SBJ/March 4-10, 2013/Media

Fox and ESPN: What’s behind unlikely alliance?

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It started with a surprising partnership around the Big 12 Conference and continues with this week’s planned announcement around the Catholic 7. The amount of collaboration between ESPN and Fox Sports over the past two years has resulted in a partnership that is unprecedented in sports media as the two formerly bitter rivals have united on some of the biggest media rights deals.

The unlikely bond has been topic A in sports media circles for a year. NBC executives have started to refer to the ESPN-Fox combo derisively as “FOSPN” inside their 30 Rock office.

A lot of the speculation in the sports industry suggests that the building relationship is a way for ESPN and Fox Sports to keep NBC and its stable of sports channels at bay, more so than CBS, which has not been as aggressive pursuing sports rights. However, executives who have done business with ESPN and Fox say the industry shouldn’t mistake their close ties to mean that they are joined at the hip.

One key is that ESPN’s John Skipper (left) and Fox Sports’ Randy Freer have a good relationship, sources say.
Photo by: SHANA WITTENWYLER
“I see it as a marriage of convenience,” said sports media consultant Neal Pilson, who is advising the Catholic 7 on its media rights strategy. “I can tell you that ESPN and Fox don’t treat each other in a business context as kissing cousins. They are definitely competitors.”

Still, the number of partnerships the two rivals have forged during the past two years is eye-opening. The most recent collaborations will come this week, albeit behind the scenes, as Fox Sports formally announces the pending launches of two national sports channels, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, that instantly will become ESPN’s biggest competitors.

At the press conference announcing the channels, Fox Sports also will unveil its 12-year, $500 million media rights deal for the Catholic 7, the group of basketball schools that is negotiating to break away from the Big East to set up its own conference. As part of that deal, Fox already has held informal talks about sublicensing a package of games to ESPN. That move follows ESPN’s six-year, $130 million media rights deal for the Big East. In that deal, ESPN already has held informal talks about sublicensing a package of games to Fox Sports.

While industry executives describe ESPN and Fox Sports’ relationship as a marriage of convenience, many onlookers have noted that NBC Universal Sports & Olympics has been the odd network left out.

Interestingly, ESPN has talked with both Fox and CBS about sublicensing Big East games, and Fox has talked to both ESPN and CBS about sublicensing Catholic 7 games. Thus far, NBC has not been part of either discussion, according to several sources.

It doesn’t end there. ESPN and Fox Sports partnered on a winning bid for the Pac-12 Conference against NBC in 2011. They partnered on a losing bid for the English Premier League against NBC last October, and the two have a formal relationship to share Big 12 rights.

An indelible image of the unique bond between these two came in the summer of 2011, when ESPN and Fox executives traveled to Switzerland to complete bids for the Olympics’ media rights. While NBC executives holed up in their suite at Lausanne’s Palace Hotel waiting to hear if they won the rights, ESPN and Fox executives socialized together in the lobby bar, laughing with each other and swapping stories.

“I think that it’s a recognition that the sports media market is big enough to handle two big media companies, like ESPN and Fox,” said Chris Bevilacqua, a sports media consultant with Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures, who worked on the Pac-12 and Big East deals. “ESPN has been dominant and entrenched for a long period of time. It seems clear to me that Fox has been the most aggressive to rival ESPN.”

Part of the reason for the ESPN-Fox Sports bond comes down to personality. ESPN President John Skipper has a good relationship with Fox Sports co-Presidents Randy Freer and Eric Shanks, according to several sources.

How good? After ESPN lost the 2018 and 2022 World Cup rights to Fox in the fall of 2011, Skipper reached out to congratulate Freer and invited Fox executives to watch how ESPN produces the World Cup in Rio in 2014. It’s rare to see this type of cooperation, particularly from a media company that had just lost rights to the event.

Conversely, Skipper had a notoriously prickly relationship with the former heads of NBC Sports, Dick Ebersol and Ken Schanzer. Ebersol and Schanzer are no longer with NBC, and Skipper’s relationship with NBC Sports Group Chair Mark Lazarus is much better. Even then, the two sides have not had any discussions about setting up similar partnerships between ESPN and NBC, sources said. Nor has NBC had discussions with Fox about that type of arrangement.

NBC executives do not believe the ESPN-Fox pairing has hurt the company. In an industry where incumbents have a huge advantage in renewing media rights deals, NBC has picked up EPL rights from ESPN, MLS rights from Fox, and Formula One rights from Fox. The only property it has lost in the past several years was Wimbledon, which ESPN picked up.

Some believe ESPN-Fox-style partnerships will become standard in sports media.

Pilson said rights holders already are demanding that their main broadcast partner sublicense games to other networks, ensuring that most of their games are televised. Networks used to “warehouse” rights, Pilson said, which means that channels would opt to simply not show games rather than sell them to other networks. In the past, warehousing typically occurred in rights deals when media companies didn’t have the space or the platforms to show all of the games. Pilson said leagues and conferences will not tolerate that anymore.

“That’s a big difference from even 10 years ago,” Pilson said. “The pressure for these types of multiple deals come from the rights holder.”
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