Fox Sports 1: Ready to Rumble

CO-HEADS FREER, SHANKS SET STARTING LINEUP FOR NATIONAL NET
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Armed with an impressive array of live rights and commitments to news and original fare, Fox Sports 1 will launch on Aug. 17 in a record 90 million homes. Converted from motorsports-focused Speed, the new general sports service will compete against category kingpin ESPN, as well as NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network.

Fox Sports Media Group co-presidents and co-chief operating officers Randy Freer and Eric Shanks sized up Fox Sports 1’s lineup in a recent interview with Multichannel News online news editor Mike Reynolds. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: Why now with Fox Sports 1?

Randy Freer: We have looked at our cable assets for the last decade and when we looked at Speed as an automotive network, there was a point in time where you could only take it so far from a distribution standpoint, from an advertising standpoint, and from a creative standpoint of programming, and a viewership standpoint.

Over the years, we were never able to see a path where we acquired enough rights to make the channel relevant. But over the last three years, we have been able to acquire enough rights that give the channel the opportunity to have enough events on it that we can bring people into the channel, make it relevant.

MCN: ESPN is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. There are NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network. Where does Fox Sports 1 fit into that landscape?

RF: This is not about us versus them. This is about the sports market and its importance. It’s large enough for multiple players to create programming and produce live events and create conversation and opportunity around those live events in a big way.

Eric Shanks: And we’re obviously realistic about expectations. Even though ratings are an easy way to compare two entities in the same marketplace, we’re realistic in the fact that ESPN is a fantastic service and has been at it for a long time. So setting internal and external expectations in a pragmatic way is something that we think about.

RF: It’s not a zero-sum game. When you look back and you look at when Fox Broadcasting started, the market for broadcast networks expanded; when Fox News [Channel] started, the news market expanded. There’s a lot more people watching news today than were back in the ’90s.

Look, there are a lot of people in the sports business today and there is a lot of product out there, but it’s not a zero-sum game as it relates to events or other programming.

MCN: You’re coming out of the gate with 90 million subscribers. That has to be the biggest launch ever for a cable network, sports or otherwise.

ES: Certainly sports.

RF: I don’t think there’s been anything as large as that, but I think you’re right. I think this is the largest new network out there.

MCN: Kagan data puts Speed’s monthly subscriber license fees in the 22 cent-to-25 cent range. Analysts say 30% of [News Corp.] deals are coming up in 2014, another 40% in 2015. So a lot of negotiating remains to be done for Fox Sports 1 …

ES: We can’t comment on individual deals. But you could imagine that, like any company that has distribution deals, they don’t always come up at the same time, so there’s always something up.

MCN: You’ve said that when you start the first year, 55% of the lineup, about 4,800 hours, is going to be live programming between events, originals and news. Is that where you are today?

ES: I don’t know what the right number is where you would say, “Alright, it’s time to go,” but this is what we have, and we’re ready to go. We’ve made the commitment to be live as much as possible, not just with events but with a significant news presence [and] a daily stripped block from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. of afternoon live events, with UEFA Champions League and Europa, which helps us really start the network much earlier than a lot of people get to start their network.

MCN: Speaking of the afternoon block with Regis Philbin’s Crowd Goes Wild and Fox Football Daily, are those are centerpieces that you’re going to get people to come in every day for?

ES: Yes. We think it’s a competitive time slot. There’s good content, there’s good shows out there, not only in the sports world, but 5 p.m. is a time when people are starting to come home from work and from school and figuring out, between news, sports and entertainment, what they’re going to tune to. We think that we have something fun, that we have something unique based on the format of the shows and the personalities that we have with them that we’ll be a clear alternative and, hopefully, at some point, turn into one of the first places that people go.

MCN: Monday night is going to be boxing, Wednesday night with the UFC. Those are anchor positions …

ES: Yes. [Boxing’s] Golden Boy [Promotions] most Mondays, UFC every Wednesday and then … Look, I think that we also work with the UFC, we work with all of our partners, to see exactly what the best night is. When you start out, you get really nice, pretty grids, and the research department tells you this is that, and everybody buys in.

RF: I think the one thing to add to that is we are excited about the UFC and we’re excited about [reality series] The Ultimate Fighter, especially this year, especially when you look at what’s going on and where they are in their process. I mean, it’s a show that has moved around a bit over the last 18 months but still, from a ratings standpoint, just is dominant with men 18 to 34, men 18 to 49.

MCN: UFC has been a winner for Fuel. Is Fuel going to become Fox Sports 2 this year?

ES: I think that the logo or the bug that’s on a particular channel is really a matter of branding. It makes a lot of sense probably to be unified under one particular Fox Sports brand and have a hierarchy there. I think that the exact timing of a move to brand everything the same is probably still a little bit of a work in progress.

RF: And I think the other side of this, too, is [Fox Networks Group chairman and CEO] Peter [Rice] and [News Corp. senior executive vice president] David [Hill] and [News Corp. chief operating officer] Chase [Carey] have charged us with really looking at the Fox Sports business as the Fox Sports business. And that incorporates the broadcast network, our cable networks and our [regional sports networks], as well as looking at how things move in a way that makes sense and how we grow those assets through cable and satellite, as well as digital distribution and everything else.

MCN: What can you tell us about Fox Sports Go?

RF: We’ll launch Fox Sports Go, an app for authenticated subscribers, in conjunction with Fox Sports 1, with significant “couch rights,” a one-stop experience. It will, of course, be your app for scores, highlights, VOD, but also one’s entry point to Fox Soccer Plus and other vehicles we have. It is a significant move to an aggregated application for TV Everywhere as well as your daily sports habits, like scores, highlights and fantasy. Through it, we’ll have curated channels around our sports pillars that will provide us a leadership position by delivering massive video content across multiple platforms beyond the big screen.

MCN: When does Fox Soccer go dark?

ES: While a lot has been speculated and reported as fact, we haven’t made any announcements about Fox Soccer. Fox Soccer Plus will continue to feature a wide assortment of terrific soccer and rugby matches.

MCN: Where does the Big East fit on the schedule?

ES: In general, Big East basketball will be concentrated on Monday and Thursday nights, as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings. We only have 24 Golden Boy fights, and some are expected to move to Tuesdays during college-basketball season. We expect that Fox Sports 1 will have a modest schedule of women’s basketball and Olympic sports.

MCN: Will you make a play for more rights to the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide? NBA? The national Big Ten contract? An NFL Thursday-night package?

RF: As a sports-media business, we are open to having conversations with all major sports entities, be it a league, conference or event organizer, who offer high-quality programming that provides consistent ratings, passionate fans, gifted athletes and intense competition.

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