ESPN needs to look in rearview: FOX is coming…

Watch out ESPN, FOX is coming...

Watch out ESPN, FOX is coming…

Saturday marks the launch of a brand new, 24-hour, cable sports network; it’s supposed to be the ESPN killer. We’ve heard this kind of talk before, most recently with the NBC Sports Network. Sports fans are fed up with ESPN’s shenanigans and are looking for a true alternative. Thus far, NBC Sports Net hasn’t proven its worth, but FOX Sports 1 could be very different.

Where FOX can succeed where NBC has thus far failed lies in the programming. FOX Sports 1 not only features a promising nightly sports news program, it will launch with significant amounts of live sporting events, including college football and basketball, NASCAR, MMA events, and starting next year Major League Baseball (including Division and League Championship Series). Another fascinating premise behind FOX Sports 1’s potential success (and something few are discussing) is the existence of a vast series of regional networks.

Regardless of where you live in the United States (and assuming you have cable or satellite) you probably have access to one of FOX Sports’ numerous regional networks. Living in Georgia, I had access to both FOX Sports South and SportSouth, networks that aired a variety of sporting events, most notably Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks games. It’s likely that you have a similar network, broadcasting college and professional sports of all types (even the occasional poker game) that is–for the most part–regionally connected to your local area.  FOX Sports’ regional networks started featuring live cut-ins to the FOX Sports 1 studios weeks ago, helping to promote the network, but also giving sports fans very brief highlights into other sporting events.

Years before launching a national network, FOX already had the umbrella constructed and are now ready to pounce.

ESPN, which has a whole family of networks, including ESPN 2, ESPNews, ESPN-U, and the upcoming SEC Network, can’t reproduce FOX Sports’ existing regional networks without a major overhaul and it puts them at a serious disadvantage. Yes, ESPN is the king of television sports and has unfathomable contracts with the SEC, Big-12, and a whole multitude of professional sports, but they don’t have regional networks that sports fans utilize on a regular basis to watch their local teams.

So, if you’re a Braves fan and want to watch their games on TV, you have to watch them on a FOX Sports network. FOX Sports 1 can develop loyal viewers through crafty cut-ins, featuring up-to-date news and highlights on sporting events, reminding the viewer of the Braves game to tune into FOX Sports 1 following the game for FOX Sports Live (their trademark nightly news program). Sure, there’s a high probability that sports fans will stick to their habits of switching to ESPN for sports news, but FOX actually has the infrastructure to make it interesting and actually challenge ESPN for viewers.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “ESPN has ruled the cable sports world for 35 years. They have Monday Night Football and the BCS…”

Very true.

The aforementioned giant contracts ESPN has with the NFL, the NCAA, and others certainly makes establishing a new king of the cable sports world a challenge, but let’s not forget that FOX Sports 1, its regional networks, and big FOX are all tied together, much like ESPN and ABC. Big FOX will still carry NFC games every Sunday, allowing additional marketing for FOX Sports 1, plus they carry Saturday baseball (albeit with small ratings), and college football (even a few bowl games). It’s not inconceivable to think that FOX can continue to pilfer ESPN’s viewers if they provide quality programming on FOX Sports 1, continue to sign lucrative contracts to bring major sporting events to their family of networks, and wisely utilize the umbrella of networks they already have in place.

ESPN has all but had a monopoly on sports and their news programming is wearing thin on many sports fans. SportsCenter remains the biggest offender to sports fans, offering little more than dumbed down commentary, strange tabloid-like obsessions with athletes, and selectively choosing which teams and sports to cover, even if they blatantly ignore more pressing and interesting sports news. SportsCenter has remained ESPN’s staple program since its inception, but through the decline of quality cable news (another story entirely) we’ve seen a decline in quality cable sports news. Much like FOX News and MSNBC mire themselves in endless commentary expressing one political opinion or another, SportsCenter fills their programming with endless opinion on one particular athlete or team (and often, it deals with a crappy team or player) and even went so far as to actively campaign for Yasiel Puig for the MLB All-Star Game’s final vote, rather than simply reporting news related to the vote.

Not to get too bogged down in the eye-roll worthy programming on SportsCenter, but how many times have you seen Mark Sanchez’s now infamous “butt fumble” from last season only to have ESPN completely ignore an actual sporting that occurred the night before?

ESPN still has their moments, and Outside the Lines still provides wonderful investigative reporting into major sports stories (the Biogenesis scandal comes to mind) along with the always entertaining Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption. However, their flagship program remains the target of ridicule, frustration, and has left the network somewhat vulnerable as FOX Sports 1 prepares to enter the market.

FOX Sports 1 would be wise to learn from SportsCenter’s devolution into a flashy, sports-related version of TMZ and actually focus on sports news. Present sports news, unbiased, and let the commentary provide poignant discussion on a particular story and they can succeed. If they continue to add quality sporting events, and build a loyal base of viewers, there’s no reason why FOX can’t become a viable alternative and provide actual competition in the world of cable sports.

Hell, how many people in 1996 thought that FOX News would succeed?

It may not be perfect or pretty when it starts, but FOX Sports 1 sure beats the hell out of watching Stephen A. Smith yell at the TV or see a less than mediocre quarterback in Mark Sanchez run into the ass of another player while the talking heads chuckle as if they’re watching the video for the very first time.

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