Today marks the two year anniversary of Fox Sports 1. The cable network was launched with much fanfare on August 17th, 2013 as the newest competitor in the cable sports landscape and went to great lengths to state how serious they were in hoping to take over ESPN’s mantle as the top sports network sooner rather than later. In reality, that challenge to ESPN would prove much more difficult than perhaps orginally thought. Year 1 brought some bright spots, some cancellations, some new talent rising to the forefront, and some struggles to meet expectations. There were several ups and downs, but all totaled FS1 at least got a start in working their way towards that goal.
So what about Year Two? In many ways, the second 12 months for Fox Sports 1 have been more significant in the network’s journey to become a serious player on the national sports scene. Today, we’ll examine some of the key themes that emerged as Fox Sports 1 turned two years old…
More live events lift Fox Sports 1
The key to any sports network is live events. If there is one stabilizing influence amidst the increased sense of anxiety surrounding the business of ESPN and other cable companies (and their sports divisions) on Wall Street it’s this – live sports still rules all. As long as there are games to be watched, people will want to watch them. And they’ll pay good money to do so.
One of the key lessons in observing the development of Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN is the importance of live events to their networks. Studio shows on both networks struggle to crack the mid-five digits without live event lead-ins. Take a look at the most recent data from our ratings whiz Douglas Pucci *cheap promotional ploy – published every Friday at AA* and you’ll see that only NASCAR Race Hub cracked over 100,000 viewers on average the first week of August. NASCAR Race Hub even beat Fox Sports Live last week! Now, FS Live has notched a few victories head-to-head over SportsCenter over the last couple years and that is a noteworthy accomplishment. However, those victories have only come thanks to a mega-boost from live events.
To that end, Year Two brought the needed growth in the number and stature of live events to Fox Sports 1. In the last 12 months, Fox Sports 1 has added the MLB Postseason and NLCS (which brought the network’s biggest audiences to date), the US Open in golf, MLS, and the Women’s World Cup to the network. None of those properties are going to bring the audience of the College Football Playoff or Monday Night Football, but it’s a good start.
If presidential campaigns can be boiled down to, “it’s the economy, stupid” then the success of sports networks can be boiled down to “it’s the live events, stupid.” Fox Sports 1 must have more elite live events in order to flourish as a destination sports network in the short and long-term. Year two represented some decent progress in that regard.
The World Cup shows FS1 can do the big events
The biggest barometer of those live events for Fox Sports 1 was the Women’s World Cup. There was much consternation among soccer fans when Fox won the World Cup rights away from ESPN given the network’s track record. And although Fox still has a ways to go to match ESPN and NBC’s quality of soccer broadcasting, overall the tournament should be classified as a broadcasting success.
FS1 had never televised an event of that magnitude, both in terms of total viewership and tonnage of programming. And this summer the network showed America that they can be trusted to broadcast a world class sporting event. There were some hiccups along the way, but by and large Fox Sports 1 passed the test. The American game announcers acquitted themselves very well, the studio was lively and informative, and the set in Vancouver looked great. Fox’s golf coverage might still need some additional work, but as far as the World Cup goes Fox Sports 1 can be proud of their efforts. The incredible audience for the USA-Japan final will be credited to the Fox mothership, but FS1 saw some great numbers and big increases from 2011 as well. In many ways, the summer of soccer was a landmark occasion for Fox and the highlight of Year Two.
Still The One for Fun?
Fox Sports 1 needed to grow up in Year Two. In its first year, FS1 marketed itself as “the one for fun” and tried to paint themselves as the cool and hip alternative to crotchety old ESPN. The marketing campaign didn’t really work. That’s not to mean FS1 shouldn’t try to have fun. One of the Top 10 highlights in the history of this website is Jay Onrait tweeting a picture of his pillow fort to us on the set of Fox Sports Live… but it’s maybe not best suited as the mission statement for an entire network. Sports fans want fun, but they also want news, analysis, and information.
Fox Sports made some important hires by bringing aboard Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel, two of the top college football writers in the nation. They’ve also given a television platform to Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski. These are all important steps so that fans can take FS1 seriously as a legitimate network that breaks news and is worth checking out on a consistent basis. FS1 must continue to work on giving fans a reason to stick around once the games are over. Having fun can be a start, but it can’t be all FS1 has to offer. Regis Philbin isn’t walking back through that door, folks.
What’s the future of Fox Sports Live?
Here’s one of the truths of Fox Sports 1’s second year: Fox Sports Live is a much better show now than it was 12 months ago or 24 months ago. Ratings have improved for the program and the format has improved as well. The clunky, awkward athlete panel with Gary Payton trying to compare LeBron James to Usain Bolt is thankfully a thing of the past. The segments are much more focused and the show plays to the strenghts of its contributors instead of its weaknesses.
Looking ahead, Year Three is going to really be the pivotal year for Fox Sports Live. Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole’s contracts will be up and FS1 needs to decide whether they will continue to build around the irreverent Candaian pair or move in a different direction. I’d like to see FS1 do the former, but with a new sheriff in town there’s no guarantees. That leads us to our last point….
The path forward: ESPN retread or a brand new identity?
Arguably the two biggest developments in the second year of Fox Sports 1 had nothing to do with anything that happened on the air this past year. First, there was the hiring of former ESPN executive and Embrace Debate champion Jamie Horowitz to be the new president of the Fox Sports networks. Second, Fox snatched Colin Cowherd away from ESPN and the controversial radio host will have a new radio simulcast on FS1 in addition to appearing on other programming. Horowitz is the biggest name to come to Fox behind the camera and Cowherd will immediately become its biggest name in front of the camera.
For almost the entirety of their existence, Fox Sports 1 positioned themselves as an alternative to ESPN. As FS1 celebrates their second birthday, they might as well use the leftovers of Tim Tebow’s birthday cake at ESPN as the hirings of Horowitz and Cowherd bring a distinctive Bristol flavor to Fox Sports 1.
The biggest question facing Fox Sports 1 on its second birthday is what the network’s true identity will be moving forward. Nobody wants to see Fox Sports 1 turn into a network that is nothing but reruns of the worst of ESPN. The pessimist in me envisions FS1 launching a new debate show starring Clay Travis and Donovan McNabb (whenever he comes back from his indefinite suspension) and putting all their eggs in the “regressive Colin Cowherd socio-economic commentary” basket. This would be the darkest of all timelines.
The optimist in me is hopeful that Horowitz will emphasize what worked in ratings and what worked critically at ESPN (for instance, his role in crafting Olbermann and helping to create new stars at the network) and leave the trolling behind. That trajectory would continue the positive momentum Fox Sports 1 established in Year Two as more fans come to the network and begin to take it more seriously as a legitimate alternative to ESPN. Ultimately though, the choice for that trajectory lies in the hands of Fox Sports 1 itself and we’ll learn a lot about which direction the network chooses for their future in Year Three.