One week before the launch of Fox Sports 1 last August, the channel’s most recognizable talent, Regis Philbin, told the Los Angeles Times, “I think it’s time for ESPN to get a little competition, don’t you?”
That theme of Fox Sports 1 competing with ESPN proved to be irresistible to members of the business press, many of whom drew parallels with Fox News’ 1996 launch that took on an entrenched CNN.
But its audience is bigger and better than its predecessor Speed, and Fox Sports executives say that they are encouraged by the viewership trends they’ve seen during the last month as it has started to produce live NASCAR races on the channel for the first time.
“Our first goal was to do better with Fox Sports 1 than we were doing with Speed,” said Bill Wanger, Fox Sports Media Group’s executive vice president of programming, research and content strategy. “We achieved that.”
Wanger noted a number of other benefits to Fox Sports 1’s launch: added distribution and a younger, more advertiser friendly audience.
He pointed to Fox Sports 1’s distribution as a sign of where Fox Sports 1 is delivering more value than Speed. Fox Sports 1 is in 87 million homes and has signed long-term carriage deals with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T U-verse. That’s a healthy increase from the beginning of 2013, when Speed was in 81 million homes.
Wanger also cited viewership and demographic comparisons with Speed that tell a good story for the new channel. Fox Sports 1 has a bigger, younger, more affluent and more diverse audience than the former motorsports channel.
Fox Sports 1 is averaging 292,000 viewers in prime time from its Aug. 17 launch through Feb. 23, a figure that’s up 70 percent versus Speed from a corresponding time period a year earlier. Fox Sports 1’s viewership in the 18-to-49 prime-time demo averages 98,000 viewers, up 96 percent over Speed. The channel’s median age in prime time has dropped by more than three years to 47.7. And the median income of its prime-time audience is up 9 percent over Speed to $60,800.
Most encouraging to Fox Sports executives was the channel’s performance the week before the Daytona 500, when it posted its three biggest audiences and saw bigger numbers than the same programming on Speed last year.
“We’ve actually improved the performance of things like NASCAR,” Wanger said. “That’s always an important thing, to make sure you can get those key audiences to find the channel and to like the channel.”
Fox Sports 1 made a lot of noise in the run-up to its August launch, celebrating the launch of the country’s newest all-sports channels with parties, press conferences and daily announcements. Fox Sports 1’s first night of programming averaged 1.78 million viewers for a UFC event, out-rating ESPN on the night.
The ensuing months were much more subdued for the network, as it launched shows and produced events that drew relatively small audiences and studio shows that received mixed reviews. It’s no secret that the best TV ratings come from live events, and Fox Sports still has the rights to a lot of live sports that have yet to make an appearance on the channel. As those sports find their way onto Fox Sports 1’s schedule, executives expect to see ratings continue to increase.
“We’ve rolled out maybe half of our programming,” Wanger said. “We still have MLB to go. We still have Sprint Cup and Nationwide races next year. We get the U.S. Open and the other USGA events. We get the Women’s World Cup in 2015 and the men’s World Cup in 2018. We’re just getting started.”
But not all live events have performed well on the channel, particularly in college. This past season, its college football games averaged 529,000 viewers. Last season, a smaller package of games aired on FX and averaged 611,000 viewers.
|The Regis Philbin-anchored “Crowd Goes Wild” has fallen short of expectations, but executives expect studio-show viewership to rise.
Since its mid-August launch, Fox Sports executives have produced studio programming with the mandate to be different. Its studio shows have a different look and feel to the ones on ESPN or NBCSN.
Not all of them have found an audience, and Fox executives have not been shy about tinkering with them. Late last year, it took “Fox Soccer Daily” off its schedule. A spokesman said Fox is “still evaluating the show.” Fox also has tinkered with “Fox Sports Live,” which looks vastly different today from when it launched in August. It’s now more focused on highlights and less focused on panel discussions.
Fox executives say they are still committed to the studio shows, even though they haven’t registered with viewers yet. Through Feb. 16, the 11 p.m. ET edition of “Fox Sports Live” averaged just 83,000 viewers. During that same time period, the least-viewed 11 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter” still drew four times as many viewers to ESPN. That Nov. 17 edition of “SportsCenter” went up against the “Sunday Night Football” Chiefs-Broncos game and averaged 349,000 viewers.
Even its most heavily hyped shows have fallen flat, as during a Super Bowl week that was envisioned as a coming out party for the network, Philbin’s show, “Crowd Goes Wild,” averaged just 58,200 viewers per show.
“It’s too early to say that something hasn’t worked or something has definitively worked because we’re six months into this,” said David Nathanson, Fox Sports 1’s general manager and chief operating officer. “At this point, I don’t think the runway is long enough to make an accurate determination.”
Fox executives expect studio show viewership to increase, as the channel continues to roll out more high-profile live sports events. Following a NASCAR race last month, “Fox Sports Live” drew 2.2 million viewers and beat “SportsCenter” for the first time. Fox executives hope to have similar successes around additional NASCAR races and later this summer when it carries MLB games. Fox is committed to the channel and its executives stress that they plan to be patient with it. By the time the World Cup rolls around in 2018, they hope the channel will be part of every sports fan’s rotation.
“We knew that this would be a long haul in terms of establishing ourselves and becoming a viable alternative,” Wanger said. “We’re in the infant stage of this whole thing.”