SBJ/April 2-8, 2012/Media

Will Fox launch all-sports network?

Channel dubbed Fox Sports 1 has been discussed with sports properties

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Fox Sports executives may have been publicly downplaying reports that it is looking to launch a competitor to ESPN, but the idea has gained a lot of momentum in recent months as Fox has dangled the possibility during rights negotiations with some of the country’s biggest sports properties.

Fox Sports Chairman David Hill is overseeing the current project.
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The channel, which goes by the working title of Fox Sports 1, already has been contemplated in the network’s deals with the Pac-12 Conference and FIFA. In fact, sources said that one of the reasons Fox hired John Entz from MLB Network in November was to help launch such a channel. Entz has since taken a bigger job at the network, as executive producer (see related story).

Executives close to the talks said plans to switch Fox’s motorsports channel Speed into an all-sports channel are still in their infancy and not set in stone. There’s a good chance that nothing happens and no switch is made.

But a new multisport Speed also has been part of early discussions Fox has had with MLB. Sources said MLB executives have told Fox that it needs to establish a better cable sports presence to help it compete with ESPN’s cable channels and NBC Sports Network for rights. Fox’s MLB deal is up after the 2013 season.

Other broadcasters have made similar moves. In addition to ESPN, which produces sports content on ABC, NBC owns the multisport NBC Sports Network and CBS owns the multisport CBS Sports Network. Fox Sports does not own a national multisport cable network.

The earliest Fox would switch Speed into an all-sports network is 2014, sources say. That’s when the network’s rights deal with NASCAR ends, potentially freeing up space on the program schedule. That’s also the year when Fox has rights to broadcast the Super Bowl, and Fox could look to build off the promotion around the game for the channel launch. NBC had a similar strategy this year when it relaunched Versus as NBC Sports Network a month before the broadcast network carried this year’s Super Bowl.

Sources said Fox has talked about using FX as a “bridge” to house sports rights, like Pac-12 and Big 12 games, until it can get a full-time multisport network up and running.

Fox has not submitted formal proposals to cable or satellite operators yet. But several distributors told SportsBusiness Journal that Fox has initiated informal talks about making such a switch. That aspect presents one of the key obstacles to any launch, as many of Speed’s cable affiliate contracts do not allow Fox to switch Speed away from a pure motorsports channel, sources said. So Fox will have to gain cable and satellite buy-in to make such a switch. Such a move would represent another piece in a larger negotiation for all of Fox’s networks.

NASCAR stands to lose more than anyone if Fox converts Speed to a multisport network. Speed currently broadcasts NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races and shows an average of 25 hours a week of NASCAR shoulder programming. That’s significantly more than the approximately five hours ESPN offers with its “NASCAR Now” and pre-race programs.

Fox raised the possibility of an all-sports network in its general conversations with NASCAR over the past year. The last time the two discussed the possibility was approximately one month ago when Fox told NASCAR it was considering turning Speed into an all-sports channel and converting Fuel TV into a motorsports channel. That move alone would put NASCAR programming in 45 million fewer homes. Another sign of potential changes occurred late last year when the channel’s longtime president, Hunter Nickell, surprisingly resigned. Fox’s Scott Ackerson was named interim president Jan. 1.

It’s unclear how NASCAR would respond to a potential switch of Speed into an all-sports network. NASCAR Media Group opened a $43 million facility in downtown Charlotte in 2010. The facility has four floors of studio and production space and an extensive digital archive that would allow NASCAR to start its own network if it chose to do so. The assumption is that it wouldn’t make that decision until after its current broadcast agreements end in 2014.

NASCAR has held talks with Fox in the past about becoming a stakeholder in Speed and turning it into a joint-venture project. Those conversations have been ongoing for several years.

The network has been exploring the idea since at least 2009 when Chase Carey was hired as News Corp.’s president, COO and deputy chairman.
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The idea that Fox Sports wants to launch an all-sports competitor to ESPN is not new. The network has been exploring the idea of converting one of its smaller niche channels into an all-sports channel since at least 2009, when Chase Carey was hired as News Corp.’s president, COO and deputy chairman. Fox Sports chairman David Hill is overseeing the current project.

The plan gained steam last year, as Fox Sports negotiated deals with the Big 12, FIFA, Pac-12 and UFC.

At first, Fox looked into the possibility of flipping Fuel TV or Fox Soccer. But those larger, more-established properties did not want to entrust their rights to a small niche channel like Fuel TV, which is in 37 million homes, or Fox Soccer, which is in 41 million.
They’d be more willing to commit to Fox’s motorsports channel, Speed, which is in 82 million homes.

Such a switch makes sense for Fox. The network’s NASCAR deal ends in 2014. The channel already has an infrastructure and better distribution than NBC Sports Network or CBS Sports Network, which should help convince rights holders to put their content on the channel.

The cost of launching such a channel is unclear.

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