Rewind the clock about five years ago when Fox was in the process of redefining their media empire and strategy. In a period of about six months, Fox announced the following deals:
- Reaching a television deal with the WWE to air Smackdown and moving that property to Friday Nights where it would air almost exclusively on Fox.
- Finalizing their deal to sell their television and film studio assets to Disney for $71 billion.
- Acquiring the rights to Thursday Night Football.
At the time Fox opted to not follow the pack of media companies chasing streaming dollars. Their strategy entailed a heavy focus on news (opting to keep Fox News and Fox Business) and live sports. The Smackdown and Thursday Night Football additions were central to this strategy where Fox boasted that they owned the fall with their impressive Thursday-Sunday lineup that consisted of two days/nights of NFL games, one heavy college football day, and Smackdown on Fridays.
While Fox’s focus on news and sports and not launching a streaming service has proven to be fruitful, fast forward to today and Fox has now walked away (for now) from the all-in Thursday-Sunday strategy having walked away from Thursday Night Football, which moved to Amazon and opting to not renew Smackdown, which will be heading to USA. Fox ultimately found making money off of both properties problematic and moved on.
The question begs, what if anything, on the sports front could potentially fill the void?
Many in the industry think Fox is in the process of scoping a Friday night replacement for Smackdown that would rely heavily on college football and basketball but could also include MLB and whatever the merged spring football league ends up being called. With ad sales rates declining for Smackdown, many tie Fox’s funding of Washington and Oregon’s addition to the Big Ten as a notable step towards making a Friday night sports showcase.
Just a hunch: Oregon and UW are going to play an inordinate number of Friday night home games — that's where Fox saw the value in adding $65 million to its budget https://t.co/GiK4F2lheV
— Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline) September 18, 2023
Andrew Marchand also hinted at this possibility in his media column this week.
“With the WWE’s “Smackdown” off Friday nights, Fox will look at potentially airing some college football games on that night next season, but it is not definite. Between its Big Ten and Big 12 arrangements, it will have to see whether there are enough good games to go around — with noon Saturday being Fox Sports’ top priority and then considering CBS’ and NBC’s Big Ten deals. On the Big 12 side, ESPN has more of the inventory. So more Friday night college football is possible with expansion and the increased amount of matchups, but not certain. …
But Marchand’s musing here only looks at the possibility of college football taking up some Friday nights in the fall. Many think Fox may look to go bigger than that.
I asked Bob Thompson, former Fox Sports President and co-founder of the Big Ten Network, how likely he thought it was that Fox may look to fill the Smackdown void on the schedule with year-round, or as close to year-round sports.
“I would say that it is better than 60% that Fox goes with sports programming to replace Smackdown on Friday nights,” Thompson said.
How would Fox go about filling all of those Friday nights?
“I would expect college football in September and early October,” said Thompson. “MLB LCS and World Series mid-October to early November. Maybe a bit more college football in November then roll into Big Ten, Big 12, and Big East college basketball in December through early March. Possible that we could see games from the merged USFL/XFL in the spring/early summer. Maybe they work with MLB to air some Friday night games in the summer, assuming they can work around the AppleTV+ deal.”
Although Smackdown and TNF didn’t work out for Fox, Thompson’s explanation of the motivation for a Friday night sports package essentially doubles down in a new way as to why Fox initially looked to have those properties.
What seems to be clear is that some sports will be coming to Fox on Friday nights. Whether these are one-off games or seasonal or they build out an entire series and brand around the concept remains to be seen.
College football coaches have been pretty vocal that Friday nights should be for high school football, although Fox already airs a good amount of college football games on Big Ten Network and FS1.
The college basketball component is probably the easiest component of this concept given the rights Fox has and that programs would love that level of exposure.
Would Fox mix in a few other winter sports into these spots like a high-profile women’s basketball game or even something like an Iowa vs. Penn State wrestling duel? In the spring and summer, Fox would have to figure out a solution with MLB or have a permanent spring/summer football game.
Another outstanding question is would Fox look to part ways with Smackdown a little earlier than the planned October 2024 end of the contract allowing them to start such a concept earlier?
We’re probably at least half a year or more from having any clarity here but it does seem like such a concept is being explored and does strategically mesh with Fox’s general programming approach. After decades of being largely an afterthought in terms of programming and particularly sports rights, Fox seems to be on their way to making an investment here that hopes to change how much sports fans pay attention to Friday nights.