Today marks the one month anniversary of America's newest 24/7 cable sports network – Fox Sports 1. It was August 17th when Speed Channel went off the air and was replaced by the all sports network. FS1 is just beginning its nascent journey in the sports world, but it's worth examining the network's first impression on viewers. Fox Sports 1 is the most hyped cable sports network to launch as a prospective challenger to ESPN. So far there have been some positives, some early struggles, and the realization of that challenge being much more difficult than the folks in Los Angeles had hoped.
Here's a quick look at Fox Sports 1 after one month…
Fox Sports Live
FS1's flagship show is working hard to distinguish itself from SportsCenter. The anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole are different. The ex-athlete panel is different. The Big Board is different. Even the highlights and conversation topics are somewhat different (a little more EPL and hockey here, a little less Tebow there). Instead of the SC Top 10, fans vote for The One as the highlight of the night for instance. A lot of that clear distinction from ESPN has been healthy for sports fans in giving them choice.
Naturally, that distinction has provided bright spots and areas where FS1 has already gone back to the drawing board.
The panel has already been greatly retooled and downsized. For instance, after last night's Steelers-Bengals game only Ephraim Salaam and Brendon Ayanbadejo analyzed the game with Charissa Thompson. Later in the show, baseball highlights were followed by a 1 on 1 with Thompson and Gabe Kapler. The entire group was only together for one segment after being half of the show at the outset. You could have blinked and missed Andy Roddick on Monday night's episode.
It was clear from the beginning the full panel was going to be little more than Best Damn 2.0. Once Gary Payton started talking about LeBron James being a better athlete than Usain Bolt because he could play baseball (?!?!?) during the first week, it was downhill from there. A few of the analysts have shined in spots, Gabe Kapler in particular. Charissa Thompson has impressed in a larger role as moderator. However, when the group begins to step outside their comfort zones – the original objective of the panel mind you – the idea struggles.
Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole have been as entertaining as advertised and you can tell ESPN has been taking notice of their "fun" approach to sports highlights as SportsCenter has been decidedly looser in recent weeks. If there's anything FS Live has done extremely well it's being active in social media, especially uploading highlights of the show and Jay & Dan specifically on YouTube. Their podcast may be one of the most enjoyable things about the network so far.
Production and graphics look like a network that's only a month old and need to be improved. The 27 different tickers and graphics scrolls are still overwhelming. On the whole though, Fox Sports Live is a decent alternative to SportsCenter already and perhaps that's all the network can hope for after one month. The network should be applauded for trying something innovative with FS Live, but it appears the half highlight-half panel show is already in the rearview mirror.
The highlight of FS1's first month has to be the Fox Sports 1 candid camera catching Terry Bradshaw's NSFW conversation with Jimmy Johnson, doesn't it?
Hashtag The 1.
Crowd Goes Wild
What do 2 Chainz, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mike Tyson, Judah Friedlander, Iman Shumpert, Dr. Oz, and Joe Namath have in common? They've all been guests on Crowd Goes Wild, which has been as unpredictably eccentric and random as first envisioned. At least they dumped that campy exclamation point in the title, though.
It all started with an extended segment on Regis the Horse and the weirdness hasn't stopped since. That's not to say the show is a total failure – there have been some hits here and there (Pardon the Contradiction) and some big whiffs (let's make fun of how little our 80+ year old host knows about sports!). CGW is just such a different hour of sports television it's almost jarring. As far as the individuals go, both Georgie Thompson and Katie Nolan should have bigger roles for the network by this time next year. Trevor Pryce and Jason Gay are both very, very smart. You just wonder what their long term roles will be because after a month I still have no idea what this show is.
FS1 took a gamble by launching their own competitor to College GameDay with Fox College Saturday. The results have been an improvement on the studio from last year although ratings have been predictably tiny in comparison. Joel Klatt has emerged as one of the stars of the network early on, with the former player showing surprising anchor skills alongside Erin Andrews. The cast is certainly more interesting this year, although moving forward Fox is going to have to keep the SEC-based trolling of Clay Travis to a minimum or it'll be a major turn off. FS1 needs to continue to strive to be more Herbie/Corso than May/Holtz and avoid the temptation to take the easy way out by becoming relevant through regional fanbase warfare.
