Eric Shanks is sitting pretty as president, chief operating officer and executive producer of Fox Sports, a global sports behemoth that’s only getting bigger as it positions itself as a viable contender for the pound-for-pound TV-sports championship belt, currently held by ESPN.
As brand-building becomes more vital in a more complex TV advertising and distribution climate, Fox Sports has stepped up its game in 2015, securing rights to both marquee and fledgling sports properties that it hopes to turn into ratings gold in the near future.
The company’s decision this past February to extend its FIFA World Cup soccer rights deal through 2026 was vindicated in part on July 5, when the Fox broadcast network’s coverage of the U.S.-Japan Women’s World Cup final set a ratings record, averaging more than 25 million viewers.
Rights deals inked this year for such national properties as the National Hot Rod Association, Premier Boxing Champions, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and Major League Soccer — as well as regional team and college-conference rights secured for several of its regional sports networks — have only enhanced Fox Sports’ profile within the TV sports universe.
Add the continued ratings growth of two-year-old national cable sports networks FS1 and FS2 through the addition of live Women’s World Cup games, regular and postseason Major League Baseball telecasts (including most of the just-concluded American League Championship Series), NASCAR races and Ultimate Fighting Championship programming, and its not hard to see why Shanks is among the most successful sports executives in the game today — and why he’s being recognized as the Multichannel News Sports Executive of the Year.
Shanks recently spoke with MCN programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about what made Fox Sports so successful in 2015, and about his take on the opportunities and challenges brought by new technologies altering the television landscape. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: Everyone is talking about this period as a golden age for television with regards to scripted programming, but I’m of the thinking that 2015 in particular has been a great year for sports, with a number of TV networks setting ratings records with live sports programming. From your vantage point, do you consider this a great time to be in the sports-television business?
Eric Shanks: More people are watching more sports than ever before, and I think the quality and the multiplatform access is driving a lot of that. The fact that you no longer are bound by being in a certain place at a certain time to watch the teams and the games you want to watch is one of the reasons I believe that sports seems to be rising above the rest, as far as it relates to media consumption.
Clearly, we’re in an age of transformation by new technologies, and the fact that consumers are in control now more they have ever been, and viewers have more choices than they have ever had, is a great thing. Sports continues to be the thing that brings communities, families and young people together, and gives us all something in common, whether it’s your favorite team or your favorite event or just the chance to get together and be a part of the community. Sports, probably unlike ever before, is the thing that holds tribes together.
MCN: To extend those sentiments to Fox Sports, how would you define the performance of Fox Sports this year?
ES: I think globally it has been a year that has been unmatched. What’s happening at Star in India is really incredible, being a leader in that emerging market and taking a leadership position in sports.
I do think that we’re coming into an era where, more than before, there will be clear winners and losers as it shakes out, whether it be through engaging in multiplatform distribution of content or the consolidation on the distribution side. The value of brands — and whether those brands deliver on their promise — will be judged by consumers in a way that we haven’t seen before. I think that Fox Sports, around the world and domestically, delivers on the promise of bringing the best and the biggest events and your local teams to you in away that creates real value.
It’s the Fox Sports brand, more so than niche brands, that is one of the things that consumers and distributors can see the value in. It’s the Fox Sports brand that brings them every game of their local baseball, NHL and NBA team; it brings you great college football, baseball playoffs; all the big events. I think that is what we believe is a winning formula going forward.
MCN: You mentioned bringing the best brands to consumers. Is that why you guys have been so aggressive with securing rights deals, certainly over the last 12 to 18 months, as well as bringing in some high priced on-air talent, such as Colin Cowherd? Is the need to define a brand much stronger in an environment that is uncertain at this point driving your acquisition strategy?
ES: Yes. I think once we made the decision to coalesce around big, multi-sport brands and Fox Sports or your local Fox Sports Arizona or Fox Sports Florida, you want to have the product to deliver on the promise of that brand. So whether it’s the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Daytona 500, we believe that having the content and the events that get people attached and engaged to your brand is delivering on the promise that we make to the viewer and to the fans.
I think we have been disciplined in our approach, but we have also been aggressive when we think it fits with our strategy. And there are segments of the sports-fan population, whether it be with the NHRA deal or whether it be with renewing the local team rights that we have done this year, that’s really delivering on the promise of the brand.
MCN: Another big acquisition was hiring Jamie Horowitz [former vice president of original programming and production at ESPN] as president of Fox Sports National Networks. Why was he the best person for that position and how has that worked out to this point?
ES: There is clearly an internal culture at Fox Sports that we believe is special and unique. Probably more so than any of the rights acquisitions that we’ve done, the thing I am most excited about is the increased energy that we have brought with the addition of Jamie and his team and the path forward.
