some rumors that the UFC could be interested in selling to Fox at some point during this current partnership.
Similar to the NHL on NBCSN, a huge part of Fox's success going forward is going to be tied on just how much they can grow general interest in MMA. Better armed now with a pair of sports networks, it's certainly something to keep an eye on going forward.
If ESPN is never done adding and tweaking their talent, then obviously Fox will be almost equally as active. Who, when, from where, and for what will be critical.
More former athletes?
Wild card hires like Clay Travis?
Up and comers from ESPN and beyond?
Paying big bucks for established talent?
Kenny Mayne? (Personal favorite of mine who I never see)
That's just on air talent. I'm confident across the board at Fox Sports (Digital, Production, ad sales, executives, etc), they need to keep adding talent to keep the train moving.
Fox has the challenge of building a relationship with viewers almost from scratch and will require more personalities to do so. With that in mind, they'll have to be different yet not rub people the wrong way. Quite the challenge, almost like infiltrating a new group of long time friends. Not easy at all.
The hiring of Regis Philbin and making him the center of a new show is probably the move that raised the most eyebrows from observers. The basic gist is that Fox aims to skew younger than ESPN and then one of the few big original content bets they're making is on the shoulders of 81 (a week away from 82) year old Regis who hasn't been on television for a year and hasn't dabbled in sports much at all.
Will this work? I like the name of the show and some of the auxiliary hires. To some degree, I see it working.
Regis is entertaining. You can't hate him no matter what he says. He's all over the place but affable.
But at the same time, will sports fans really watch this? Also Philbin hasn't been too smooth on the PR blitz as he's seemed aloof to some of the more specific details of the Crowd Goes Wild such as who are the others hosts and the show's premier date. I'll certainly tune in a couple of times to get a feel for what the show is and I'm sure many others will given how odd of a move this is. But after the initial intrigue wears off, will there be enough of a regular audience to keep the show as a signature program for the network?
FS1 WILL launch in 90 million homes.
Will FS1 launch in 90 million homes?
FS1 WILL LAUNCH IN 90 MILLION HOMES!
Those were the headlines on the distribution front over the past couple of months, the last one being what many thought was a "THAT JUST HAPPENED" moment as it was reported that FS1 used some type of voo doo sorcery to compel Time Warner, Dish, and DirecTV to carry the channel at what was presumed to be a ~3x fold increase of the soon to be defunct Speed channel. These three "deals" got FS1 over the stated 90 million household threshold as they were nearing launch with only half that number signed on. The presumption was that not only was Fox going to get that added revenue (to the tune of $20-$30 million a month), but that the deals would scale out over time and that FS1 would see annual increases in addition to solving distribution issues with FS2 and FXX.
But word leaked that Time Warner, Dish, DirecTV didn't actually give in. While it's not technically collusion, often many of the big cable/sat companies unite to essentially get added leverage in these type of negotiations for new channels. If you do a deal before you really need to, you're basically a scab. Three of the Big Four (Comcast not included) didn't blink and with the launch nearing and all of their launch PR efforts in danger of blowing up in their face, Fox conceded it wasn't going to happen and opted to fight another day and essentially opted to honor their legacy Speed contracts at at much lower carriage rate.
Again doing the math this could be a $200-$300 million annual blow. Not good at all.
Could they have dug their heels in and negotiated better deals at some point in the coming months? Maybe, but that would have really soured the perception of the network.
Fox is now betting that they can enter into new deals as the old Speed ones expire and it's possible to some degree they can make up what they are losing in the next year or so on the backend of future extensions. Any deal Fox would enter into now was probably going to be a compromise between Fox's desired carriage fees and what Speed currently gets. By bypassing negotiating now, it's possible although probably unlikely that FS1 can really get out of the gate quickly, build a sizable loyal audience, and then have a lot more leverage in negotiations when they get another crack at it.
Essentially giving in now puts more pressure on the network to perform in the short term.
The answer here is probably yes given there just aren't many sports rights up for grab in the years to come. The NBA is highly probable to stay with Turner and ESPN. After that the B1G Ten could be in play but that's a couple years away.
Big time events are crucial for any sports network but given the lack of rights up for grabs and the fact that Fox's spending war chest just took a pretty substantial hit with the inability to get new carriage deals done, it will be quite the surprise if Fox could bring home any other major rights packages that would alter the trajectory of the network early on.
