Between controversies, criticism, cuts and more, things aren’t looking all that great for FS1 right now, but the state of his glass house isn’t stopping Fox Sports National Networks president Jamie Horowitz from throwing stones at his old employer, ESPN. At the Sports Business Journal World Sports Congress Wednesday, Horowitz took a direct shot at ESPN and its declining SportsCenter ratings:
Horowitz takes shot at former employer re SportsCenter – 30% fall in audience in last 5 yrs. I would be a little worried if I were them.
— SBJ/SBD (@sbjsbd) April 13, 2016
ESPN is struggling on several fronts, to be sure, and bringing down Disney’s stock price in the process, but on the ratings front, it’s still much, much more successful than FS1. However, Horowitz isn’t wrong that there does appear to be a declining audience for straight highlights, and that’s even motivating ESPN to try some different things, including the Scott Van Pelt SportsCenter and a bi-coastal SportsCenter. FS1’s gone even further, pivoting away from highlights on flagship show Fox Sports Live and turning it into more of a late-night show based around opinion and humor (or humoUr, given that it’s hosted by Canadians Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole), albeit still with a few highlights and discussions of current sports stories).
According to what Horowitz told Joe Flint of The Wall Street Journal in a piece published Wednesday, the shift away from news towards opinion will continue across FS1, not just on Fox Sports Live. Some shifts towards controversial opinions have already been made, such as last summer’s hire and promotion of former ESPN provocateur Colin Cowherd, and more are on the way; Horowitz has even talked about targeting Skip Bayless. Interestingly enough, he told Flint that FS1 will be taking a page from a controversial corporate sibling:
Fortunately for Mr. Horowitz, there is already a blueprint within 21st Century Fox for what he wants to do with Fox Sports 1 – Fox News.
“Fox News positioned itself as provocative and opinion oriented,” Mr. Horowitz said. “I believe Fox Sports 1 can take a similar tack.” Opinion costs less than news and documentaries, and is likely to stand out more in the busy sports media world, he theorizes.
…One of Mr. Horowitz’s first moves was plucking Colin Cowherd from ESPN. Mr. Cowherd, who has an everyman’s approach to sports talk and a loyal following. “The Herd” is averaging 57,000 viewers, a small number but an improvement of more than 40% in its time slot. “People seem to think Colin is a more natural fit at Fox than he was at ESPN,” Mr. Horowitz said.
Katie Nolan, a homegrown talent who has gained a following for her willingness to call out bad behavior and hypocrisy in sports, will also be featured prominently. “There is fearlessness to her and a level of insight she brings to the table,” Mr. Horowitz said.
Other outspoken personalities with shows in the works include Jason Whitlock, a former Fox Sports 1 talent who is coming back after a stint at ESPN. He often tackles controversial topics regarding race in sports. However, a recent special he hosted on Fox Sports 1 made headlines for a different reason when New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski gave a lap dance to anchor Julie Stewart-Binks.
Regarding the tendency of some of his talent to make the wrong kind of news, Mr. Horowitz said, “as long as people are trying to do incisive programming, we’re supportive and helpful with them.”
So, it looks like FS1’s strategy will be continuing to embrace debate and stir the pot, whether that’s on The Herd, the forthcoming Whitlock show or anything else. Being controversial and provocative certainly has done pretty well for Fox News, so it’s not surprising that FS1’s going that way, especially with First Take veteran Horowitz at the helm. We’ll see how much success it brings them, and if Horowitz’s shots at ESPN will prove prescient or poorly-timed.