NEW YORK — For anyone who believes TV already is saturated with sports of every stripe, stay tuned.
Here comes Fox with an in-your-face challenge to ESPN — a 24-hour sports cable network called Fox Sports 1, set to launch Aug. 17.
“ESPN, quite frankly, is a machine,” Fox Sports executive vice president Bill Wanger said Tuesday in announcing the venture. “They have very consistent ratings, obviously huge revenue. We’re coming in trying to take on the establishment. It’s no different than Fox News or Fox Broadcasting back in the ’80s. We’re going to have to scratch and claw our way all the way to the top.”
To do that, Fox executives are confident they have enough live events, with rights to college basketball and football, NASCAR, soccer and Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts. In its first year, the new network will broadcast nearly 5,000 hours of competition and news.
Fox owns rights to many Big 12, Pac-12 and Conference USA basketball and football games. Its soccer deals include UEFA Champions League and the men’s and women’s World Cups from 2015 to 2022.
Starting in 2014, FS1 will broadcast Major League Baseball games, including part of the postseason. It will show NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races as early as 2015, with other NASCAR events on the air from the startup.
“We believe we’ve amassed enough live events and can package and put programming around it where we can have scale,” Fox Sports co-president Randy Freer said. “We can have significance. We can be a major player in the market.”
However, unlike ESPN’s lineup, there’s no NBA, no Southeastern Conference football, no Atlantic Coast Conference basketball and, the biggest attraction of all, no NFL games. On that last point, Wanger was quick to add: “Yet.”
Still to be determined is whether the NFL sells Thursday games separately from its NFL Network package. If it does, everyone will try to get in on the action.
That will be the case for any rights deals that come along; there aren’t many, with long-term pacts now the norm. NBC and CBS already have their own cable sports networks, and Turner also is a factor. Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks mentioned the NBA, Big Ten and U.S. Open tennis as appealing properties whose contracts expire in the next several years.
FS1 has two main challenges, he said. One is producing enough alluring live events to draw viewers, and he believes the network already is in good shape to do that. The other is inertia: Fans accustomed to tuning to ESPN must be persuaded to switch to a different network.
“People need to over time feel like there’s a channel number in their head that they can go to as an alternative to one of the more powerful sports channels out there,” he said.
Will they watch nightly highlights on something other than “SportsCenter”? FS1 will try to find out with its own news show, which will look more like Fox’s NFL pregame coverage than ESPN’s cornerstone program.
“We like our position,” ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said. “We have always had vigorous competition, so there is really nothing substantially new here. Others are, however, beginning to recognize what we have long known: The power of live sports, especially in light of technological advances, is substantial and brings tremendous value in today’s entertainment landscape.”
ESPN has eight cable networks that combine for almost 30,000 hours of live coverage.
FS1 will be converted from Speed TV, a motor sports network, and will be available in 90 million homes, compared with almost 99 million for ESPN and ESPN2.