What is FoxSports.com? I've heard both readers and Fox employees wonder this. Piggybacking off of a traffic partnership with MSN as well as the acquisition of Yardbarker, Fox Sports Digital is a major player online but it doesn't have a defined identity.
Like many online sports portals it seems along the way they fell into the habit of imitating the look and feel of ESPN.com. Change is in the air though as my former boss at Yardbarker, Pete Vlastelica, is overseeing a bevy of new initiatives across design, technology, and content. Additionally the site's most prominent columnist, Jason Whitlock is apparently on his way out and another columnist was just tabbed by Deadspin as the worst columnist in America.
A television network, new management, new hires, new acquisitions, and new enthusiasm all open the door for FoxSports.com to become something, but time will tell what if anything that something is and how it will differentiate from a very competitive and crowded sports portal space.
Fox will certainly be pushing video as a priority and has signaled their moving to more fun blog content and away from news. Will all of the changes successfully differentiate Foxsports.com among its peers and can the influx of video content and new personalities bring new visitors to the site? It's something to keep an eye on given the strong symbiotic relationship ESPN programming and ESPN.com have built over the years.
It didn't take long for me to hit the eject button on watching Fox's college studio show last year. I was interested in giving it a look given the pairing of Lou Holtz and Mark May drowns out all of the positive elements Rece Davis brings to the table.
The first week the show was set to debut, extra innings baseball nixed the entire show.
The second week of the season almost suffered the same fate but eventually when the curtain finally came up, it was a total disaster. I still have a Word doc of compiled tweets from that inaugural effort and it's painful to look at. Somehow despite their being no other personality that I despise more than Mark May, I was back to being a regular viewer back over at ESPN.
Fox isn't going away though. In fact they've doubled down. More airtime, new personalities including the controversial Clay Travis, and new time slots.
ESPN's College Gameday is still the gold standard for pregame shows and ingrained into the culture of college football. Fox thinks they can carve out an audience regardless and also has their eyes on the afternoon and evening highlights focused hours which ESPN dominates as well.
This will be an uphill climb, but one Fox is committed to doing. This will be another key barometer to FS1's overall success.
30 For 30. Hard Knocks. 24/7. Those brands ring out, generate buzz, and bring in solid ratings.
I even suggested that it would be smart for FS1 to try to grab the rights to Hard Knocks given the built in audience the show has for the pure purpose of getting people familiar with the network and channel number (HBO recently reached an extension with NFL Films).
Currently documentaries don't seem to be a part of the FS1 playbook but will that change given the positive implications they often have for media brands regardless of the fact they are content loss leaders (meaning they often lose money). But will Fox begin to reinforce some of the live event programming they have with documentaries?
Peter Berg wanted to do a documentary series on Washington State football. No channel picked it up but would FS1 be open to it now given they have programming hours to fill and a long term agreement with the Pac 12? Would FS1 look to partner with NFL Films similar to NBCSN's partnership overseeing the production of Turning Point? Would they look to expand on Fox Soccer's Being: Liverpool series and launch a fresh documentary brand that way?
Some of this is wishful thinking but given the success HBO, ESPN, NFL Network and to a smaller degree NBCSN has had here, I don't think it's crazy to think FS1 will at least give the idea a hard look as they look to get on the radar with more sports fans.
In a recent interview with Variety, I came away fairly impressed with the perspective and context that Fox Sports Media COO Eric Shanks shared on the launch and expectations. Some choice quotes:
"You hope (viewers) stick around a little bit longer for your news, if they like it. And then all of a sudden, maybe they start to remember your channel number.”
“Shit’s gonna go wrong. I’m prepared for shit to go wrong. People are going to critique. That’s just the nature of the beast."
“But you learn that you’re going to take it all in, and you’re going to listen to your talent (and) your producers. You’re going to listen to fans, to your own gut, and you’re going to make changes. But we are going to be very patient.”
Shit is definitely going to go wrong. I have no doubt as well. The million dollar question is just how quickly FS1 can improve in areas they fall short. How long of a leash will shows, personalties, and initiatives have if they under perform?
Is FS1 content to make small tweaks and hope that in a decade they've begun to close the gap on ESPN? Or will they try to "win often and lose quickly" making big changes swiftly as they see needed?
Shanks hinted towards patience. If ratings and critical reception don't live up to expectations, it will be interesting to see how much patience will be extended.
All in all, a lot of questions to what should be a memorable rookie campaign set to unfold in less than 24 hours.