I think that Jamie and his team fit really well because we recognized that going forward into year three, after some of the investments that we’ve made in live rights, that the next frontier for us is really in non-event programming and also in honing our big-events strategy and making our big events even bigger. And I couldn’t think of anybody that fit more perfectly with the culture of Fox Sports and the expertise that Fox Sports needs going forward than Jamie and the team that he has brought in.
MCN: Are FS1 and FS2 on pace with where you wanted them to be at this point?
ES: I think, as always, it’s not a straightforward answer. I think some of the things that we’ve done from a product standpoint and results standpoint are ahead, and some of the things are a work in progress. But we have more momentum, and I’m more energized about going into year three and with the team that we have assembled than when we launched.
Momentum is an amazing thing, both creatively and culturally, and I think we are on a path right now that is very encouraging. I think that I am more excited going into year three of our new national networks probably more so than when we launched, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that we have kept the culture of bold innovation and risk-taking intact.
MCN: You mentioned that with all these acquisitions and personnel hires, you have been disciplined in spending. Is there a ceiling that you have in mind for the amount of money you want to lay out for those particular acquisitions and are you close to that at this point?
ES: Whether it’s Fox Sports or any business on Main Street, you manage your business at the time and you evaluate opportunities that are in front of you for any number of reasons, whether it’s the growth aspect of the opportunity, or other offensive or defensive rationales.
We are the leading sports company in the world, we are always evaluating global opportunities and we are always evaluating opportunities that make us stronger and make the brand stronger and engage more with fans on any platform. That’s kind of our mindset going forward — making sure that it’s the right fit for our brand and that there is a rationale for doing it that meets with our business objectives.
MCN: The reason I ask is we’re seeing a change in the television marketplace with distributors losing subscribers and creating skinny bundles with fewer networks, and recalculating the value of existing cable networks. Can Fox Sports and the TV-sports industry in general continue to pay significant rights fees for sports content, given an uncertain future in terms of where the revenue to pay for those rights are going to come from, whether it’s from subscribers or advertising?
ES: I think that as a part of 21 Century Fox and as part of strong global brands, sports is one of the areas of strength within that portfolio, and we manage that strength and we look for opportunities. I think that this is an age of transformation, and we believe that strong brands will come through on the other side, probably stronger than ever.
Again, it goes back to a little bit of trying to predict the future, but also wanting to make sure that you’ve set the table for a business that is stronger in five years than it is today and we manage towards that. And so we have, I believe, the resources, the brands and clearly the opportunities to make that happen. So I think that’s how we look at the world.
MCN: One of the big franchises that you’ve secured long-term is the FIFA World Cup, and that immediately paid ratings dividends this past summer. Were you surprised by the enormous ratings the women’s tournament generated and did it exceed your expectations?
ES: I would say it exceeded our expectations to the nth degree. We had high expectations going in, and the script couldn’t have been written any better from our perspective. Clearly, there is a movement happening in women’s sports that has never been greater than it is today and it’s amazing to be a part of, whether it’s women’s soccer, whether it’s [UFC star] Ronda Rousey being one of the most popular athletes, male or female, on the planet — and having UFC as one of our core partners from the very beginning — or whether it’s Venus and Serena [Williams], no one can deny that this is the best time probably in women’s sports history.
Combine that with the fact that this is probably the highest point of soccer interest in this country. We believe that we are really only at the beginning of the second generation of soccer fans. So right now in this country, it’s the first time that sons, fathers, mothers and daughters have soccer in common because it really wasn’t until the ’70s and ’80s that we generated the first soccer fans in this country, and now for the first time those moms and dads that were the first soccer fans have kids of their own. So the idea that you start to see this exponential fan effect happening with soccer I think nobody can deny that it’s happening.
Being a part of those two things this past summer was absolutely incredible. It was a great experience for everybody involved at Fox Sports, and I think we’ll do everything we can to see those two things continue.
MCN: You mentioned the growth of soccer and you mentioned the UFC. What sport do you see that has the biggest growth curve in terms of audience and also just growing fan base?
ES: You know what I think the beauty is? You don’t know. I think that what we’ve done is created a portfolio of rights from the biggest events in this country like the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Daytona 500, and also in that portfolio are young, growing sports, like the UFC and soccer — both MLS and international soccer.
And the great thing about having a portfolio, whether it’s a sports portfolio that you can deliver to fans or your investment portfolio, you have that great mix. And if you’ve made some of the right investments, the entire portfolio grows — some faster than others at certain points. That is how we view our acquisition strategy, making sure that we have the right mix of growth sports and sports that deliver the consistent big events.
MCN: Continuing to look into the future, technology has been a big theme for you, from camera drones to talk about virtual reality. Why are such technological innovations so important to you and Fox Sports and what’s next on the horizon?
