Where does Fox Sports go from here?
That’s the question we asked almost a year ago after the shock removal of Jamie Horowitz as President of National Networks at Fox Sports. The former ESPN executive brought his vision of Embrace Debate to FS1, and brought many of his former ESPN colleagues with him. FS1 has gone all-in on hiring former ESPN talking heads to prop up their programming, including, most notably, Skip Bayless, Colin Cowherd, and Jason Whitlock.
A year later, those talking heads still dominate the FS1 airwaves. But the network is still nowhere near competing with ESPN on a daily basis, and the man who brought those personalities to Fox and drove that initiative is now no longer running the company.
So that question still remains: where does Fox go with their personality-driven lineup? And where does ESPN go after experiencing challenges of their own?
Over the last couple years we’ve seen both ESPN and Fox invest tens of millions of dollars in personality-driven shows to minimal ratings results. Over at FS1, names like Bayless and Cowherd have definitely boosted the network’s profile from where it once was, although that’s honestly not saying much. Nevertheless, do the millions invested in those big contracts justify the numbers when those studio shows still only draw a fraction of the ratings that ESPN draws?
At least in Cowherd’s case, he can offer a radio audience and a presence on other shows like Speak for Yourself and on NFL pregame shows in the fall. One could also maybe make the argument that Bayless leaving ESPN forced Bristol’s hand into moving First Take from ESPN2 to ESPN, thereby further weakening SportsCenter in the process. Even if you want to give FS1 that credit, it’s hard to declare anyone a winner in those moves.
Speaking of Bristol, ESPN is also currently struggling with a major investment of their own in Get Up. With a well-compensated cast of Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle, and Jalen Rose getting off to a slow start in ratings, the questions are already starting to mount regarding when or if ESPN might decide to retool their brand new morning show. And if you want to go back even further, the dissolution of SC:6 was another failure for ESPN when it came to personality-driven programming. ESPN even threw former hosts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith under the bus by publicly proclaiming ratings had gone up after returning the timeslot to a generic episode of SportsCenter.
Both ESPN and Fox have made big bets on big personalities that haven’t quite paid off. And while there aren’t any imminent seismic shifts on the horizon, one doesn’t have to look too far down the road to see that there are big decisions looming for ESPN and Fox on their future programming directions.
One of the first dominoes is going to be what to do with Colin Cowherd, who may be the most important person to FS1’s daily schedule at the moment. Cowherd’s contract is up next year after signing a four year deal with Fox Sports in 2015. Skip Bayless’ contract will be up the year after that.
Let’s take Cowherd as just one example for what we may see in the changing tides of the industry and the future direction sports media may go.
Will FS1 try to double down on making him one of the anchors for their daily programming lineup, even without the Horowitz relationship to back it up? Could ESPN try to bring Cowherd back to where he made a name for himself to try to re-fortify their own lineup?
A move for Cowherd does make sense for ESPN to some degree. Their radio lineup could really use a jolt, especially after the breakup of Mike & Mike. Golic and Wingo are still finding their way and right now, the afternoon lineup is being held down by Stephen A. Smith and Will Cain. Cowherd could always return to SportsNation or maybe even be another piece for Get Up to play off Greenberg and partner again with Beadle on the television side.
Of course, things didn’t quite end well for Cowherd in Bristol after his controversial comments about Dominicans got him sent out the exit door early on the way to There are the financial realities of the issue. ESPN has been through so many rounds of layoffs that it might be tough to justify paying a massive salary to someone like Cowherd. Clearly, Get Up has proven that ESPN can’t just throw money and big names at timeslots and just assume it’s going to work. And at a time when the network is building up new personalities like Bomani Jones, Pablo Torre, Sarah Spain, and others, would it really benefit ESPN to recycle Fox’s recycling of ESPN personalities?
Likewise, for Fox, it’s fair to ask why they would re-up with Cowherd without Horowitz on board. Cowherd probably means more to Fox than he would to ESPN at this point because of his importance to their daily lineup. It’s not like FS1 can go back to airing reruns of Fox Sports Live in the middle of the day. But without Horowitz’s presence and draw, it may be a tough sell if there really isn’t a vision for FS1 moving forward. FS1 is going to have to make a choice – double down on Embrace Debate and make an all-in push to keep Bayless and Cowherd, or start over yet again.
Then again, maybe FS1 and ESPN will both decide that it’s more cost-efficient to abandon the chase of these big-name personalities all together. In an era of cord cutting and mass layoffs, can either network continue to justify these pursuits? If generic programming actually does better at ESPN than their big money shows, why take the risk? If FS1 isn’t going to compete with ESPN anytime soon, are they better off saving their resources for something that would make a bigger impact?
The decisions Fox and ESPN will make regarding these high profile on-air talents will tell us a lot about the future direction of the industry and what the emphases of the networks are going to be in the future. With the margins for success becoming thinner and thinner, it’s going to be hugely important to get these decisions right.