2017 was a tumultuous year for FS1 for a number of reasons, but there is a silver lining for the network. FS1 saw its top executive Jamie Horowitz leave in controversial fashion and the network has said goodbye to many of its original stars to replace them with a number of former ESPN talking heads. Fox Sports Digital is another story entirely with the gutting of the FoxSports.com website in a disastrous pivot to video.
The one good piece of news to come for Fox in 2017 was the continued bolstering of their live sports rights portfolio. The addition of Big Ten games was certainly significant for the network with big brand names like Ohio State and Michigan bringing more viewers to the network.
And as the ratings reports come in for 2017, it was certainly rewarding for FS1. Maury Brown at Forbes has the numbers, and while each movement is negligible, it is indeed a feather in the cap of FS1 to buck the trend of their other national counterparts. It’s just a 2% gain, but in this environment any ratings uptick is going to be celebrated by a sports network. Out of FS1, ESPN, ESPN2, and NBCSN, the Fox outlet was the only one to see a ratings increase from 2016 to 2017.
FS1 Average Viewership 2016-2017
176,000 -> 180,000 (Up 2%)
ESPN Average Viewership 2016-2017
821,000 -> 726,000 (Down 7%)
ESPN2 Average Viewership 2016-2017
243,000 -> 189,000 (Down 22%)
NBCSN Average Viewership 2016-2017
168,000 -> 137,000 (Down 18%)
FS1 has shifted the goalposts from competing with ESPN to competing with ESPN2 in recent times. And as the numbers show, they are actually closing in on the deuce. A deficit of 67,000 average viewers has been slashed down to just a deficit of 9,000 viewers in just one year.
ESPN2 seeing the biggest drop of the major cable sports networks has to be concerning to Bristol. One could theorize that much of the decline though was ESPN’s decision to cannibalize itself by moving First Take from ESPN2 to ESPN. While that decision was able to lead ESPN to brag about how much Skip Bayless’ old show was crushing Skip Bayless’ new show in the ratings, ESPN2 suffered a serious hit in the swap with SportsCenter. In the spin game between network PR departments, Fox Sports then boasted whenever Undisputed would beat SportsCenter in ratings on ESPN2.
It’s a Catch-22 for ESPN. On one hand, they’re able to stick it to FS1’s push towards Embrace Debate by still clearly dominating the space with First Take on ESPN. However, it’s come at the cost of declining ratings on ESPN2 and perhaps most concerning, a continued slide towards irrelevance for SportsCenter on ESPN2 in the mornings.
The other numbers worth watching in terms of FS1’s competition is with NBCSN. An 18% decline is concerning for that network, although it’s worth nothing that 2017 was a non-Olympic year for the peacock and NBCSN should rebound this year. NBCSN also has to worry about reversing a downward trend for the NHL as well after years of more positive momentum for the league.
FS1 is slowly gaining ground thanks to its steadily improving live sports rights portfolio. (If only FS1 would focus on that instead of airing 12 hours a day of Cowherd, Whitlock, and Bayless maybe the ratings would improve even more, but that’s another story for another day.) The improvement for FS1 should continue this year with the men’s soccer World Cup coming to Fox for the first time. Adding the World Cup to the MLB postseason, Big Ten, college football, Champions League, and UFC means that FS1 is building a solid foundation of rights. They’re still light years away from catching ESPN in total viewers, but at least FS1 is heading in the right direction.