Fox and News Corp. may challenge ESPN with national sports channel (updated)

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In a story that could potentially have a great impact on the sports world, Bloomberg today released a story detailing Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. taking steps to build a national cable television sports network.  Already, NBC and Comcast launched NBC Sports Network earlier this year to try and challenge the Bristol behemoth.  Fox may now be on the verge of stepping up to the plate as well.  Here’s the juiciest portions of the Bloomberg report:

News Corp. is assembling the required rights from pay-TV carriers and sports organizations, said the people, who requested anonymity because talks are private. While a final decision hasn’t been made to move forward, the company is considering converting its Fuel action-sports network to the new channel, two of the people said.

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The new channel could begin service by the end of this year, one person said. The effort is being led by David Hill, the chairman of Fox Sports, one person said.

News Corp., based in New York, has clearance from some carriers, including DirecTV, the biggest U.S. satellite television provider, two people said.

Fuel, a 24-hour action-sports network that carries mixed-martial arts fights, is available in 36 million U.S. homes, according to Fox.

This, quite frankly, is massive news.  If there is any force in the world of media powerful enough to take on ESPN and Disney, it is News Corp.  Fox has attempted to compete with ESPN before through their local Fox Sports Network affiliates, however, this would be a much different ballgame.  Instead of content being scattered amongst local and regional networks, this would be a cohesive national network.  (Maybe this means the Best Damn Sports Show Period will be making a comeback too!  And who doesn’t miss Tom Arnold and his zany sports related hijinx!)

It’s so interesting that Fox would enter the national sports network scene now as it has become more crowded in recent years with both CBS (CBS Sports Network) and NBC (NBC Sports Network) entering the playing field.  Neither one as yet has been able to even touch ESPN of course, so early in the process.  CBS Sports Network lags well behind in prestige, ratings, and distribution being in only about 45 million homes, less than half that of ESPN (which has ESPN and ESPN2 in approximately 100 million homes).  CBS has just made its first big talent acquisition for the network, bringing in Jim Rome from ESPN for his new self-titled show.  Yet, CBS Sports Network is filled with low level live events and programming.  Today’s schedule features NCAA Tournament replays and bull riding.  The top professional sport on the network may be Major League Lacrosse.  

NBC Sports Network is rebuilding Versus and battling fledgling ratings in the first few months of their journey.  Distributionally speaking, it’s in a much better place though at just above 75 million homes.  NBCSN has the flagship programming of the NHL and has added MLS games to its portfolio along with some college sports.  NBC also has the Olympics and Comcast includes various regional networks and Golf Channel.  NBC has been aggressive in purusing higher profile sports rights and all signs are they will continue to do so in hopes of building NBCSN.

So where would a Fox Sports Network stand?  Distribution is where Fox would meet its first challenge if indeed it plans on transforming Fuel into the Fox Sports Network.  Fuel is only available in 36 million homes, which places it more than halfway behind NBC Sports Network and even behind CBS Sports Network.  ESPN isn’t even in view on the horizon.  Furthermore, News Corp. would basically be building from scratch given Fuel’s abysmal ratings, averaging 18,000 viewers and placing it in last place amongst sports networks on cable.

Nevertheless, a new Fox Sports entity would perhaps be the most intriguing challenger to ESPN if the network does indeed arise.  Fox and News Corp. have a ton of rights and platforms from which to pull content.  Speed, Fox Sports regionals, Fox Soccer, Fox Soccer Plus, FX, Speed, Fuel, Big Ten Network, and Sky Sports in the UK are just a few of the networks controlled by News Corp. that could contribute something to a new national channel.  Just how many rights could Fox transfer to a new network is hypothetical right now.  Moreover, seeing Fox Sports Chairman David Hill’s name attached to the project is huge and would mean Fox is truly putting everything into the initiative.

Increased competition and a new Fox Sports Network is potentially good news for sports fans.  Competition breeds quality.  If ESPN had more legitimate challengers, perhaps some of the dodgier aspects of their programming would be forced to improve with real, viable alternatives.  Fox would have plenty of work to do to launch this channel by the end of the year as Bloomberg speculates the timetable may indicate.  In the end, the prospects of seeing another media giant building a national sports network to compete with ESPN and others is a compelling possibility on many levels.

**Update: SBJ’s John Ourand, as trusted a name as any in the field, was dropping plenty of info on his Twitter page today about the News Corp. discussions.  He says it is in fact Speed Channel and not Fuel who Fox Sports may be eyeing on flipping to a national network.  This would make much more sense for News Corp. seeing as how it is in 82 million homes vs the 36 million for Fuel.  Here’s a few of the reports Ourand tweeted according to sources:

A Fox plan is to flip Speed, not Fuel, into an all-sports channel to compete with ESPN. Fox has talked with leagues & distributors.

Fox’s plans are still evolving for an all-sports channel. Nothing is firm yet. They want to do it and are exploring options.

At one point, Fox was talking about converting Fuel into its motor racing channel. Way too early to say whether that will occur.

Nothing will happen this year with Fox’s potential all-sports channel.

Stay tuned.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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