ES: Bringing the fan closer to the action has always been a goal for us, whether it’s our emphasis on audio and having probably invested more in audio and using audio as a means to bring fans closer to the game, or some of the new technologies like virtual reality. At the end of the day, there is a certain segment of fans that are going to want the experience of being at the event. And I think that our investment in virtual reality does that.
Being the first sports network to shoot an event with multiple drones all at once is an experiment in seeing what new perspectives we can bring to fans. There is a whole generation of sports fans watching on TV that the majority of their sports consumption has been through video games, and video games shoot sporting events much differently than we do. So, can we meld the two together? Drones are a big factor in being able to do that.
I think virtual reality is one of the things that we believe will eventually be uniquely positioned to bring fans closer to the game and the action. Then there’s simple things like our acquisition of a company called Pro Cast, which allows athletes to send footage directly to our servers here in the studio. That’s how we get our “On the Bus” segments, taking you on the bus with NFL players before they go to their game or leaving the house with a baseball player before they go to a playoff game is something that we weren’t able to do before without everybody having a camera in their pocket. The ability for these professional athletes now to connect with their fans and extend their brand through our broadcasts is exciting.
So everything we do has an eye toward the fan experience and bringing the fans closer to the game and inside the game, because there’s no doubt that the more engaged fans are the more they consume not only linear media but digital media, and that’s good for everybody.
MCN: Does that also help bring what is widely known in the industry as the “Fox attitude” to sports like golf, which hasn’t been covered that way by other platforms?
ES: I think the investment we made in the USGA this year clearly gave us, with some added technology, an experience that probably attracted hard-core fans because we heard that they can’t get enough of the ball tracer technology, the added microphones and the added camera angles. Hopefully what that does is not only enhance the experience for the fans watching USGA events but — whether it’s us or another network — help break new ground technologically, which drives the entire industry forward.
The innovations happening in the industry as a whole are really exciting. I think you see new innovations happening in every sport around every big event. And again, it’s fun to be a part of that competitive environment where your peers are constantly pushing you and you’re constantly pushing your peers to make the fan experience better.
MCN: Continuing on the competition theme, what do you make of new digital OTT services that are getting a lot of press these days? Do you foresee them ever getting into the sports business?
ES: I think whether it’s here in the States or around the world, I mean, we’ve dealt with competition for a very long time and that’s a good thing. As new people consider whether or not they want to be in the sports business, I think you have to believe in sports. We here at Fox believe in sports. We’re a content company and we believe in creating value through content, and sports are a big part of that. And I think that to have a long-term view, I think you have to be in the sports business for the right reasons, and that’s keeping the fan at the top of the pyramid.
MCN: How do you see overall distribution of content on various platforms other than traditional television? What is the future distribution platform for sports content?
ES: As far as multiplatform goes, it’s amazing. I remember 10 years ago when people were at conferences saying the Internet would never have the ability to deliver highquality video in a large number of streams. Well, in less than a decade, [Fox] and others are delivering the biggest sporting events in this country multiplatform, through the Internet. And I would say that it’s a great experience.
Having said that, it doesn’t seem like it’s something that today should be talked about as being distinct and apart from the creative process of sports. I mean — and I don’t think we’re unique in this — nobody around here thinks about the different platforms as it relates to our linear product. Nobody thinks about those different platforms at all.
We produce content and it’s so seamless to go between devices and have access across those devices. It kind of goes back to our original comment: You think about the brands and you think about the promise of those brands and the product that those brands should deliver to you, and I don’t think anybody really thinks about the difference between the TV on the wall and their tablet and their phone when it comes to getting access to that content.
Now I think that all of us have distinct digital businesses, whether it’s increasing engagement on social media or whether it’s on your website or whether it’s on your app, and I think that each media company has their strategies for the products on those different platforms.
So, we have products that are produced and delivered only through social media. We have multiplatform products, like [FS1’s] Garbage Time With Katie Nolan, that is really a multiplatform show that has a television component to it. But Katie is always on, whether it’s through social media or whether it’s through YouTube or whether it’s through any of our platforms we have for those products.
So, I hope that we’re at a moment in time where going forward we, in the industry, are starting to put ourselves in the fans’ perspective. I don’t believe the fans really think about the idea of, “Oh, I’m watching on my phone so it’s different than watching on my tablet.” They have more unparalleled access than any time before. And I think that we as a company believe that again our product has never been more accessible to more fans and that sports fans in general are really in an era of unprecedented control and unprecedented value and benefit for the sports product they get.
MCN: A couple of short questions for you: Biggest accomplishment in 2015 for Fox Sports so far?
ES: I think the product we put on the air for the Women’s World Cup.
MCN: Toughest call you had to make this year?
