The idea of Fox Sports 1 as a legitimate alternative to ESPN fits nicely with the network's historical background, and it's an idea the network itself has largely promoted. Unlike CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network, which have generally tried to avoid direct comparisons with Bristol, Fox has actively sought those out and has looked to embrace that idea of being an ESPN alternative Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks notably said "Fans are ready for an alternative to the establishment" at the Fox Sports 1 launch party in March, and that theme has been repeated throughout Fox's marketing message thus far. From the "unconventional" and "unpredictable" setup of the Regis Philbin-helmed Crowd Goes W!ld (hey, their exclamation mark usage is unconventional, at least) to the hires of unusual figures ranging from Canadian SportsCentre legends Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole to controversial college football writer Clay Travis, Fox Sports 1 has made it quite clear they're not going to be an ESPN clone. However, the question is just what kind of alternative to the Worldwide Leader the new network will be—and the answer may not be what many ESPN critics are hoping for.
It's notable that "alternative" only denotes "different" in and of itself; it doesn't specify how something will be different. Thus, although there are plenty sick of Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and ESPN's other journalistic issues, it doesn't necessarily follow that an ESPN alternative is going to be serious journalism and nothing but. In fact, Fox Sports 1's moves thus far suggest that won't be the case at all. From tabbing an opinionated, headline-making personality in Travis, who isn't that far from a Bayless or a Smith, to launching what's effectively a debate show centered around Philbin, to tabbing Andy Roddick as an all-sports commentator on their nightly highlights show to bringing in figures well known for their comedy like Onrait and O'Toole, there's a lot suggesting that Fox is going for something other than beating ESPN at the straight journalism game. A quote Fox Sports senior vice-president (marketing) Robert Gottlieb gave to Cynopsis (via Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch) is interesting on that front:
It's pretty simple, while it's not a tagline, the message is that it's time for sports to be fun again. There's the perception that sports and sports television has gotten too corporate and fans ultimately want to come for fun. The fun of the great comeback, the fun of performances that we will never forget that give you goose bumps. It's not about steroids, Tim Tebow and other BS that keep getting crammed down our throat. So for FOX Sports 1, it's in our DNA. We make things more fun, more colorful and more vivid and that's our position of what we are promising to viewers. Fans want an alternative.
As Deitsch points out, there's a significant difference between Tebow and steroids: Tebow's a polarizing figure who only tangentially impacts on-field sports at the moment but has been turned into an endless topic of conversation by ESPN, whereas steroids are a real issue. Just how outraged fans should get about performance-enhancing drugs is debatable, but there's no denying they (and the suspensions handed out for failed drug tests) have actual on-field significance. If Fox doesn't plan to focus on any of the issues around PEDs, that will significantly hurt their journalistic credibility.
The question is if Fox cares, though, and they may not. In fact, their ESPN alternative may be more about presenting a different, looser and perhaps even more outrageous form of debate rather than offering something else. While that certainly won't go over well in the significant part of the Twitter sports world that dislikes ESPN's journalistic missteps, it's worth noting that Twitter users still represent a small portion of the total population, and the group concerned about journalistic standards is even more minute. The group looking for a serious TV sports news alternative to ESPN is not insignificant, but it's not the only one out there. There also are those looking for some fun with their highlights (not always a bad mix, and one Onrait and O'Toole did very well north of the border) and perhaps even quirkier and more opinionated thoughts on debate shows, and if Fox can capture that audience, they may do well.
Of course, Fox's commitment (or lack thereof) to providing a serious journalistic alternative to ESPN can't be fully evaluated until the network launches in August. Furthermore, just because many of their hires have demonstrated an interest in unconventional and comedic focuses doesn't mean that they won't present serious elements as well: the hire of Bill Raftery, one of the most renowned college basketball analysts out there, is certainly a strong step on that front. People like Onrait and O'Toole have shown an ability to blend news and humour well, too, so that isn't necessarily against what ESPN critics want to see. It's just notable that "ESPN alternative" doesn't necessarily mean "the ESPN alternative many ESPN critics want." We'll see just what kind of alternative Fox Sports 1 offers when it launches August 17.