For at least one generation of sports fans there’s only one Worldwide Leader in Sports, and the rest of the bunch sometimes offers programs when they have exclusive programming deals. However, the analysis, wrap-ups, and best highlight packages will come from Bristol, Connecticut, home of Disney’s (NYSE:DIS) ESPN headquarters. But 21st Century Fox’s (NASDAQ:FOXA) new sports network, which debuted August 17, hopes to change that perception.
Fox Sports 1 is gunning for ESPN, and it isn’t shy about doing so. Viewers of sports coverage in the past weeks have been treated to bold announcements at the bottom of their screens as Fox served notice that its new network was ready to do damage to the almighty ESPN brand. According to estimates reported by Bloomberg, the stakes for sports programming are unbelievably high.
In fact, ESPN posted 70 percent of Disney’s operating income – nearly $4 billion in total – from its cable networks, according to figures Wedge Partners provided for the news outlet. While most viewers of sports networks are unlikely to swiftly shift alliances, Fox has already made some positive moves in its coverage of weekly baseball games on its main network.
Instead of continuing with its lackluster pre-game panel for Fox Saturday Baseball, Fox began bringing in MLB Network announcers and commentators last year. From Greg Amsinger and Matt Vasgersian to former player Harold Reynolds and Kevin Millar, the network improved its coverage with fresh faces and a different approach. The retirement of commentator Tim McCarver at the end of the 2013 MLB season will provide an opportunity to raise the profile of Fox across the board, which will help its fledgling network.
Still, Fox Sports 1 seems focused on the country’s highest-grossing sport, NFL football. Fox is introducing NFL Insiders as well as increasing its coverage of College Game Day to three hours, Bloomberg reports. While that may seem like a lot of pre-game chatter, there is apparently a receptive market among tailgating students and fans. ESPN, meanwhile, is not playing the arrogant monarch in this competition.
According to Bloomberg, the sports giant is opening a studio that will host SportsCenter in a facility double the size of the current one. In addition, the hiring of high-profile figures like Keith Olbermann can be viewed as an attempt to steal the thunder of the ascendant Fox Sports 1.
According to Nielsen figures, Fox Sports 1 had more than 600,000 viewers its opening week, a number that was more than one-third of the ESPN audience during that time. In essence, that is exactly the type of performance Fox executives hope to achieve in coming years. According to a report by the Washington Post, any significant bite out of the enormous ESPN pie would represent a coup for 21st Century Fox.
Michael Weisman, a veteran producer for both Fox and NBC, told the Post that a little would mean a lot. According to Weisman, the executives of Fox are likely telling themselves, “Hmmm, they’re making a lot of money [at ESPN] … even if we don’t make the billions that ESPN is making, we can still make a very nice profit center.”