ESPN’s programming is far from perfect, but at least that network has some substance, something FS1 is sorely lacking at the moment. It’s like the parable about trying to build a house on shifting sand – one cannot build an entire network on hot takes alone.
For example, in the last 18 months, Clay Travis (who makes no bones about the fact that he has Bayless’d his way into the national sports conversation) has made a pair of proclamations that are laughable in hindsight. In September 2014, he infamously tweeted “The Big Ten is officially eliminated from placing a team in the playoff” in September 2014 just a few months before Ohio State won the National Championship. This year, he proclaimed Alabama’s dynasty “over” before they, you guessed it, won the National Championship. Fans should be begging Travis to bury their teams hopes this year because it seems to be the best precursor to winning the trophy! Those “strong opinions” might work in getting retweets and angry mentions, but they also make me want to turn elsewhere for anything relating to college football. “I Hate You, Clay Travis” is not a way to make up the insurmountable gap between FS1 and College GameDay.
There’s got to be some backbone, some foundation… and FS1 just doesn’t have it at the moment, especially with the uncertain future for flagship show Fox Sports Live. Yes, ESPN has the worst of all in First Take, but that’s a very small percentage of ESPN programming. ESPN also has many hours a day of SportsCenter, some of the best reporters in the business, longform journalism with Outside the Lines, excellent documentaries in 30 for 30, and the best live game coverage there is for pretty much every sport in America. Over the last 35+ years, ESPN has built an incredible worldwide operation that can report, cover, and analyze every piece of sports news there is.
On the other hand, what has Fox produced? Let’s see… there’s the primetime interview between Colin Cowherd and Donald Trump, “How to Land a Husband at The Masters,” and oh yes, TMZ Sports’ “Guess That Booty.” If that wasn’t enough, Fox has made significant cuts to the news-gathering and reporting operations for FS1. Even Fox Sports Live anchor Dan O’Toole publicly took to Twitter to air grievances about the network cutting their stage crew. (Update: And none of that may be the worst thing happening at FS1 right now – that would be the age and discrimination lawsuit from Colleen Dominguez, which reportedly is going to get a lot worse for the network.)
FS1 used to be “the one for fun.” Now, their new horde of “strong personalities” are doing things like calling the Golden State Warriors “boring.” FUN!
Golden State Warriors: Boring. Donald Trump Interview: Entertaining.
What a way to build a sports network….
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As soon as FS1 made ESPN recyclables like Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock the faces of their network, the hopes that they could be something new and fresh quickly evaporated. Even disgraced ex-First Take supporting actor Rob Parker made a comeback with FS1! Instead of the quirkiness, uniqueness, and even likability of Crowd Goes Wild or Jay and Dan’s version of Fox Sports Live, FS1 viewers would be bombarded with antagonistic and provocative opinion that would hopefully make the network more relevant. Wouldn’t you give anything to at least have the athlete panel back now?
Well, mission accomplished last week, at least somewhat. The episode in question turned everyone’s eye towards the network’s daily ratings failing to make any dent whatsoever in ESPN in spite of the big dollars spent for these personalities.
This is exactly why the direction of FS1 is a failing strategy, and why it will drive most fans away. Creating an alternative to ESPN and succeeding against the Bristol behemoth that has dominated sports media for decades is an excruciatingly difficult task. But the theory goes that one can do it by gathering enough must-see live sporting events to draw people in and then give them a reason to stick around. When FS1 has big events like the MLB postseason or primetime NASCAR races, Fox Sports Live beats SportsCenter head to head. However, FS1 has failed as an alternative because nobody comes back to the network every other night of the week as their ratings have proved.
Whitlock’s House Party on Thursday, the day of the Gronk episode, drew a paltry 41,000 viewers. (So did Garbage Time with Katie Nolan for what it’s worth.) Those programs live from Super Bowl week were beat that day by an NBA TV replay of the 2011 All-Star Game (42k), Bass 2 Billfish on NBCSN (44k), and it was more than doubled by a 2 AM ET showing of Jalen & Jacoby on ESPN2 (111k).
But did the Gronk Grind work? Did “going viral” bring any viewers to FS1 who may have seen the clip that day and wanted to check out the network?
That night’s edition of Fox Sports Live drew a microscopic 35,000 viewers. It was beat 15-1 head to head by ESPN’s SportsCenter.
The most disappointing thing of all is that I was hoping FS1 would produce quality and entertaining television to give us a second thought about the default position of “just flip it to ESPN.” But right now, it’s just not happening.
Does FS1 really think impromptu lapdances from athletes on reporters, debate, and controversy are going to turn passers-by into regular viewers? Or are they just telling the world that they’re the annoying kid who will do anything to get you to pay attention to them? Honestly, right now the best thing to do for sports fans might be to just look away.