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Volume 22 No. 14
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David Hill thinks darts might hit bull’s-eye as sports television

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.