The one story I'm most interested in as far as the sports media landscape in 2013 is concerned is the continued rise in competition amongst the major all sports cable channels. At the heart of this arms race is the planning and possible launch of a new all sports cable channel – Fox Sports 1. With NBC jumping into the field with NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network slowly adding more original shows and live sports, these media companies are looking at taking a legitimate run at ESPN.
While NBC has gotten most of the press in hopes they could build a competitor to ESPN, the truth is that Fox is in a much better position to chip away at ESPN's dominance immediately. Monday, John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal filed a report with very interesting new details about the long rumored News Corp. competitor to ESPN – Fox Sports 1. Thankfully, the article isn't behind the SBJ paywall, so it's worth your time to check out the entire piece. The highlights paint the picture of Fox making their intentions clearly known – News Corp. sees Fox Sports 1 as not just competing with ESPN someday, but surpassing them…
-Fox is already pitching Fox Sports 1 to sports leagues and conferences with a detailed ad video.
-Fox is banking on its own history of major breakthroughs in network and cable news television. Both the Fox broadcast network that launched in the late '80s and Fox News Network launched in the late '90s have reached the top of the industry. Fox is hoping they can do it again with Fox Sports 1.
-FS1 will focus on its inventory of live sports (college sports, soccer, UFC, NASCAR, MLB) and studio programs with a possible alternative to SportsCenter in the works.
-FS1 would go to a side by side advertising formula, often seen during auto racing broadcasts, for all sports telecasts.
-FS1 will launch in August 2013 with a full roll out in early 2014 to coincide with Fox's coverage of Super Bowl XLVIII.
While Fox hasn't officially declared their intentions with Fox Sports 1, all signs are that it will become a reality in the near future. The consensus all along has been that Fox would transform Speed Channel and its 80 million homes into Fox Sports 1. If that's the case, Fox Sports 1 would be in more homes (by just a handful) than NBC Sports Network when it launches. With Formula 1 leaving Speed for NBC Sports Network, the door is opening for Speed to make the transition. FS1 could hold on to the more attractive auto racing programming, while other events could be transferred to Fuel.
One element that hasn't gotten much discussion in the launch of Fox Sports 1 is the potential for a Fox Sports 2 or 3. If the Fox Sports 1 launch is successful, a total rebranding of the Fox Sports empire could be in the making. In Australia, Fox has Fox Sports 1, 2, 3, Fox Footy, and Fox Sports News. In the UK, the News Corp. controlled Sky Sports has a similar set up. Why wouldn't Fox in the US move in the same direction? Between Fox Soccer, Fox Soccer Plus, FSNs, Fox College Sports, Fuel, Speed and network TV rights, there's plenty of live sports to go around as it stands already.
But, the reality of seeing a successful competitor to ESPN rise up is much harsher than anyone can realize. NBC is finding that out the hard way in 2012 with NBC Sports Network's ratings still struggling mightily. ESPN has an incredible built in advantage not just with their long-term monopoly in cable sports, not just with their branding, but the fact that they can print their own money with cable fees exponentially higher than any other channel. To catch up with ESPN, Fox and NBC (and CBS if they truly want to get serious with CBS Sports Network) need to find a way to close the gap on ESPN's subscriber fees. NBC Sports Network charges 31 cents a subscriber. ESPN charges over 5 dollars. If that gap remains in place, NBC Sports Network will be Sisyphus rolling a boulder up the hill for all eternity.
News Corp. is the only media company in the world that could even think about taking on ESPN at the moment in American sports. They have the two most important elements in eventually competing with Bristol – live sports rights and money. In fact, News Corp. is one of the few media companies actually worth more than ESPN at $58 billion to ESPN's $40 billion. When you look at the aggressive moves Fox has made regionally and locally with the Yankees and Dodgers, splashing insane amounts of cash, their intentions in the sports world become even clearer.
However, Fox's challenge towards ESPN may in truth be a tougher task than Fox News challenging CNN or Fox network TV challenging ABC/CBS/NBC. That's how big of a juggernaut ESPN is in sports. But while Fox may start a long ways behind ESPN, they have the resources to commit to an all sports cable channel other networks don't right now. They also have a history of success where others have failed before. That's why Fox Sports 1 will be the most intriguing story of 2013.