It has been a year since I did my now infamous series on Fox Sports 1 launching as the chosen challenger to ESPN. At the end of that series, I concluded that Fox Sports 1 (FS1) would eventually be on par with ESPN in just about every measurable way.
One year later, I look like a fool…kind of.
While I still believe that FS1 will eventually be at the level of ESPN from a content and profit standpoint, there’s little that has happened in the last year to suggest I’m right. For starters, FS1 isn’t even the 2nd biggest sports cable network on pay-TV. That distinction belongs to ESPN2. Which means that ESPN’s ugly, little step-brother is beating the pants off the Rupert Murdoch-backed powerhouse of a start-up.
But it gets worse.
FS1 isn’t even the 3rd biggest sports network on pay-TV. That dubious honor goes to NBC Sports. That said, NBC got out the gate earlier than FS1, and there’s no questioning that minus the Winter Olympics, NBC Sports wouldn’t be ahead of FS1 in average daytime viewers this year.
Still, 4th place is a reality for FS1, and I certainly don’t think FS1 would’ve been happy with those results if you told them that’s where they’d be this time last year. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. As cute and as fun as it is for us, and even ESPN, to make fun of FS1’s popularity, it’s a ridiculous point to make. Murdoch and his cronies at 21st Century Fox are in this for the long game.
I mentioned in Part 4 of my series that sports are propping up the entire pay-TV ecosystem. Without sports, the whole things falls apart, which gives everyone within that ecosystem incentive to make sure sports does well and keeps the profits rolling in. And doing well probably means having more than 1 major player making things happen. Because if there’s only 1 player controlling all of the major sports telecasts, all ESPN has to do is decide, one day, that they can make more money on their own than they can with the cable companies, and the whole system will be doomed.
Again, we’re probably far away from that day, but it’s going to happen. That revolutionary moment not happening would be the equivalent of NBC in the 1950’s saying, “We’re gonna stick it out with this radio thing.” And you can bet Murdoch and FS1 want to make sure they are there for that tipping point. Because if they are well-positioned with an indestructible sports network when the digital revolution beings to yield analog profits, they will most certainly stand to reap the benefits as a sports network.
More central to FS1’s unlikeliness to quit is Murdoch’s persistence. Sure, he passed on Time Warner (for now), but he’s not giving up on owning all of the world’s content. He entered the American media market with a bang, turning a bunch of nearly defunct local television stations into one of America’s largest, independently-controlled media companies. He did that by spending a lot of money. And as the NBA’s rights get ready to go on sale, there’s no question that Fox is going to be ready for another shopping spree. Because getting rights to the NBA could go down as the thing that eventually sank ESPN’s profits and propelled FS1 into relevancy. The NBA has made Turner Broadcasting a sports entity to be reckoned with, and they’ve done so with only one night a week of basketball. And if FS1 takes the NBA away from ESPN, they get a leg up on the World Wide Leader for at least that 1 night a week. That one night a week alone could close the gap we currently see between ESPN and FS1, a gap that currently stands at about 13:2, in terms of average total day viewers.
But the actual tipping point for FS1 could already have a name attached to it. Fox won the rights to the 2018 World Cup. And given ESPN’s record-breaking coverage of the event this summer, the folks at FS1 have to be excited about what that could mean for their channel in 4 years. FS1 is already investing a ton in soccer, by covering Champions League games, buying Major League Soccer rights, and moving profound basketball announcer Gus Johnson to the soccer booth. But there are so many other things they can do to make sure they take advantage of the potential ratings bonanza that the World Cup will be for them. They will have to overcome the fact that the time zone difference will be a huge problem to deal with, but at the very least, ESPN’s enhancing of the average American’s love for soccer will make the ratings in 2018 better than they otherwise would’ve been. And if Fox can get even the type of ratings that ESPN got way back in 2010, this will be huge for their network when it comes to gaining new viewers and a position in the sports zeitgeist.
So with a bid for the NBA, and a most-assured ratings spike in 2018, I see little reason to believe that FS1 won’t be competing with ESPN…eventually. Again, it’s not happening tomorrow, and it’s quite possible that the World Cup comes and goes, and FS1 still isn’t in ESPN’s league. But the World Cup can’t come and go 2 or 3 times, and the NBA on Fox wouldn’t be ignored for too long before FS1 became a major player. In sports media, if you own the rights to the sports viewers want to watch, then you own the viewers. It’s pretty simple. As long as FS1 is willing to pay for sports rights, they will be in the game for the long-haul. ESPN can talk of barriers to entry all they want, but really, all they can do is delay the inevitable for as long as possible. But as you know, the inevitable always, always…always.