So far the biggest issue has been the blase slate of games. Has there been one FS1 game you've sat down to watch on Fox Sports 1 so far? Washington State-USC provided an upset… but let's face it, the Cy-Hawk Trophy isn't bringing viewers in droves to FS1. The upcoming schedule isn't that captivating either, which leads to…
Where's all the big live events?
I know we spend a lot of time on this site talking about studio shows and screengrabs and announcers and a million different elements of the intersection of sports and media. This fact cannot be driven home enough though.
Sports media is all about live events.
Live events drive everything at a network. Everything. From lead-ins to studio shows to advertising to rights fees, everything revolves around your live event schedule. It's why networks are now willing to pay not just millions, but billions for television rights. In the first month of Fox Sports 1, has there been even one sporting event you just had to see on the network? One event that caused you to check your channel guide to see where FS1 was located?
According to the very valuable Son of the Bronx database of TV ratings, only one event has drawn more than 1 million viewers from August 17th – September 8th: the UFC Fight Night card for the network's debut night. The other top events? NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series racing and Pac 12 football, which are the only other sports to crack 800,000 viewers. ESPN and ESPN2 had 31 events crack 1 million viewers from September 2nd – September 8th alone.
It's not a great concern for FS1 at this point because we haven't seen the best of their portfolio, far from it. Their overall package is still better than NBCSN and CBS Sports Network looking long term. Nevertheless, FS1 needs to always be on the lookout for ways to strengthen their live sports rights because it's the only way to gain viewers.
The long and winding road for ratings
The biggest takeaway from the first month of Fox Sports 1?
FS1 is much closer to NBCSN than they are ESPN.
It may be a cold dose of reality for FS1, but it's the truth. In spite of all of the hype, all the attention, all the speculation about challenging ESPN, and all the smack talk from Los Angeles to Bristol, Fox Sports 1 starts at the very bottom of the mountain in their quest to topple the self-proclaimed worldwide leader. Again via Son of the Bronx, the early ratings for FS1 are telling.
From August 26th – September 1st, the last full week with data available for NBCSN's Premier League coverage, the networks were quite comparable. NBCSN had 28 telecasts with greater than 100k viewers. FS1 had 36. NBCSN's Top 10 programs were all either EPL soccer or IndyCar racing. FS1's Top 10 programs were all college football, UFC, and NASCAR live events. Studio programs for the two nets draw similar audiences without lead-in programming – 11 PM ET episodes of Fox Sports Live have dropped to as low as 41,000 viewers, which is in the range of NBCSN shows like The Crossover, Sports Dash, and Pro Football Talk without live sports buffers.
If anything, Fox needs to lower expectations surrounding the immediate impact of Fox Sports 1's launch. Their ambition is admirable, but challenging ESPN from the outset and going head to head at this point is like trying to take down Godzilla with a potato gun. It looks silly when your network talks such a big game and is routinely outdrawn by a 3:45 AM airing of College Football Scoreboard on ESPNU.
"I drink it cold and stale, like the ratings at ESPN." – Chael Sonnen on Fox Sports Live, not exactly being correct or anything.
— Steve Lepore (@stevelepore) September 17, 2013
It's going to take a generation for any network to reach or even dream of surpassing ESPN. ESPN's advantages in cable fees (where they still make 23 more times the cash of FS1), sports rights, and monopolization of the marketplace are ironclad.
Fox Sports 1 starts ahead of NBCSN for viewership totals, but just barely. The gap between Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN is minimal. The gap between those networks and ESPN remains as large as the Grand Canyon.
10 people we should see more of in Month #2 in no particular order…
Joel Klatt, Molly McGrath, Gabe Kapler, Trevor Pryce, Georgie Thompson, Scott Fujita, Brian McBride, Katie Nolan, Randy Moss, Ryan the PA.