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When Fox Sports executives Randy Freer and Larry Jones first sat across the table from the U.S. Golf Association on Aug. 2, a mix of curiosity and skepticism filled the New York City conference room.
Some saw Fox, known for its cutting-edge production and attitude, as the perfect alternative to NBC’s tradition-laden coverage. Others were skeptical that Fox was a legitimate contender for the broadcast rights to golf’s ultra-conservative governing body. Just two years ago, the PGA Tour had attempted to draw Fox into the bidding for its rights and Fox, a complete stranger to golf, declined.
But the USGA, spearheaded by Sarah Hirshland, senior managing director of business affairs, and consultants from Wasserman Media Group, was immediately taken by the enthusiasm coming from Freer and Jones, who positioned the U.S. Open among Fox’s other premium events like the World Series and Super Bowl.
By the end of the six-hour meeting in Proskauer’s Times Square office, Fox officials had made a clear impression. Hirshland, during her 45-minute drive home to the New Jersey suburbs, started to imagine what the U.S. Open might look like on Fox.
USGA President Glen Nager with 2013 U.S. Open champ Justin Rose
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
From the very beginning, Hirshland told the incumbents, NBC Sports Group and ESPN, that the USGA was looking for something different. She wasn’t bluffing.
“This wasn’t as simple as an extension,” Hirshland said. “We went into this knowing the USGA needed to have a strong position and a distinctive voice in golf. We asked the incumbents to think differently on our behalf. We pushed them to figure out the best way for our partnership to proceed and, obviously, we did not come to terms with either incumbent.”
The USGA’s 60-day negotiating window with NBC and ESPN expired on Aug. 1 and the following day Fox was at the table. Throughout that Friday, the USGA pushed Freer, co-president of Fox Sports, and Jones, the network’s COO, to test the boundaries of its flagship event, the U.S. Open. They also wanted a commitment to live coverage of the USGA’s amateur events, most of which have never been televised live.
Fox, with hours of new shelf space on FS1 and the need for programming, kept saying yes. Even though Fox did not present specific innovations that it would take to the golf course, the network’s track record of producing big events excited the USGA.
So did Fox’s willingness to cross-promote the USGA’s events on its other sports properties. Fox’s annual promotion of the USGA’s events is projected to be in the neighborhood of $3 million, according to industry sources.
“Of course, you’ve got to make people feel comfortable that their product is going to be covered in a professional and quality way,” Freer said. “Look, it’s not 1994 [the year Fox debuted its NFL coverage]. We’ve got a great deal of production credibility. In every sport we’ve been involved in, we’ve taken creative, innovative and exciting approaches. That’s what we do.”
The $85 million-a-year average is well more than the combined $38 million a year that the USGA had been making from NBC and ESPN.
The news that Fox would be the new home for the U.S. Open from 2015 through 2026 was an unpredictable move that no one in the golf industry saw coming. Fox’s audience is linked to the NFL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR and MMA, not golf. And the USGA’s brand has long been strapped to tradition and conservative thinking.
“I initially was shocked,” said Ed Kiernan, president of the New York agency Engine Shop and a former golf executive at Peter Jacobsen Sports. “But after thinking more about it, it’s going to be great for the game. What Fox has done from a production standpoint in NASCAR, MLB, the NFL … they’ll take golf and make it more mainstream.
“I just never saw a stoic association like the USGA pioneering this.”
In addition to money, one of the prime negotiating points was a commitment to increased coverage, especially live hours. Fox’s deal provides 146 total hours annually, of which 76 will be devoted to the USGA’s amateur competitions, all live. That’s a sharp increase from the current deal, which features 90 total hours, 30 for amateur events.
The three major Opens will appear on Fox broadcast during the weekend rounds. FS1 will have a piece of the first two rounds, as well as the amateur events, the Walker Cup and the Curtis Cup. Complete broadcast details have not been finalized, Fox said.
“Having FS1 was a huge help,” Freer said. “For the number of hours committed to this, the only way that would have been possible is due to the addition of FS1. We’re here to compete for rights and you need to have fully distributed outlets to do that with.”
But NBC was a strong bidder throughout, and its aggressive offer included more total hours on the broadcast channel and Golf Channel, but not as many live hours, according to industry sources. The live coverage plus the re-airs on Golf Channel were perceived as double counting the hours, and the USGA preferred Fox’s number of live hours.
“Things with Fox have clearly changed,” said Kevin O’Malley, a media consultant who formerly worked at CBS and Turner Sports. “The advent of a cable channel as a truly serious enterprise makes a deal like this much more attractive. It gives them a championship event on Fox broadcast and an inventory of events that are very important for the cable channel. The dual purpose is really key to this and explains a philosophical sea change for the network. And it’s huge money for golf.”
