After eight months on the air, and many, many opinions given about its programming and ratings, Fox Sports 1 gets another chance at the mainstream sports fan with the debut of their first “big four” sports package.
Though college football and college basketball are both capable of drawing large ratings, MLB brings prestige. Plus two League Division Series and a League Championship Series, which will likely draw FS1 its biggest audiences since they launched. Executive Producer of Fox Sports John Entz sees it as a second chance at a first impression.
“It’s a huge piece of building the audience for Fox Sports 1,” Entz told me in a phone interview from Los Angeles on Thursday. “We really looked at this time as almost a second launch of the channel. It’s a huge part of what were doing.”
There was some concern that the network might be buying in to what is known in the sports broadcasting world as “coexists,” meaning every FS1 game would be competing with the local regional sports network of the teams playing in those games. Not so, as FS1 will get 26 of what Bill Wagner — EVP of programming and research at Fox Sports — called “elevated regionals,” games featuring teams that play on Fox owned RSNs (including the Yankees, Braves, Cardinals and Angels) that will air exclusively on FS1. The first such game happens this Saturday afternoon, when the Indians take on the Twins in the network’s first ever MLB broadcast.
“I think they’re all valuable, obviously having exclusives to Fox Sports 1 is great, because you get the benefit of those home market eyeballs,” according to Wanger. It’s worth noting that FS1 will have more exclusive games than TBS (who only will broadcast coexists), MLB Network (who only get two playoff games exclusively) and about as many as ESPN, which is reduced to Sunday Night Baseball. “Those 26 regional elevates are key, and they’re sprinkled throughout their schedule, and we love them because they’re our Fox regional partners as well.”
One thing that interested me was how teams on Fox-owned regional networks were treated in terms of making the schedule against teams that weren’t. The fact is, FS1 is only able to do these “regional elevates” with teams that air their games on such networks. By rule, it was really their only choice that these windows involve those teams.
“Well, yes and no,” said Wanger when asked if FSN-affiliated teams were valued more. “Just in terms of creating the schedule, it was put together in three steps. First, there’s the Fox broadcasting windows (eight weeks of primetime and four weeks of September afternoon baseball), and we have appearance limits per team across those Fox and FS1 coexist games.”
Basically, no team can appear across the Fox and FS1 coexist games more than eight times, regardless of whether you’re the Fox-owned Yankees or the Comcast-owned Giants or the Time Warner-owned Dodgers. However, the network can add a few (Fox is very careful to keep regional contracts in tact with their affiliates) of these “regional elevates” involving teams that are on Fox-owned networks, though no more than a few per team.
What can’t be questioned is the network’s commitment to making MLB one of its tentpole properties. “Baseball’s a significant part of what were doing, six days a week we’ll have baseball-related programming,” says Entz. That includes games (occasionally two nights a week) and the brand new MLB Whiparound show. It also includes the network’s new pre game show, which relocates to LA and is hosted by rising sports TV star Kevin Burkhardt.
For Entz, getting the SNY reporter and NFL on Fox voice to work with him had been somewhat of a mission, back to the days when he was at MLB Network. “He’s a guy we’ve wanted to work with for a long time.” While he couldn’t make it work back at MLB Net, Entz is happy that SNY is working with Fox to allow him to host many of Fox’s baseball Saturdays (Ryan Field will host when Burkhardt is unavailable) and their postseason coverage.
As for Whiparound, which features hosts Chris Myers and field along with a rotating cast of analysts including Frank Thomas and Eric Karros, the show was a must for FS1. “It shows our commitment to the game, that we want to be in the baseball business.” Entz emphasized that he wanted the network to be “the home for baseball,” and is thrilled with the show’s opening week.
The network isn’t planning to reinvent the wheel as far as how the game is sold, but looking at innovations in technology. Phantom cams, which have been a stable of the network’s big events, will continue to be used, and Fox is toying with the idea of putting a camera on the home plate umpire. They’re also trying to perfect showing not only pitch speeds, but the speed at which a baseball travels once it rockets off the bat.
Fox knows that while audiences won’t be massive for the regular season, they’ll get another chance in October, which Entz called “sort of the next relaunch.” The network will broadcast two League Division Series (minus two games that will go to MLB Network) and the entirety of one of League Championship Series. That will likely lead to record audiences for the network.
So Fox enters a new era, with two new broadcast teams (Joe Buck, Tom Verducci and Harold Reynolds will call the World Series, while Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz will form the ‘B’-team, so to speak), a new network, and whole new schedule. It’ll be one of the more interesting things to watch across TV sports over the next few years. The growth of a network and the continued TV evolution of a sport will be in the balance.