Will Baseball's Playoffs Give Fox Sports 1 a Win?

Despite its best ratings, the new network trails ESPN by a mile

Madison Bumgarner
Photograph by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
When 21st Century Fox announced Fox Sports 1, a 24-hour cable sports network, in March 2013, it wasn’t shy about its ambition: to go one-on-one with Walt Disney’s ESPN. “We’re coming in trying to take on the establishment,” Bill Wanger, Fox Sports Media Group’s executive vice president for programming, said then at a news conference. “It’s no different than Fox News or Fox Broadcasting back in the ’80s. We’re going to have to scratch and claw our way all the way to the top.”

This fall, with a push from Major League Baseball’s playoffs, the upstart network offered its strongest challenge yet. According to Nielsen data provided by Horizon Media, Game 2 of the National League Championship Series between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 12 drew an average 4.4 million viewers, the largest audience for Fox Sports 1 since its debut in August 2013. Fox had negotiated the right to put some playoff games on its yet-to-launch cable network when it signed an eight-year TV deal with MLB in 2012. That foresight is now paying dividends. Through Oct. 12, playoff games have notched six of Fox Sports 1’s 10 most-watched shows and topped all of cable in prime-time ratings three times, surpassing even ESPN. “We always knew that postseason baseball and the whole month of October was going to be big for the network,” says David Nathanson, general manager and chief operating officer of Fox Sports 1. “We’re very pleased with where we are right now.”

The network still trails ESPN by a wide margin. Since Fox Sports 1 went on the air, ESPN has reached an average audience of at least 4 million for 133 telecasts. Its peak audience during that stretch was 25.6 million for college football’s championship game between Auburn University and Florida State University this past January. The network’s National Football League games on Monday nights routinely draw more than 10 million viewers. Fox Sports 1 has attracted about a tenth of ESPN’s audience so far, with an average viewership of 116,000 per telecast compared with more than 1 million for ESPN during the same span.

Ratings influence the monthly per-subscriber fees the two networks demand from cable and pay-TV carriers. According to SNL Kagan, ESPN charges an average $6.04 per subscriber, and Fox Sports 1 gets 68¢.

Fox knows it has a long way to go to catch ESPN, the pioneer of the 24-hour sports cable format and the most valuable brand in sports television. At a media conference in September, 21st Century Fox Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey joked that even he sometimes forgets about his own network and turns on ESPN. “Launching a new live sports network is a tall task,” says Chris Bevilacqua, co-founder of sports media consulting firm Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures. “It’s going to take a number of years before they really start humming.” The network, he says, needs to renegotiate its deals with cable companies to raise its subscriber fees and get better placement on the channel menu. “They’ve got to condition a sports audience that’s been very used to going to ESPN,” he says.

Most of all, Fox Sports 1 needs more marquee live sports events to add to its portfolio of MLB, Nascar, college football and basketball, and Ultimate Fighting. Almost all of the most-watched programs for Fox Sports 1 and ESPN are live contests. The few studio shows that break into the top listings are either leading into or coming out of those events. “Sports is about live programming,” says Tom McGovern, president of the sports marketing division at Omnicom Media Group, “which will drive viewership to other shows.” Fox Sports 1 is using baseball to introduce viewers to its nightly highlights show, Fox Sports Live, by running 30-second updates from the show’s anchors during games.

The network recently acquired the rights to the U.S. Open golf tournament and will also likely get boosts from the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada next year and the men’s World Cup in Russia in 2018. Yet now that Disney and Time Warner’s Turner Sports have extended their broadcast deal with the National Basketball Association through 2025, the most valuable sports rights are locked up into the next decade. The true indicator that ESPN has a new rival, says Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, will be if Fox Sports 1 can win the rights to the National Hockey League, NBA, and NFL. Those deals would be home runs. Until then, Fox Sports 1 will have to keep hitting singles.

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