In the wake of Fox Sports’ digital layoffs and firing of Jamie Horowitz, there’s been a lot of discussion of what could be ahead for both FS1 and Fox Sports’ digital operation. According to Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, though, Fox Sports’ president Eric Shanks’ plan for the foreseeable future appears to be having FS1 continue on its current course on the television side, with Fox perhaps staying the course on the digital side as well. However, Deitsch’s sources tell him things are far from rosy inside Fox Sports:
“How bad is morale? Well, what is shittier than shitty?” said one Fox Sports staffer. “There are people I know who have worked at Fox Sports a long time who say it’s not the same place as before. These are people who were here before FS1. A lot of that has to do with the quality of people who were let go.”
“There is a big disconnect between the studio group and the remote group,” said another Fox Sports staffer. “It’s like it’s separate companies.”
“Everybody is miserable,” said a former Fox Sports executive, who speaks regularly to people at the company. “I was blessed to work with David Hill and Ed Goren and they encouraged you to stick your neck out for innovation and creativity. You could try 10 things and maybe four would work, but that made you a .400 hitter. But it’s a volume business, and that changes the playing field a bit.”
The larger takeaway from Deitsch’s piece is that while there may well be efforts to further integrate the studio side and the remote side of Fox Sports under whoever replaces Horowitz on the TV side, it’s pretty unlikely that FS1 will move away from debate. For one thing, they have seen some ratings improvements there over their previous programming (although the new ratings are still far from great), and for another thing, studio debate shows are cheap apart from the on-air talent salaries. Beyond that, though, the even bigger factor are those salaries; Skip Bayless makes a reported $6.5 million, Deitsch says Colin Cowherd is “believed to be in the same area code,” and both have years left on their deals, as do the other analysts FS1 has regularly appearing on its debate programming.
It would likely be hugely expensive to blow up the current FS1 lineup before those contracts expire, and that makes it pretty unlikely we’ll see that. Even more importantly, there’s no indication that Shanks disagrees with FS1’s direction. He brought on Horowitz, and presumably approved many of the latter’s bigger moves. And he already saw that the original “ESPN alternative” direction wasn’t working, at least in the way Fox initially tried it. Going back to that wouldn’t seem smart, and there isn’t a clear other course to take at this point in time. (It’s also worth noting that Horowitz’s dismissal doesn’t appear to have had much to do with his programming strategy.)
“At this point in time” may wind up being an important qualifier, though. With Horowitz gone, the embrace debate movement at Fox has lost its architect and biggest champion, and where it eventually goes may depend on who replaces him and what their own vision for FS1 is. It may also depend on the results, which so far seem inconclusive. The debate programming has produced some year-over-year growth, but still not to great numbers, and there are questions about if it’s near a peak. If those audiences keep growing, then we’ll see debates for a long time, but if they don’t, then there may be an internal debate about if Bayless, Cowherd and so on are worth the expense for the audiences they’re bringing in. And that debate may get much more interesting as their contracts come closer to expiration; at that point, we’ll have a better sense of the value of FS1’s current programming, and we may see further potential alternatives.
The digital moves will also be worth keeping an eye on. There have been plenty of reports of FoxSports.com’s traffic tanking following its firing of writers and editors in a supposed shift to video, but the thing to watch there may be about what that exactly means in terms of lost revenue, and how much that’s offset by lower costs. As with the TV side, too, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle; Fox presumably can’t go back to exactly where they were before these layoffs, and they may not want to (it seems unlikely that Horowitz made those layoffs and changed the direction of the site so drastically without any approval or oversight from above). A lot may depend on if they can bring in a respected name to head up digital, but that’s made tougher by the hit their reputation’s taken from these recent moves. However, in the current layoff-heavy environment, there are plenty of talented digital media executives, editors and writers looking for work.
Overall, Deitsch’s piece confirms that we’re unlikely to see dramatic changes at Fox soon, especially on the FS1 side. (They’re a little more possible on the digital side, especially depending on who’s hired, but it also seems unlikely we’ll get a full 180 there.) But the comments he received from people on the inside are interesting too, and they show there are still some deep divides between different areas of Fox Sports, and a lot of unhappiness over where the company’s going. Can that change with time? Absolutely, especially if they get the right leadership in. But it’s going to be tough, and any changes would seem more likely to be incremental than drastic, particularly at first. We’ll see if that’s enough to improve things.