SBJ/Sept. 22-28, 2014/Media

MLB playoffs give Fox Sports 1 big chance to win viewers

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When I wrote about Fox Sports 1’s ratings struggles in March, the network’s message to me was to be patient.

“We’ve rolled out maybe half of our programming,” Bill Wanger, Fox Sports Media Group’s executive vice president of programming, research and content strategy, said at the time.

Wanger was referring to the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide races that land on FS1 next year. He’s also betting that the U.S. Open and Women’s World Cup, which also will debut on the network next year, will help those viewer numbers.

The theory is that those big-ticket events will bring bigger and more diverse audiences to Fox Sports 1. And once those audiences sample the channel, Fox Sports executives hope they will stick around.

It’s a logical bet to make. Live sports drives ratings, and Fox Sports owns the rights to a lot of live sports programming that has not made its way to Fox Sports 1’s schedule yet.

But this strategy also heaps pressure on making sure that these events truly do bring big audiences to the channel.

The playoff campaign is FS1’s biggest ever.
Photo by: FOX SPORTS
The first of those events comes next month as the MLB postseason makes its debut on the channel, including the National League Division Series and most of the National League Championship Series. The Fox broadcast channel will carry the World Series.

It’s a safe bet that viewership around these games will drop with the move to Fox Sports 1. After all, Fox Sports 1 is in 84 million homes — 32 million fewer homes than Fox’s broadcast channel reaches (116 million).

Additionally, MLB ratings on FS1 so far this season have been underwhelming. Through 37 games, MLB games on FS1 have averaged just 416,000 viewers.

Still, these postseason baseball games also are certain to bring some of the biggest audiences in the channel’s short history — so much so that Fox signed Anheuser-Busch as the presenting sponsor of its National League Division Series.

To underscore the importance Fox Sports Media Group is placing on these FS1 games, the company has prepared the most extensive marketing push in the channel’s 13-month history. In fact, Fox executives say the marketing campaign — valued in the low eight figures — is the most extensive one they’ve ever done around baseball’s postseason.

“October will be the most important month in our short history,” said Robert Gottlieb, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of marketing. “The idea that we’re going to have baseball postseason and all the eyeballs that will come to us who have never been on Fox Sports 1 before — we’re anticipating that we’ll have more, fresh eyes on the network than any other event we’ve ever had.”

Fox Sports created the campaign in-house, which will be called “History Will Be Made on FS1.” It will start with a general tune-in campaign to let markets that are likely to make or have already made the playoffs — such as Los Angeles, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. — know that their games will be on Fox Sports 1. As the playoffs get scheduled, the campaign will target more specific matchups.

“This is obviously hugely important for us,” Gottlieb said. “We want to use as much marketing muscle and as many of our resources — even outside of Fox Sports 1 — to help shine a spotlight on it.”

Fox is concentrating most of its spend on national broadcast and cable television. It also is buying time on radio, digital and billboards in specific markets. For example, in the country’s top TV market, New York, Fox will wrap the Grand Central-Times Square shuttle with tune-in messaging.

Fox also will use its own resources. FS1 shows like “America’s Pregame” and “Fox Sports Live” will have FS1-branded countdowns leading up to the postseason, like top 10 postseason moments. These will run every day starting this week. Spots will run during NFL and college football telecasts on Fox’s broadcast channel and during live-game programming on Fox’s regional sports networks.

One unique stunt will be a marathon of baseball-themed “Simpsons” episodes that is being planned for FXX. Fox’s lead MLB announcer, Joe Buck, will host interstitials around those episodes.

“We’re pushing every button you can push to let people know,” Gottlieb said.

I will be interested in FS1’s viewership numbers as the MLB postseason plays out. But I am more interested to see if FS1’s studio shows, like “Fox Sports Live,” see an audience bump in the weeks and months after the MLB postseason ends.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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