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Volume 20 No. 45


Fox Sports President Eric Shanks says the strategy remains despite departure of Jamie Horowitz.
Fox Sports’ programming strategy will not change one bit after Jamie Horowitz’s stunning and sudden dismissal last week in the wake of a sexual harassment probe.

That’s the main message from Fox Sports President Eric Shanks, who in his first public comments since Horowitz’s firing spoke to SportsBusiness Journal about the company’s plans to move forward without one of its highest profile executives. Shanks said he was more perplexed than angry by press reports last week that painted Fox Sports as a company in disarray. He especially pushed back on reports of low morale among the company’s rank and file.

“There’s been an odd re-energizing to succeed and execute our playbook,” Shanks said. “We have a great team here that has bought into our strategy. … It’s tough to find people who are walking around and moping.”

Citing the fact that Fox Sports and Horowitz have retained lawyers, Shanks did not offer any comments on Horowitz’s departure or the sexual harassment probe that is ongoing at the company. But Shanks was eager to dispute the narrative that Horowitz’s departure has left a sports division that is rudderless and unsure of its future.

In fact, Shanks said that he is in no hurry to fill Horowitz’s role, which carried the title of president of national networks when he left. Fox hired Horowitz two years ago to strengthen its daytime studio lineup. Horowitz responded by ditching news and highlights in favor of debate programming. In October, Horowitz expanded his Fox Sports empire by overseeing digital, too.

Shanks has taken over many of Horowitz’s responsibilities and has met with the talent, many of whom have a tremendous amount of loyalty to Horowitz, such as Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless, who Horowitz convinced to leave ESPN for Fox.

“We have a team in place at FS1 that is executing at a really high level,” Shanks said. “At this point, I’m not looking to fill the position.”

As Fox Sports’ president, Shanks stressed that he oversaw the development of FS1’s strategy and owns all of the decisions that were made during Horowitz’s two-year stint. He referenced Fox’s upfront presentation, which highlighted the network’s sports programming much more heavily than in the past.

“Everyone here has set this strategy and vision,” Shanks said. “We have the playbook right in front of us. We are recommitting ourselves to execute the playbook that we started.”

That means Fox Sports Digital will continue to pursue a strategy to emphasize video that promotes their television personalities. The strategy resulted in around 20 layoffs of writers and editors last month, a move overseen by Horowitz but completely backed by Shanks.

“That was a strategic decision totally endorsed by me and the entire company,” Shanks said. “Our unique consumer proposition is that we make premium video.”

There is no part of Fox Sports that Shanks is ready to switch now that Horowitz is gone. That means FS1 shows such as “Undisputed” and “Speak For Yourself” will continue to be a focal point for Fox Sports.

“At its core, these are high-profile, credible personalities that people enjoy watching on television,” Shanks said. “The idea of ‘Embrace Debate’ really has been overplayed. Good TV is good TV.”

It also means that the morning show “First Things First” will launch with Nick Wright and Cris Carter this fall, as scheduled. The show will be based in New York, and Shanks said he is committed to “making sure that our shows have all the resources that they need.”

In the days after Horowitz’s dismissal last week, some Fox executives privately expressed hope that the company’s business priorities will move away from Horowitz’s pet projects.

Horowitz had a force of personality, and Fox’s strategy fell in line with his. For example, many Fox Sports staffers reacted in anger this January when Fox ran a promo for Skip Bayless’ midmorning FS1 show during the NFC Championship game.

The game drew a whopping 46 million viewers, ranking as Fox’s second-biggest audience of the year behind only the Super Bowl. With commercials going for $1.75 million per 30 seconds, some executives questioned why Fox’s brass would give such valuable real estate to a show that only draws around 100,000 viewers on FS1’s daytime schedule.

The answer went back to Horowitz, the brash, young executive who was an aggressive defender of FS1’s Embrace Debate strategy. At the time, several Fox employees grumbled that these types of moves resulted more from the force of Horowitz’s personality than well-thought out business decisions.

But Shanks said the buck stops with him on those decisions. His message to Fox employees shaken by Horowitz’s exit is simple.

“We’re going to be defined by how we react to this and how we move on from this,” he said.

