NEW YORK — For anyone who thinks TV is already 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 UFC fights. 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 2015-22.
Starting in 2014, FS1 will start broadcasting Major League Baseball games, including part of the postseason. It will show some 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 SEC football, no ACC 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 some Thursday night games separately from its NFL Network package. If it does, everyone will try to buy a piece of 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 is also 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 thinks the network is already 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.