By last Monday, Aug. 5 at 5 p.m., all the bids were due and a clear choice had begun to crystallize.
The USGA could stay with NBC, a valued and respected partner that had televised the last 19 U.S. Opens, in a move that would be familiar, comfortable and consistent.
Or the USGA could go 180 degrees the other direction, selecting Fox, a newbie to the golf space.
ESPN was a distant third in the bidding, and by the deadline was out of the running.
Mike McCarley, president of Golf Channel, led the NBC contingent. Behind the scenes, NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus worked the phones with USGA President Glen Nager.
Fox’s bid of more than $1 billion over 12 years was stronger financially than NBC’s, although industry sources characterized NBC’s bid as extremely competitive. The USGA’s attempts to generate a higher bid from ESPN failed.
Nager and Hirshland last Wednesday presented both Fox and NBC offers to the executive committee with a recommendation that they choose Fox. The 15-person committee did just that.
“Their fresh perspective made us believe Fox was the broadcast partner we wanted to have,” Nager said.
Until Aug. 2, the USGA and Fox had talked just once, briefly, before the USGA entered its exclusive window. Fox let its interest be known.
“There was an enormous amount of evolution over the weekend in our talks with Fox,” Hirshland said. “We had not had any real substantive talks until that Friday. They didn’t know us terribly well. But we laid out our original thoughts on where we wanted to go and to their credit, they were incredibly ready to respond in detail. They were very nimble and they worked quickly.”
The parties were informed last Wednesday after the committee vote, and the USGA sent out a press release that evening, a move that generated scorn from its peers in golf because of the timing on the eve of the PGA Championship.
The USGA said it simply couldn’t sit on that news until after the season’s final major.
Now, the USGA and its new partner will let the dust settle before collaborating on the hiring of talent.
“It’s going to be weird listening to someone other than Johnny Miller calling the U.S. Open,” Kiernan said. “There’s going to be a new voice in golf. Who will it be?”
Staff writer Tripp Mickle contributed to this report.
> This is a blow to NBC Sports Group: Before leaving on vacation last week, I checked in with various sources to see how the negotiations were going. I was told that Fox was sniffing around, but I didn’t believe its interest was serious. I couldn’t envision a scenario where NBC Sports Group lost this deal, especially considering that it operates a channel totally devoted to golf and, by the end of its current deal, will have had a strong, 20-year relationship with the USGA. Golf Channel still has long-term deals with the PGA Tour and the LPGA. But without high-profile USGA programming, it’s hard to see Golf Channel increasing its license fee much beyond 29 cents per subscriber per month, according to SNL Kagan, or increase its distribution much beyond the 82 million homes it’s currently in.
> Pencil in the NBA for ESPN: ESPN never appeared to be in the running to keep its piece of the USGA deal, which included weekday coverage of the U.S. Open. If Fox didn’t get the package, it all was most likely going to go to NBC Sports. Coming on the heels of ESPN’s decision not to bid for NASCAR rights, it appears the company is saving its resources for the next big rights deal: the NBA. ESPN brass has been upfront about its plans to keep NBA rights. Disney CEO Bob Iger indicated on a call this week that he expects ESPN to renew its NBA deal after the current deal runs through the 2015-16 season, calling the league an “important platform” for the company. With the departure of NASCAR and USGA rights, ESPN is setting itself up for a big run at the NBA.
> This is a strategic win for Fox: Fox is about to launch two 24-hour sports channels in Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. It needs content, and this deal provides it. Primarily, it’s a content deal. Forget about the U.S. Open, which is the most marquee event in this deal. It also gives Fox rights to the U.S. Women’s Open, U.S. Senior Open and the USGA national amateur championships, beginning in 2015. Fox was able to fill its schedule with high-quality content that it took from a competitor. That’s a big win, no matter how you look at it. Fox should see benefits beyond the amount of content, too. Much has been made of the Fox attitude. Fox Sports 1 is as closely aligned to mixed martial arts as it is to any other sport. This deal gives Fox an opportunity to reach an audience the network never has targeted before.
Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, a tandem of Canadian sports anchormen who do not take sports too seriously, also don’t seem too fazed by the pressure of moving to Los Angeles to become two of the faces of the new Fox Sports 1.
Onrait (left) and O’Toole created their
chemistry working on TSN’s “SportsCentre.”
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
As hosts of the network’s “Fox Sports Live,” debuting at 11 p.m. ET when Fox Sports 1 launches on Saturday, the former late-night anchors of TSN’s “SportsCentre” have the potential to be seen by many more viewers than they’ve had in the past. There are 34 million people in Canada. At Fox Sports 1, pending completion of some carriage deals, Onrait and O’Toole’s new TV home will be available in as many as 90 million household.