The most sought after job in sports media this summer will be the one vacated by Jamie Horowitz last week. Right now, Fox Sports President Eric Shanks is taking over all of Horowitz’s responsibilities, including programming, marketing and scheduling for FS1, FS2 and Fox Sports Digital. As he starts looking for Horowitz’s replacement, here are six internal candidates who will have the best chance of getting the position.

1) Bill Wanger, executive vice president of programming, research and content strategy, Fox Sports
Wanger is the most likely hire if Shanks promotes internally. Many Fox insiders say Wanger does not get enough credit for coming up with the idea to relaunch Speed as FS1. Wanger would provide a stark contrast to how Horowitz ran the network. A longtime Fox executive who hasn’t had a whiff of a scandal in his 28 years at the company, Wanger would bring level-headed stability to the position, which is something Fox brass wants to see.

2) Mark Silverman, president, Big Ten Network
Fox brass would love to convince the well-regarded Silverman to move from Chicago to take this job. But it would take a Herculean sales job to convince Silverman to take a job so heavily focused on studio production, especially considering that he currently runs everything from ad sales and affiliate relations to live event production at BTN.

3) John Entz, president, production, Fox Sports
A high-flier in the Fox offices, Entz is entrusted with all of the network’s live event production, including pregames and postgames. Adding FS1’s studio production and Fox Sports Digital to the mix would be a big job for one executive. Expect Shanks to keep these jobs separate.

4) David Nathanson, head of business operations, Fox Sports
Before Horowitz, Nathanson had the title of general manager and chief operating officer for FS1 and FS2. He has been relatively quiet for the past two years. But Nathanson is well-regarded and could be trusted to bring stability to the network.

5) Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president, research, league operations and strategy, Fox Sports
Mulvihill, whose L.A. office is next to the one used by Horowitz, is a long shot for the position. But he is well-regarded on the Fox lot and is being groomed for a bigger position at the network.

6) Henry Ford, senior vice president and general manager, Fox RSNs
Shanks also could look at Fox’s regional sports networks, which is where Ford would be at the front of the line. He’s another long shot, but in overseeing Fox’s RSNs in Southern California, Ford has the experience necessary to head up FS1.

David Hill’s message to sports TV networks: Adapt or die.
Hill, of course, is the executive who founded Fox Sports more than two decades ago and retired from 21st Century Fox in 2015. He’s a true visionary in the business, always seeming to stay one step ahead of the trends.

I was surprised by his answer when I asked him to identify the sports media story he’s following most closely. Hill answered with far more pessimism about sports TV than I was expecting, going so far as to describe the business as living through “crumbling sounds of the foundations upon which everything is built.”

“Sports and the entire sports industry are acting like it’s 1971,” he said. “This is a period of time that is going to determine the future of virtually every sport. If they get it wrong now, they could go the way of velodrome cycling and boxing and, to a large extent, tennis.”

Hill’s point is that consumers’ viewing habits are changing, while sports TV productions and the games they cover have remained static for decades.

This week, Hill will test that theory as he produces a darts competition for FS1. The PDC World Series of Darts North American Championship is scheduled for July 13-15 on FS1. The Las Vegas event will be shown on tape delay, airing after midnight.

"It's going to be a hell of a lot of fun," Hill says of the event he'll produce for FS1. 

Hill will sit alongside his longtime Fox Sports colleague, the producer/director George Greenberg, to produce the event. Chris Myers will host.

“George and I will produce it like we would anything on Fox Sports,” Hill said. “We’ll see what happens. Unless we try it, we’re never going to know if there’s any appeal.”

For years, U.S. TV networks have looked for “the next poker” — a genre of untested programming that generates relatively big ratings and ad dollars, while being a low-cost programming option. Other networks, like ESPN, have tried darts in the past on the theory that it’s similar to poker. Darts, though, didn’t get much traction.

But Hill believes the viewing public has changed enough that an eight-minute darts match could be popular.

“It’s just going to be a hell of a lot of fun,” he said. “I think it’s something that’s got a better than a break-even chance of working, given the fact that this is the most crowded sports market in the world. If poker can find a niche, darts can, too, given that it’s now become this worldwide phenomenon.”

Darts events are popular in England and have attracted crowds of more than 10,000.

