It’s been a rough year to date for FS1 on the PR front, from the Colleen Dominguez age-discrimination lawsuit and its recent developments to “Fox Sports Lapdance” to controversy about the future of Fox Sports Live to seemingly-negative public comments from Dan O’Toole and Jay Onrait to Katie Nolan arguing with Clay Travis after he called the Peyton Manning sexual assault allegations “a prank.” Richard Deitsch has called the network’s narrative “a mess,” and our Matt Yoder wrote last week that he’d “given up hope for FS1.” The ratings haven’t been good, either, and the network doesn’t seem to be in a great place two-and-a-half years in. They haven’t been able to take on ESPN the way they hoped, and haven’t even really provided the ESPN alternative they promised; instead, they’re in a fight with NBCSN for a distant second place in the cable sports landscape (and ESPN would argue that second place really belongs to ESPN2).
What can Fox do to change the direction of FS1?
In many ways, the key thesis statement of what Fox needs to do might have been from Dan Patrick to Onrait in a Sochi sauna at the 2014 Olympics. “My thought is, you can’t overtake ESPN in the span of a couple of years. And that’s what Fox has done twice now, they’ve made the mistake of trying to go at them in the span of two or three years,” Patrick said. “It’s the only way Fox does things, right?”
Indeed, and that approach has been at the core of many of FS1’s problems to date. There’s been an apparent desire to try to create things with the potential to go viral instead of long-term sustainable content.
The initial athlete panel of Fox Sports Live is somewhat of an example here; executives appeared to be more enthralled with the idea of Andy Roddick talking about the NFL, and the shares a clip like that could potentially get, than actually seeing if Roddick had anything notable to say on that subject (or if any of the panel’s other athletes had much to say about other sports). Other Fox properties have followed this model too, from Jason Whitlock’s angry j.school posts and “House Party By The Bay” to Clay Travis’ designed-for-reaction columns to some of Colin Cowherd’s most notable rants to date. There appears to be plenty of chasing of a short-term audience without reflection on what that means in the long run.
Last year at this time, The Mike Francesa Show was averaging 46,000 viewers during the first week of February. Exactly one year later, Colin Cowherd was averaging 66,000 viewers. Viewers will come to FS1 when must-see live events come. Are the millions Fox is paying Cowherd really worth 20,000 viewers? Highly doubtful.
An interesting point on this front comes from ESPN president John Skipper’s oft-used analogy of “concentric circles,” especially in how that applies to sports fans. Skipper has used this analogy (which initially came from senior VP of production Jed Drake) to discuss how ESPN started with the audience of the most serious sports fans and has tried to grow out into a wider group (while avoiding getting to “the edge”). A basis of solid news, reporting and highlights helped make ESPN a key destination for that group of serious sports fans even when they weren’t showing live events, and they then expanded beyond that with shows like SportsNation and First Take. Much of Fox’s approach seems to come at it from the other side, with substantial amounts of their programming seemingly featuring the quest to go viral to the broadest-possible audience with the hottest takes and wildest moments imaginable. That has problems; as Matt wrote, “One cannot build an entire network on hot takes alone.”
The issue with going for hot takes and virality is that while it can bring in short-term numbers, it may be doing so at the expense of long-term growth. There are significant numbers of people who will read Travis’ or Whitlock’s columns or watch Cowherd’s latest rant, and those numbers aren’t to be ignored. However, they come with downsides that more nuanced coverage doesn’t. Consider just Fox’s online college football coverage, for a moment; it wouldn’t be terribly surprising for any particular piece from Travis to pull in more readers to Fox than the average piece from more traditional reporters such as Bruce Feldman or Stewart Mandel, but some of those are hate clicks from those looking to make fun of Travis’ latest and put it on blast on social media, whereas the more traditional stuff isn’t drawing a lot of backlash and is helping the network’s overall brand rather than hurting it.
This is where the short-term versus long-term focus comes in; if you’re only concerned about today’s numbers, you’ll absolutely go with hot takes with viral potential, but those also have the potential to alienate viewers. Targeting that broad audience as a way to gain quick numbers may come at the expense of driving away the serious sports fans, the ones who were looking for a real ESPN alternative in the first place. Instead, they’ve been given an alternative nobody wanted.
Fox really doesn’t need to try and be overly splashy, and a smarter longer-term plan might be to slowly build. Keep in mind that ESPN was far from the behemoth it is today when it first launched; cable sports networks don’t go from zero to dominant overnight. FS1 has been aggressive in trying to constantly shake up its programming, but few of those changes have really worked so far, and greater stability might help more. This network does some things well; they’ve shown they can handle big events, such as the Women’s World Cup, college football games and UFC events, and after they got rid of the ill-conceived athlete panel, they created a compelling highlights show (even if the ratings didn’t always reflect that).
Whatever the successor to today’s Fox Sports Live will look like has potential, too, especially if it’s along the lines of the Jay and Dan Podcast (as Onrait has suggested it may be). That podcast has been a fantastic venue for the anchors, and has created plenty of funny and compelling conversations about sports. Interestingly enough, it’s also an example of the merits of a long-term strategy over a virality-focused one; Jay and Dan have had big guests on the show, including Ronda Rousey and Dana White, but some of their most interesting conversations have been with coworkers like Ephraim Salaam and Joel Klatt. Those conversations feel like more of a reward for regular listeners, not something that will draw a huge outside audience, but they help to build a brand long-term rather than providing quick, unsustainable growth. If the new show can follow that principle of being consistently good rather than always chasing buzz, it may help set FS1 up for the long term.
There are countless talented people at Fox, including Onrait and O’Toole, Feldman, Mandel, Nolan, Julie Stewart-Binks and many more, and there’s still plenty of potential for the network. While FS1 hasn’t found huge success so far, and has even drawn some unfavorable comparisons to the likes of NBCSN, it’s worth noting that it’s always been more ambitious, trying to provide a general sports network rather than one focused on just a few things (as NBCSN is with hockey, soccer and motorsports).
That ambition isn’t bad, and it’s not necessarily unrealistic given that Fox has a pretty decent lineup of live event rights. From both a rights standpoint and a personnel standpoint, there are lots of building blocks here. The question’s just if Fox will follow Patrick’s advice, be patient and try and shape those blocks into an actual foundation for long-term success, or if they’ll keep trying to stack them as quickly as possible in a quest for quick virality. The latter approach seems about as likely to go well as Kevin Hart playing Jenga.