■ Born: Aug. 29, 1974
■ Raised: Althabasca, Alberta
■ College: Ryerson University
■ Experience: TSN, CTV, NHL Network Canada
■ Personal: Single
■ Quote: “I loved watching Nick Charles and Fred Hickman on CNN when I was young. Those guys were so smooth.”
■ Born: Sept. 10, 1975
■ Raised: Peterborough, Ontario
■ College: Algonquin College
■ Experience: TSN, CityTV in Vancouver, CTV Edmonton
■ Personal: Married (Corrie) with two children
■ Quote: “When Jay and I carve out our niche at Fox Sports 1, I’m confident that people will get in on the joke.”
Onrait, 38, and O’Toole, 37, also will be at the helm of a three-hour telecast instead of the one-hour late show they did for 10 years at TSN. Unlike at TSN, where the two-man comedy team dominated the show, Onrait and O’Toole will split “Fox Sports Live” airtime evenly with a panel, led by ex-ESPNer Charissa Thompson and featuring former athletes such as Andy Roddick, Gary Payton and Donovan McNabb.
None of this will alter their style, the anchors say. Fox executives knew what they were getting when they signed Onrait and O’Toole to two-year contracts, with the network holding additional two-year options on each.
“Fox told us we didn’t have to change the way we do the show,” O’Toole said. “I know 100 percent that Jay and I aren’t going to change what we do.”
But will the comic sensibilities of Onrait, from Alberta, and O’Toole, from Ontario, connect with American audiences?
“Comedy is universal,” O’Toole said. “If we were only doing [former Canadian Prime Minister] Brian Mulroney jokes, it might be different. That’s not what we do. We have fun with sports.”
Besides, Onrait said, his brand of humor has been influenced by an American talk-show host.
“When I was growing up in Northern Alberta, I would set the VCR for ‘Late Night’ on NBC and race home from school the next day to watch David Letterman,” he said. “I was obsessed with it. It was a revelation. There wasn’t much of a budget, and it was so much less polished than everything else on television at the time. That was the philosophy Dan and I took to the TSN show.”
But with the move to Fox Sports 1 and the inevitable comparisons to the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader come raised stakes. “SportsCenter” is ESPN’s flagship, 11 p.m. ET program. At the outset, “Fox Sports Live” will be scrutinized as the upstart. Broadcast critics from Sports Illustrated to Awful Announcing are waiting to review the show and its Canadian co-hosts.
Onrait and O’Toole will split time with Charissa Thompson and a panel of former athletes.
Photo by:KEVIN LYNCH / FOX SPORTS 1
Told that since he’s now working for Fox in Hollywood, celebrity cameos probably should be expected, Onrait joked, “My hope is that falls in Charissa’s lap. She’s a much more polished broadcaster than I am.”
Onrait, O’Toole, Thompson and the panel rehearsed the show all last week, going “live” — just not on the air — for three hours nightly from Los Angeles, reporting on and debating each day’s sports events.
“After the first rehearsal, actually after the first half-hour, I felt like we were ready to roll,” Onrait said.
“Fox Sports Live” does have one advantage out of the gate compared to other new shows. Fox Sports 1 did not sign a pair of announcers for the show who could need several months to find their chemistry. As O’Toole said, he and Onrait already have become the best of friends and finish each other’s sentences on and off the air.
Fox Sports 1 is convinced Onrait and O’Toole will be successful.
“They make me laugh,” said Scott Ackerson, Fox Sports executive vice president of studio production, who worked for ESPN on programs like “SportsCenter” and “NFL Primetime” for eight years before joining Fox Sports in 1994. “Jay and Dan are a likable watch. It doesn’t go any deeper than that. People like them, and I haven’t seen anything in rehearsals that makes me think differently. You never know in TV, but I’m hopeful that this is going to work.”
The launch of Fox Sports 1 is primarily a linear TV initiative, but the arrival of the network also is prompting changes for FoxSports.com.
Network executives are using the arrival of FS1 to remake the website as the channel’s true digital counterpart. A more blog-styled visual refresh is already in place, and will be followed soon by a new content management system.
More broadly, Fox Sports executives plan for FoxSports.com to be the home of supplemental content for numerous FS1 shows. Nearly all of the FS1 studio shows will have digital producers embedded with them to create Web- and mobile-based content.
Second-screen companion viewing also will be a fundamental tenet of FS1, with initiatives including a new Connect Live polling application that is designed to be used in concert with “Crowd Goes Wild,” FS1’s talk show hosted by Regis Philbin.