Televised darts is popular in international markets like the United Kingdom, where Sky Sports produced more than 1,000 hours of coverage in 2015. In fact, the World Darts Championship was the most-watched, non-soccer event on Sky. Darts tournaments in England have attracted crowds in excess of 10,000, Hill said.

Hill believes programming like darts will fare much better than sports afternoon studio shows that have been garnering a lot of press.

Speaking a week before Fox Sports fired Jamie Horowitz — the architect of FS1’s “Embrace Debate” strategy — Hill bemoaned the amount of attention devoted to afternoon studio programming on both ESPN and FS1, saying that their audience size doesn’t warrant so much attention.

“Do you realize that 110,000 people watch these shows out of a potential audience of 300 million,” Hill said. “That gives you some idea how irrelevant it all is. People don’t care.”

In February, Hill became involved with esports, which is where he sees the biggest potential. ESL hired him in February to help develop video around the company’s esports tournaments. For ESL, the move advances both live competition coverage and creates stories around the sport’s biggest personalities and issues.

Hill believes the biggest sports leagues and their TV partners would be wise to study how effective esports has been in tailoring its content for younger viewers.

“This is a different generation,” he said. “They are not observers like their parents or grandparents. They are participants. They can get in and play the game, therefore they want to watch it.”

Hill spoke about the need to make games shorter to better appeal to younger viewers. But he said TV changes need to go beyond that.

“The TV networks need to worry more about their customers,” he said. “Are they emotionally engaged with your customer, or not? For most of them there is no emotional involvement.”

Hill sees darts programming as an easy risk. He compared it to the first time he got involved in poker programming two decades earlier when his friend Barry Hearn provided footage from a tournament on the Isle of Man. Hearn also is working with Hill on the darts tournament.

“I had a full day of programming on Thanksgiving and I had nothing to put in it,” Hill said. “Barry called up and said, ‘I’m doing a million quid poker game from the Isle of Man. Do you want to take it?’ I said, ‘If it’s over four hours, yes, because that means I can just give everyone the day off and we can just bring it in.’”

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

ACE Media, the NFL Players Association’s content arm, has several new projects in the works, including for the first time a scripted show as well as one featuring Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s camps for kids.

It’s also looking to relaunch its popular “Catching Kelce” show, which originally was a dating show starring Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce that aired on E! This time a different player would date women from all 50 states.

Additionally, ACE has signed new deals with Amazon and a new digital platform called CampusLore that is set to launch at the end of August. ACE is collaborating with both companies on creating concepts, suggesting players and bringing the concepts to reality by providing assistance on the logistics and the production end.

For Amazon, ACE shot a Father’s Day-themed video with five rookies talking about their relationship with their fathers. For CampusLore, ACE is filming NFL players, including rookies Leonard Fournette and Deshaun Watson, talking about their college football careers.

ACE Media

Launched: September 2015
Headquarters: Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles
Number of Employees: 5
What they do: Develop, identify and produce content opportunities across all genres and
platforms for athletes.

Turner Sports/ Bleacher Report
Sports Illustrated
Warner Bros.
EA Sports

“Catching Kelce” (E!)
“Trading Playlists” (Spotify)
“Take It to the House” (Bleacher Report)
“Player Hangouts” (Fanatics)
“Branding U” (Above Average)
Players Voice Awards (National Basketball Players Association)

In short, business is booming for ACE as it enters its second full year of operation.

Since launching in September 2015, the company has produced 1,300 content projects using 900 athletes, including not just NFL players but basketball, hockey and soccer players. ACE also has worked with 30 media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, The Players’ Tribune and Turner Sports’ Bleacher Report.

For its first full fiscal year, which ended in February, ACE generated revenue of more than $2.1 million, up from about $125,000 for its first seven months of operations.

Rory Brown, Bleacher Report president, has found ACE’s content focus to be “a pretty compelling idea.” For Bleacher Report, covering the NFL is a year-round business and getting unique content is vital. Before ACE — short for Athlete Content & Entertainment — Bleacher Report’s focus was on the league’s biggest stars, such as Tom Brady and Cam Newton, and players who had gotten into trouble, Brown said.

