Ever since Fox Sports launched FS1 several years ago, their hoped for competition with Bristol has not gone well. Seemingly every time the network has attempted to go head-to-head with ESPN, it’s resulted in millions of dollars spent on former ESPN talking heads for little impact in the ratings and one cancellation, stop-start, and recasting of the network’s vision after another.
One area where Fox has attempted to take on ESPN at their own game that has continually evolved has been their attempt to topple College GameDay in the college football realm. With rights from the Big Ten, Big XII, and Pac-12, college football is actually one area Fox can somewhat hold their own in competition with ESPN. But with GameDay an institution for decades in the pregame genre, Fox has struggled to find traction to offer a product anywhere close in relevance and importance. (Much like ESPN has turned over every rock and pebble imaginable to try to put a dent in Inside the NBA’s advantage covering the Association to little avail.)
FS1 initially tried the Erin Andrews-hosted Fox College Saturday that went head-to-head against GameDay from the Fox studios in Los Angeles. That program was quickly canceled after being outdrawn 25-1 against GameDay in the ratings. Then came a Friday night focus under the Fox Sports Live branding that also fell by the wayside.
This season has brought yet another rebrand with Fox shifting its energy to Noon ET kickoffs for their biggest game of the day and the appropriately titled Big Noon Kickoff as their newest attempt at gaining a foothold for a pregame show. Fox has gone all-in on the noon strategy by circling everything around the early timeslot. The pregame show has added big names like Urban Meyer, Reggie Bush, and Matt Leinart. And it’s on broadcast television. If anything, the increased competition has been beneficial for ESPN and Fox, as both networks have reported their pregame ratings going up. Nevertheless, GameDay still holds a 2-1 viewership advantage over Big Noon Kickoff even as Fox’s noon game has scored several viewership wins amongst the games themselves.
Here are the overnight ratings for Saturday’s CFB pregame shows (11:00 a.m.-noon ET).
College GameDay (ESPN): 1.7
Big Noon Kickoff (Fox): 0.6
Week Four: 1.8 to 0.7
Week Three: 1.6 to 0.7
Week Two: 1.7 to 0.7
Week One: 1.6 to 0.8
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) September 29, 2019
However, this week projects to be the most intriguing battle in the Fox-ESPN rivalry in quite some time. College GameDay will be broadcasting from Columbus as expected for the top ten showdown between Ohio State and Penn State. They’ll have some company, though. Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff will also be on Ohio State’s campus for a rare road trip themselves. For what it’s worth, BTN’s pregame show will also be in Columbus in case any hardcore fans want to put “attend three pregame shows in the same day” on their bucket list. You can do it, Buck-I-Guy!
One wouldn’t think that Fox could compete with ESPN in doing a pregame road show. After all, the live experience is what has made College GameDay one of the best and most influential programs in the history of sports. But if there’s ever a time when GameDay could possibly be defeated at their own game in an upset on the level of App State vs Michigan, this week may be it.
For starters, Fox has something ESPN doesn’t have – Urban Meyer.
The Buckeyes’ former coach is still beloved in Columbus in spite of the controversy that clouded his final season on the sidelines. He now has an administrative job at Ohio State, and even recently opened his own restaurant in Dublin, Urban Meyer’s Pint House. The former coach is attempting to rally fans to the Fox side of the horseshoe on Saturday on social media.
— Urban Meyer (@CoachUrbanMeyer) November 21, 2019
Ohio State is helping in their own way too. It’s probably no coincidence that Desmond Howard’s head is covered by Brutus Buckeye in this tweet.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) November 22, 2019
One can make the argument that OSU is Fox’s flagship team. Ohio State has been Fox’s most featured team on the Big Noon Saturday games with games against FAU, Maryland, Michigan State, and Wisconsin already being part of the programming block. Ohio State fans are naturally going to be more drawn to Fox’s pregame show as the lead in to the big game on Saturday.
The growing sense of Fox and Big Noon Kickoff being the home team for Ohio State fans is only exacerbated by the years of angst Buckeye Nation has felt towards ESPN on multiple fronts. For years Mark May was the poster child for a perceived bias against Ohio State coming from Bristol as he constantly trolled Buckeye fans in some bizarre, never-explained vendetta.
Then there’s the long-perceived allegations coming from Columbus towards ESPN of bias in favor of the SEC. At its height back in 2014, Chris Fowler even addressed it on air on College GameDay. It doesn’t help that Ohio State was on the outside looking in at the playoff each of the last two seasons in spite of winning the Big Ten both years. Fans associate the College Football Playoff machine with ESPN and jaded OSU fans need someone (rightly or wrongly) to blame. Even former Buckeye quarterback Kirk Hebstreit has drawn the ire of Ohio State fans in the past for being perceived as going too far the other direction in presenting fair analysis. (Which makes you feel sympathy for Herbie as he is constantly living in a no-win situation because he also gets criticized whenever he praises Ohio State.)
How much of a grudge do some OSU fans have against ESPN? Buckeye fans are actively encouraging a boycott of College GameDay on Sautrday. Just check out the #BoycottGameDay hashtag on social media and you can see more than a few Buckeye fans getting in on the action. Of course, it’s doubtful that GameDay will broadcast to a ghost town on Saturday. After all, sports fans like bragging to their friends that they’ve been on ESPN.
Nevertheless, the visuals on Saturday will be fascinating. GameDay should still win in the television ratings but it will be huge for Fox if Big Noon Kickoff can closer than a 2-1 margin in viewers. Given the rest of the slate on Saturday (featuring the SEC’s annual Cupcake Feast), Penn State-Ohio State should be the highest-rated game of the day by far, which will help the numbers for the pregame.
But if Fox has a larger on-site audience, or at least something comparable to GameDay, it will go a long way in presenting to viewers that they can be at least on the same playing field as ESPN. They have the quality in games and the talent on the set to do so. If Fox does compete, it’s possible that the network uses this as a springboard to take their show on the road every week to build upon any positive momentum. Although one can only look forward to Meyer and company making a trip to Ann Arbor someday to see how that would turn out.