ES: I think because it had a very personal impact to a lot of people, but evolving the programming grid so far in 2015 for FS1. Obviously making some programming decisions that affected people here at Fox Sports.
MCN: Who’s coming out of the NFC this year, going to the Super Bowl?
ES: The beauty of the NFL is, we don’t know.
Highlight Reel: Fox Sports Milestones in 2015
Fox Sports president, chief operating officer and executive producer Eric Shanks oversaw a whirlwind of activity in 2015, including these headlines:
National Football League Gains
The NFL on Fox had its second most-watched year since the network began broadcasting NFL games in 1994, with an average audience of 20.7 million viewers. Fox Sports’s five most-watched NFL seasons have all come within the last five years. Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week” is the top program in television for six consecutive years.
FIFA World Cup Marks
Fox extended an existing contract with FIFA that gave Fox Sports the next six FIFA World Cups in international soccer. Coverage began with the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, hosted by Canada. The 5-2 U.S. victory over Japan in the final game was the most- watched soccer match in U.S. history with 25.4 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. The 2015 tournament averaged 1.824 million viewers per each of the tournament’s 52 matches across all networks (Fox, FS1, FS2), up 21% over 1,511,000 averaged on ESPN and ESPN2 for 32 matches played in 2011.
MLS Games Return
In May, Fox Sports agreed to an eight-year deal to televise Major League Soccer (the top U.S. professional league) regular-season and playoff games, including MLS Cup and MLS All-Star Games (divided with ESPN). MLS had been on Fox between 2003 and 2011.
USGA Tees Off
Fox began a new 12-year partnership with the United States Golf Association, airing the first U.S. Open Golf Championship on Fox and FS1. Coverage included drones and virtual reality elements. Viewing averaged 3.5 million viewers across both networks, up 40% over 2014’s combined average on ESPN and NBC (2.5 million).
FS1 Viewing Grows
Fox Sports 1 (now branded as FS1), bolstered by Major League Baseball, the addition of NASCAR Xfinity and Sprint Cup races, soccer and the USGA Championship, saw a rise of 40% in total day viewers year over year when it turned two years old in August. Viewing of live events rose 53%, to average 488,000 vs. 319,000 a year ago, per Nielsen.
UFC on Fox on Saturday nights held top spots in key male and adult demographics in broadcast and cable primetime: so far this year, UFC Fight Nights and pay-per-view preliminary matches on FS1 rose 24% versus the same period last year.
Fox Sports president Eric Shanks hired former ESPN and NBC News executive Jamie Horowitz as president of Fox Sports National Networks, hired to develop original programming on FS1 and FS2. An early move was signing on-air personality Colin Cowherd; Fox later added widely read journalist Jason Whitlock.
Rights Gained, Renewed
Fox Sports extended its rights agreement for the FIFA World Cup through 2026; signed deals for National Hot Rod Association races, Premier Boxing Champions contests and the Westminster Dog Show. It inked key regional sports network renewals, including long-term rights deals with the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks.
SOURCE: Fox Sports
KICKING SOCCER UP A NOTCH
Fox Sports’s FIFA Women’s World Cup coverage this summer propelled the sport to record-setting ratings levels for U.S. televised soccer, claiming half of the 30 most-watched soccer events thus far this year. The July 5 Japan-U.S. final (won by the U.S.) was the most watched soccer match in U.S. TV history. Most of the other top soccer events on the year were Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) international contests.
July 5 . . . . . . . . . . .USA vs. Japan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .22,317 . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fox *
June 30 . . . . . . . . .USA vs. Germany . . . . . . . . . . . . .8,425 . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fox *
June 26 . . . . . . . . .China vs. USA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5,736. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fox *
July 26 . . . . . . . . . .Jamaica vs. Mexico. . . . . . . . . . . .5,711 . . . . . . . . . Univision +
Oct. 10 . . . . . . . . . .USA vs. Mexico. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4,814 . . . . . . . . Univision #
June 22. . . . . . . . . .USA vs. Colombia . . . . . . . . . . . . .4,716. . . . . . . . . . . . . . FS1 *
July 19 . . . . . . . . . .Mexico vs. Costa Rica. . . . . . . . . .4,664 . . . . . . . . Univision +
July 22 . . . . . . . . . .Panama vs. Mexico. . . . . . . . . . . .4,265 . . . . . . . . . .UniMas +
July 12 . . . . . . . . . .Mexico vs. Guatemala . . . . . . . . .3,746 . . . . . . . . Univision +
June 8. . . . . . . . . . .USA vs. Australia . . . . . . . . . . . . .3,311 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . FS1 *
Figures in thousands. * FIFA Women’s World Cup + CONCACAF Gold Cup #CONCACAF Cup
SOURCE: Ratings Intelligence analysis of Nielsen live-plus-same-day figures