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Volume 20 No. 41
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Experts: Market is ready for FS1

The addition of another sports channel next month does not concern executives in the ad buying community, who say the demand for sports programming is so strong now that the market easily can handle multiple networks.

Most of the media executives contacted for this story believe that when Fox Sports Media Group flips Speed into Fox Sports 1 on Aug. 17 it will immediately become the clear No. 2 to ESPN. They also believe that a secondary position can be profitable for Fox over the next several years.

“ESPN is so ingrained. To be different will be difficult, but it will and can be a profitable business. The question is how you define success. Is a strong No. 2 a good business? It certainly can be,” said Chris Weil, CEO of Momentum Worldwide, which consults with heavy sports spenders like Coca-Cola, American Express, Kraft and Microsoft. “When you are as dominant a player as ESPN is, second place can be pretty profitable. If any company is as dominant in any sector as ESPN is in sports, being a strong No. 2 is a profitable place to be and not a bad business strategy.”

Blaise D’Sylva, vice president of media, sports and entertainment marketing at Anheuser-Busch, agreed, saying he expects Fox’s offering to have a distinct style that will give marketers another sports TV choice.

Execs see enough ad dollars in sports to support FS1, now rolling out promotional spots.
“I don’t think Fox has any unreal expectations of beating ESPN,” D’Sylva said. “They are coming out of the blocks with good programming, and they should beat NBC Sports Network’s numbers.”

Some media executives give FS1 at least a five-year time frame before starting to make a significant dent in the sports advertising market.

“Fox isn’t counting on taking that much share from ESPN for at least the next five years,” said David Bank, managing director of equity research for RBC Capital Markets. “There’s enough ad money out there to support these two platforms without being massively disruptive.”

The main reason media executives believe there are enough ad dollars in the sports TV market to support channels from ESPN, Fox, NBC, CBS and others is because sports advertising is as strong as it’s ever been, according to Brian Wieser, senior research analyst at the Pivotal Research Group.

“Advertisers have a growing appetite for sports programming in their mix of media buys,” Wieser said. “You can accomplish your media goals in sports with fewer units and less duplication.”

Bank agreed, saying that advertisers are enamored by the passionate and engaged fans who watch sports on TV. They also like the fact that sports are generally watched live, with little seen on a DVR when viewers can fast forward through commercial breaks.

“We all know that people are desperate to advertise on premium sports,” Bank said.

Ad buyers said Fox has been in the market with offers that bundle FS1 ad packages

“Advertisers have a growing appetite for sports programming in their mix of media buys,” says one analyst, something FS1 can supply.
with entertainment programming on its broadcast channel and other sports programming.

Meanwhile, ESPN came out of the upfront selling season more aggressively than in years past, trying to get advertisers to commit more of their budgets to the Disney-owned suite of sports networks. “They are trying to stop the competition before it starts,” Bank said.

But Bank said the launch of FS1 will have more of an effect on entertainment programming than other sports channels, such as ESPN and NBC Sports Network. “It’s more impactful for general market entertainment channels than existing sports channels,” he said.

FS1 will enter the market with branded nights of specific programming that should be advertiser-friendly. Wednesday nights will feature UFC events, Thursday nights will be programmed with college sports and Friday nights will be devoted to NASCAR.

“What we’re trying to do with prime time is really try to create some branded nights of programming where it’s easy for the viewer to remember what’s on that night,” Bill Wanger, Fox Sports Media Group’s executive vice president of programming and research, said earlier this month. “It will be marketed that way.”

That kind of programming strategy is key to helping FS1 differentiate itself from ESPN. Momentum Worldwide’s Weil says that he is counting on FS1 to be as different from ESPN as Fox News is from CNN.

“In news, Fox’s attitude is, ‘Here is what we are, like it or leave it,’” he said. “I think you’ll see them do the same thing in sports. Sports programming continues to be a safe place for advertisers, because you know that you’ll build a live audience.”

Octagon President Jeff Shifrin preached patience, saying he expects it to take years for FS1’s programming to get a foothold.

“Until Fox Sports 1 gets into chasing name talent or paying big rights for FS1, building your own sports properties for programming is one way to go,” Shifrin said. “But in my mind, that is the riskiest of all propositions. It took X Games around a decade to be a real success.”

From a talent perspective, the emergence of FS1 has been a boon, increasing salaries and demand for on-air talent. IMG’s Sandy Montag, who has represented bold-faced names such as Bob Costas and John Madden, believes Fox will make a dent in the sports TV market.

“It depends on how Fox defines success. They are not going to knock off ESPN, and I don’t think they expect to. ESPN is centered on a lot of the live sports programming they have. Fox, at least out of the gate, doesn’t,” he said. “My client, John Madden, was the first person hired by Fox Sports. They always had this attitude where they don’t care about convention. They aren’t afraid of trying anything new. Rupert Murdoch doesn’t care about losing a ton of money, as long as it’s an investment, the way NFL football was for them when they launched.”

Would Madden consider coming out of retirement to work on Fox? “I saw John last week and he’s not coming out of retirement for them or anyone,” Montag said with a laugh.