SMW Top 20 Sports Media Stories of 2012 (#1)


Sports Media Watch presents 20 notable sports media stories of the year 2012. Today, the top sports media story of the year.

First, a look back at the list so far:
#20: Record-Lows for the World Series
#19: Record-Highs for the Super Bowl
T18: Big Names Leave ESPN
T18: But Many Others Stay
#16: FOX Keeps NASCAR
#15: David Hill Leaves Fox Sports
#14: The (Newest) Stan Van Gundy Saga
#13: ESPN Fires Writer, Suspends Anchor, For Slur
#12: CBS’ Joe Paterno Fiasco
#11: Notre Dame’s Resurgence
#10: NBC Steals Away Premier League Rights
#9: NFL Network Extends Thursday Night Slate
#8: Yet Another NHL Lockout
#7: Backlash to NBC’s Tape Delayed Olympics
#6: The Launch of NBCSN
#5: NBC’s Olympic Success
#4: NBA’s Stern Announces Retirement
#3: College Football Playoff and TV Deal
#2: MLB TV Deals

#1: The Newest Threat to ESPN (Maybe) — Fox Sports 1
The biggest sports media story of 2012 is, in many ways, still a hypothetical. Indeed, Fox Sports 1 has yet to be officially announced, but it has already loomed large over the sports television landscape.

In late March, the first reports surfaced that News Corporation ? the parent company of Fox Sports ? was planning to launch a national 24-hour cable sports network (Bloomberg, 3/28). An existing FOX cable channel ? Speed Channel, according to the general consensus ? would be converted into the new network.

The proposed FOX channel, Fox Sports 1, may already be a more serious competitor to heavyweight ESPN than rivals NBC Sports Network or CBS Sports Network. As of December, Speed Channel was in 81.0 million TV homes, ahead of NBCSN (77.8M) and CBSSN (47.0M). Beyond an advantage in distribution, FS1 would have a sports line-up that is unmatched by its more established rivals.

In negotiations with Major League Baseball this year, Fox Sports set aside hours and hours of programming for cable television — up to 40 regular season baseball games, portions of the Division Series, and potentially even some of the League Championship Series. FS1 precursor Speed Channel already owns the rights to the NASCAR All-Star Race and Craftsman Truck Series. In addition, Fox Sports’ deals with the Big 12, Pac-12, UFC and FIFA World Cup could also result in valuable content for FS1.

It should then be no surprise that when promoting the new network with league executives, Fox Sports reportedly chose to tout FS1?s live game programming (SBJ, 11/26). NBC Sports Network only has the NHL and, every two years, the Olympics. CBS Sports Network, meanwhile, has nothing of note.

However, beating NBC and CBS is not the endgame for FS1. Fox Sports is reportedly bullish on FS1?s ability to compete with ESPN, even likening the channel to Fox News. However, while it was easy for Fox News to chase down ? and surpass ? CNN by positioning itself as a “fair and balanced” alternative to perceived liberal media bias, it will be far more difficult for FS1 to do the same to ESPN. Consider this quote from Sports Business Journal in December:

“To underscore the notion that Fox Sports 1 plans to compete with ESPN, sources say [an FS1 promotional piece]includes a focus group of mostly men talking about their desire to have a competitor to ESPN. They complain about its perceived East Coast bias and programming like the ESPYs, sources say. When asked which network is best suited to offer competition, each answers ?Fox.??

It is hard to believe that FS1 is going to counteract ESPN?s supposed East Coast — or more accurately, big market — fixation. Fat chance that FOX would avoid talking about the Yankees and Red Sox all summer long, to say nothing of the Jets, Cowboys and Lakers the rest of the year. In addition, Fox Sports has never shied away from self-promotion and corporate synergy; this is the same sports division that once incorporated a soon-to-be-released “Charlie?s Angels” movie into the opening for the World Series.

In other words, the goal for Fox Sports 1 is not to provide a true alternative to ESPN. The ESPN formula, as obnoxious as it can be at times, works quite well. The real key for FS1, as one might guess, is to acquire high-quality live game programming. This is where ESPN has the greatest advantage over its competitors — and where Fox Sports 1 has the greatest amount of potential.

Even though FS1 already has a more formidable line-up than NBCSN or CBSSN, it comes nowhere close to ESPN. Football alone puts ESPN over the top. The network has “Monday Night Football” through 2021 and the entire college football playoff through 2026. The strongest FS1 property, Major League Baseball, will also remain a cornerstone of ESPN programming through 2021. Sure, FS1 might get a few League Championship Series games down the line, but ESPN has more-than-twice as many games during the regular season — a crucial period during the summer when any live sports programming is welcomed.

Where NBC Sports Network failed, at least so far, was in the inability to acquire big name sports. The network’s 2005 deal with the NHL, which vaulted then-OLN into the sports media conversation, was followed up by missed opportunities with the NFL (2006) and Major League Baseball (2005, 2006 and 2012).

Fox Sports 1 runs the risk of a similar fate. The network has an impressive line-up considering that it technically does not actually exist. However, more acquisitions will be necessary before FS1 can be considered a realistic competitor to ESPN. With additional NASCAR rights up for bid next year and the NBA waiting in the wings in 2016, opportunities exist for FS1 to reach its full potential. In particular, stealing away ESPN’s second-half NASCAR schedule and Wednesday/Friday/Sunday NBA slate would go a long way to weakening the dominance of the Worldwide Leader.

Without having been officially announced yet, Fox Sports 1 is the latest and perhaps greatest ESPN challenger. From CNN/SI to Fox Sports Net to OLN/VERSUS/NBCSN, there is no shortage of networks that have tried and failed to compete with ESPN. Fox Sports 1 may very well end up on the list of failures, but it at least has a puncher’s chance — and it has already gotten off to a good head start.