Fox’s Bill Wanger on the State of Fox Sports

In the next installment of our series of interviews with sports network executives, we give the floor to Fox which will launch Fox Sports 1 this weekend. On Tuesday, Matt Yoder spoke with NBC's Jon Miller. Yesterday, I spoke with CBS' David Berson. Both men gave their States of the Network Addresses. Today, it's Bill Wanger's turn. Bill Wanger is the Executive Vice President of Research and Programming for Fox Sports. He's been with the division from Day One when Fox surprised the sports world by entering the NFL by wrestling the NFC package away from CBS in 1994.

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Since then, Wanger has seen Fox grow from just one sports property to several including MLB, NASCAR, Big-12, Pac-12, a sports empire encompassing over 20 regional sports networks and of course, the incoming Fox Sports 1 and 2.

Wanger has spanned the first Fox Sports administation of David Hill and Ed Goren to the current leadership of Randy Freer, Eric Shanks and John Entz. In this interview, Wanger discusses the genesis of Fox Sports 1, why we haven't heard much about Fox Sports 2 until recently and how Wanger compares the creation of Fox Sports to the creation of a new cable sports network.

Ken Fang: If you had the opportunity to give us a State of Fox Sports as it stands now, what you would you say?

Bill Wanger: First and foremost, excitement would be the number one word. We're just days away from launching Fox Sports1. Everyone is working really hard. We're doing our dress rehearsals, rehearsing all of our graphics, music and commercial formats and so on, so everyone's really excited to get it going. 

I think just in general of the entire Fox Sports Group, we're in a really good place. We have long term rights deals with the key sports in the country, NFL, baseball and collegiate sports, and NASCAR, and soccer including the World Cup, UFC. And we have our other businesses, for example, our regional business where we have 22 regional sports networks across the country that carry professional baseball, the NHL and the NBA. So I think we're in a really good spot.

From a digital perspective, we're launching businesses like FoxSportsGo which will be a mobile app where users can get all the news and information and the highlights that they want. And authenticated users can get a linear feed of Fox Sports 1. We're redoing our website and we have the number 1 Spanish cable network in Fox Deportes. We're in a good place and we're constantly moving forward and advancing things.

KF: What led to the formation of Fox Sports 1? Why go with an all-sports cable network now?

BW: It was over the last three years where we looked at the rights landscape and there were some rights and packages that were available that we felt would give us enough critical mass to launch a sports network; things like college football on the Pac-12 and Big 12, things like Major League Baseball, college basketball, UFC, the World Cup of Soccer, most recently the USGA. It was really the timing. Everyone asks that question, but really the timing was when rights were available and when we felt comfortable in securing enough rights to be able to launch the channel. 

KF: Did Fox Sports take a look at what NBC Sports and CBS Sports were doing realizing that it was content that was the key to make sure an all-sports cable network was successful and also looking at what ESPN was doing … knowing that when NBCSN launched they had the NHL and a few minor events, CBSSN has niche sports. Fox Sports 1 is hitting the ground running. Was that a part of it also?

BW: You're constantly looking at the competition. At Fox, we don't do anything to be second-string so to speak. We're always coming into the marketplace as aggressive, trying to be an alternative, Yes, we absolutely looked at the competition to see what was working, what wasn't working, 

We also looked at the history of our company where Fox Broadcasting started in 1986-87 and how that evolved and how that grew. And you have Fox News as a great exmple of how they took on CNN starting in 1996, so there are a lot of examples and history and lessons learned from looking at your competition and also looking at your own family of networks.

KF: The Fox Sports 2 channel is going to be taking the place of Fuel at the same time Fox Sports 1 launches. Why haven't we heard more about Fox Sports 2 as much as we've heard about Fox Sports 1?

BW: Fox Sports 2 is going to launch in 40 million homes on August 17. Yes, we really haven't talked much about it, but it's going to be a very robust channel that will have a lot of UFC programming on it, it will have a lot of motorsports on it, a lot of soccer,

In the beginning, it won't have original programming that will be unique to Fox Sports 2. It's not that we're ignoring it, it's just that Fox Sports 1 is a place where we're investing the most money. But Fox Sports 2 is a great companion piece and it's vital actually to have a companion piece to handle all the programming that you're going to need.

KF: We've heard that Fox Sports 1 is supposed to be "fun." What was the idea behind that?

BW: We always say that our NFL pregame show, Fox NFL Sunday is our version of fun. And when we say, "fun," it's not jokes and "ha ha," it's having a credible and informative show, where the guys have a great chemistry and it's people you want to have a beer with. And I think that's really been the model for us and creating the various shows live Fox Sports Live which is our news and information and highlights show.

It's not so much about jokes, it's about celebrating the fun of sports, maybe taking a lighter tone. This isn't news, this is sports. It's people's escape that's meant to be fun and that's what we're going to do with it.

KF: What was the research telling you about what ESPN was doing and what Fox Sports should be doing?

BW: There's a sense out there that sports has become a little corporate, that it's a little manufactured. Our goal is to be authenic, be fun, bring viewers inside the locker room and inside the game a little bit more. And that's been our road map and been our strategy going forward.

KF: What brought the idea that Fox should go after the US Open?

BW: The bottom line is that Fox is about big events whether it's the Super Bowl or the World Series, the Daytona 500, the World Cup or a big UFC fight. The US Open and the other events of the USGA are great events and they're huge events. That's our business. That's our bread and butter.

We saw an opportunity to seize one of the prestigious golf tournaments and be a partner with the USGA and we're thrilled about it.

KF: Fox is known for the NFL, NASCAR and baseball. When Fox went after the US Open, what was the thinking behind it?

BW: First and foremost, I know there's been some stuff written in the press saying "How can Fox do a golf tournament? They've never done golf before." People forget pretty easily that we never broadcast an NFL game before 1994, Fox Broadcasting was known as the network of "The Simpsons" and "Beverly Hills 90210."

We never broadcast the World Series or a baseball game before 1996. We had never broadcast a car race or NASCAR race before 2002,

We have a lot of experienced production folks here led by Eric Shanks, David Hill and John Entz, We have the utmost confidence that we will do a great job with the US Open and be great partners with them.

KF: You've been with Fox Sports from the beginning and here you are launching a new network. Compare and contrast launching a new sports division to launching a new cable network.

BW: You have the same amount of angst and the same amount of excitement. But this is different because of the sheer scale of it in terms of the number of hours that you have to program, the number of shows you have to get up and running. We're prepared for it, but this is just a lot more tonnage. But you still have the same level of angst and still the same level of excitement.

KF: So how many executives will be in the control room when Speed changes into Fox Sports 1 at 3 a.m. West Coast time?

BW: I think there will be a handful of people here for the switch. It will be a fun time. I think everyone here will give a couple of high fives and then we'll get back to work.

KF: There are still some sports properties coming up for bid such as MLS, the NBA and the Big Ten, which is under Fox Sports' umbrella through the Big Ten Network. How aggressive will Fox be for those properties?

BW: We will be absolutely active participants to those future rights negotiations. Those are the three biggest ones that are still on the table. With the NBA in '16-'17 and the Big Ten in '17-'18 and MLS in a year, Fox will definitely be at the table for those. Now we have the opportunity with these two channels to make a big play for those.

Ken Fang

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013. He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television. Fang celebrates the three Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.

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