“There are going to be very close tie-ins between FS1 and FoxSports.com. We see the site as a real extension of the channel,” said Pete Vlastelica, Fox Sports senior vice president of digital. “The producers that will embed into the studio show productions are really full extensions of our editorial team. ”
TV Everywhere will also be a fundamental component of FS1, and the network is set to launch its new mobile application, Fox Sports Go, on Saturday in concert with the channel’s debut. The app will include live streaming content from Fox Sports, FS1, the company’s 22 regional sports networks and more than 200 over-the-air affiliates on an authenticated basis, along with more basic material such as scores, news, statistics, advanced game trackers and highlights.
Several of Fox Sports’ key rivals, such as ESPN and Turner Sports, already have extensive experience in broad TV Everywhere deployments.
“This is a really big moment and huge shift for us. What we’re really talking about is the dawn of our multiplatform distribution strategy,” said Clark Pierce, Fox Sports senior vice president of mobile and advanced platforms. “Being able to take Fox Sports content with you wherever you go is a big step forward and something we’ve wanted to provide for some time.
“But we see our product as quite a bit different than some other [mobile streaming] things out there like Watch ESPN or HBO Go, because we’re different. Between our RSN and over-the-air partners and all the content we’re pulling in, we see Fox Sports Go as really a one-of-a-kind product.”
Fox Sports Go will provide about 1,100 live events a year, depending on the market. Local blackouts will still be enforced. A Web-based version of the app, FoxSportsGo.com, will provide the same live content.
Much of the digital revamping has been done in-house, and the company recently hired Ben Gerst, formerly of The New York Times, as its new senior vice president of platform development. Gerst will look to make Fox Sports more of a technology company instead of a pure media operation, and seek out new means of digital content presentation.
But there have been some outside firms aiding in Fox’s digital reworking, including Deloitte Digital and iPowow, a Los Angeles-based interactive media company. Fox Sports first became aligned with iPowow last year through its Speed network, building out live fan voting applications, and the company will now provide the technology powering Connect Live on “Crowd Goes Wild.”
The idea is for Connect Live to provide much more immediacy than other second-screen applications based on Facebook, Twitter or texting.
“What we’re doing is allowing the TV audience directly into the story line of the show and have a real-time, direct impact upon the conversation,” said Gavin Douglas, iPowow chief creative officer. The company also has worked with Top Rank Boxing, the UFC and Vodafone, among others. “We’ve built sort of an immediate feedback loop. That polling data will come in and then directly change where the conversation goes from there. The possibilities with that are very exciting.”
Before its English Premier League telecasts debut on Saturday, NBC Sports Group has received early, good news on its three-year, $250 million investment in the league: All but one of the major TV, satellite and Internet providers have agreed to pick up the free bonus package of EPL matches the network will make available.
Instead of rolling out a monthly pay streaming service — as previous EPL rights holder Fox Sports offers with Fox Soccer 2Go — NBC Sports has created Premier League Extra Time, a package of 184 EPL matches that will not be broadcast on NBC-Universal television networks but instead will be available to the providers to air at no extra cost for customers who receive NBC Sports Network.
DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Cablevision all have signed on for the package. The only holdout, as of last week, was Charter, which had signed on to offer live streaming via NBC Sports Live Extra, the network’s product for desktops, mobile devices and tablets, but had not agreed to a deal to carry Premier League Extra Time. According to an NBC Sports spokesman, negotiations were ongoing.
“We could have charged $15 or $20 a month for a service like Fox Soccer 2Go, and we might have gotten 100,000 people who would have bought it,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “But we made the decision to make the additional games available at no charge, as long as you had NBCSN. This is a way to strengthen the pay-TV ecosystem so that people have a reason not to cut the cord, to not go away from their cable and satellite providers. For those people who don’t have a cable or satellite system, this gives them a reason to sign up with their companies.”
Sales totals for Fox Soccer 2Go were not available at press time.
NBC Sports Group acquired EPL rights last fall. Of the 380 league matches set for this season, 196 will be shown live on
NBC-Universal networks, primarily NBC and NBCSN. All 380 matches will be streamed on NBC Sports Live Extra. Matches on NBCSN will be live streamed via TV Everywhere: Viewers wishing to watch those matches will have to be authenticated as NBCSN subscribers.
When NBC Sports first pitched the EPL on a rights deal a year ago, it made its intention of offering all of the matches free to subscribers clear to league officials.
“Now the providers can say to their subscribers, ‘Look at all of this extra content you’re getting,’” Miller said. “We made the pitch, and the providers who are really sports-savvy, like DirecTV and Dish, got it right away. To see the others, like Mediacom and AT&T U-verse, fall in line so quickly, has been gratifying.”
Although NBC Sports will not directly benefit financially from its decision the way it would with a pay service, in the long term, the network could generate revenue by acquiring new subscribers to NBCSN.
“We think it makes our network more valuable in the eyes of the consumer and, by extension, in the eyes of the [multichannel video programming distributors],” Miller said.