“You have this huge majority of players who are extremely talented athletes, the best at what they do with passionate fans at the team level, but they are not necessarily national names, national brands,” Brown said. “You have to bridge that gap and try to figure out how to connect a lot of these players with opportunities in the media.”

Starting out with a one-year deal that has since been extended to a multiyear arrangement, ACE helped Bleacher Report by providing talent for a series called “Take It to the House.” The show, sponsored by Samsung, featured NFL players like Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller showing off their homes. (Miller has a super-swank basement with three big-screen TVs, an arcade, a pool table and a huge tropical fish tank.)

Bleacher Report has relationships with players and agents, but ACE was “a one-stop shop” in lining up the players to produce the content, Brown said, adding that he wished other unions provided that kind of access to players.

Less than two years old, ACE Media has provided athletes from a variety of sports with a platform for their creative ideas and content.
Photo by: ACE MEDIA

The relationship provides more than just access. “They are very good at conveying the opportunity to the players,” Brown said. “You have the players reaching out to us with opportunities and ideas and ways to collaborate, versus it just being a one-sided conversation where we are just reaching out.”

Ahmad Nassar, NFL Players Inc. president and chairman of ACE Media, said part of the idea behind the company was to find a platform to showcase players’ off-field pursuits and personalities. ACE was filming Prescott’s camps earlier this summer, which he held for 2,400 first- to eighth-grade boys and girls in his hometown of Shreveport, La.; his college home, Starkville, Miss.; and his NFL city, Dallas.

Prescott said his camps are his way of giving back to the communities that gave him so much and is something he wanted to capture and share.

“It’s important for athletes to have a direct hand in the content we’re in,” Prescott said, “and ACE provides that opportunity for me and other athletes to control and own our story and tell it our way.”

Now that will extend to its first scripted show, a “feel-good drama” about the life of an NFL player that has some high-profile players involved as executive producers, ACE Media CEO Scott Langerman said.

“What will probably happen is we will do sort of cameos with real players,” Langerman said. “The star of the show and the main character of the show will be a football player, but he would be cast. He would be an actor.”

ACE is working with a production partner that has a “first-look” deal with one of the networks, which Langerman didn’t identify. If that network passes, ACE and the production partner will shop it to other networks.

The NFLPA has long been interested in exposing its rank-and-file players to the public and to reveal what kinds of people they are off the field. Years ago, the players association subsidized a show called “Helmets Off” on Fox Sports Net, but it wasn’t a success. “We stopped doing it because it was expensive,” Nassar said.

At the same time, social media and digital platforms were exploding, as was the appetite for NFL players, so union officials decided to form a company that was both a content creator and a content facilitator.

Nassar said ACE is in three lines of business: executive production, strategic consulting and logistics and administration. ACE was an executive producer for “Catching Kelce,” for which it received a fee. It has served as a strategic consultant for Bleacher Report and other companies.

An example of the third line of business is how ACE worked with ABC to supply NFL players for “Celebrity Family Feud.”

“I asked them, ‘Why does ABC want to work with ACE on something like ‘Celebrity Family Feud?’” Nassar said. “And the answer, I thought, was very telling. It was, ‘We wouldn’t really do this on our own because of the manpower needed to get those 10 players in the same place at the same time with all the different reps.’ We handle all of that.”

A recent project involves NFL players and pro wrestlers going head-to-head in the “Madden” video game.
Photo by: ACE MEDIA
Langerman, meanwhile, says the type of content that ACE creates or helps create falls in three distinct buckets: scripted and unscripted television shows, short-hit digital content, and branded content. An example of branded content is something ACE worked on with both EA and WWE: an internet show in which NFL players took on WWE wrestlers in the “Madden” video game.

Branded content “is the one that may have surprised me the most in terms of how much opportunity there is,” Langerman said. “The economic model, especially digitally, is moving in that direction. I think that will become a bigger and bigger piece of our business going forward.”

NFLPA President Eric Winston said players wanted to create a vehicle to help bring their ideas to fruition while still making money. But the amount of opportunities, and the variety, surprised everyone involved.

“When we rolled it out it was like, ‘Let’s just see what happens,’” Winston said. “It’s been extraordinary, the amount of demand, and we have to pick our path and figure out where we want to go with it.”