For all the talk the past few months, it should be pointed out that Fox Sports 1 does not actually exist yet.
Compared to the other major 24-hour sports networks, however, FS1 may already be a stronger competitor for ESPN than NBC Sports Network or CBS Sports Network have ever been.
The first and most basic reason for this is distribution. Fox Sports 1 would replace Speed Channel, which was in 80.8 million television homes at the start of October — trailing ESPN (98.2M) and ESPN2 (98.1M), but ahead of NBCSN (78.1M).
While those numbers could change, 80 million homes would be a good place to start.
Beyond distribution, the primary key is the high-quality level of programming FS1 will almost certainly air.
In recent negotiations with Major League Baseball, Fox Sports obtained cable television rights to over 40 Saturday afternoon regular season games and half of the Division Series. FS1 would presumably air those telecasts.
Major League Baseball is a significantly more valuable television property than the National Hockey League, the highest-profile sport on NBCSN (other than the Olympics, which airs for only two weeks every two years). CBSSN, meanwhile, airs nothing of value but lower-tier college football and early round U.S. Open tennis coverage.
FS1 is also likely to continue airing NASCAR’s annual All-Star Race and Camping World Truck Series, as well as Sprint Cup practice and qualifying rounds. Those events have aired on Speed Channel in past years, and Fox Sports retained those rights in recent negotiations with NASCAR.
Fox Sports could also pick up additional NASCAR rights if Turner Sports and ESPN do not renew during their exclusive negotiating windows next year. Undoubtedly, such a move would result in Sprint Cup races airing on FS1 as well — though that is an admittedly unlikely hypothetical.
Beyond baseball and NASCAR, one imagines FS1 would also air some of the Pac-12 and Big-12 college football games currently televised by FX.
Where FS1 would likely fail is in providing studio programming. Outside of “FOX NFL Sunday,” the studio has generally been a weakness for Fox Sports, which currently outsources MLB pregame coverage to MLB Network and whose much-hyped college football pregame has been panned. When Fox Sports Net was being positioned as a rival for ESPN, a nightly show hosted by Keith Olbermann failed, as did the much-derided “Best Damn Sports Show Period.”
Still, it is not as if NBCSN or CBSSN have much in the way of formidable studio coverage either. NBC’s “NBC Sports Talk” has been a non-factor thus far, and CBS’ highest-profile studio programming consists of talk shows hosted by former ESPNers Jim Rome and Doug Gottlieb.
Without even being officially announced, FS1 already has a stronger line-up than NBCSN or CBSSN. While that line-up is nowhere close to that of ESPN, one can be both the closest contender and a very distant second.
(October cable distribution numbers from Sports Business Daily)