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Fox Goes Full Speed Ahead To Take On ESPN In Battle For Sports Fans, Marketers

By Barry Janoff

March 6, 2013: Executives from Fox gathered in New York on Tuesday to talk business, but it was sports that was top of mind.

The media company officially unveiled plans to convert its Speed channel to Fox Sports 1 on Aug. 17 and said that 24/7 programming would be led by Major League Baseball, Nascar, UFC, soccer and college football and basketball.

It also said that, like ESPN, which Fox has in its crosshairs with this emboldened move, Fox Sports 1 would include sports news and investigative programming, and would also have such attractions as TV icon Regis Philbin, who will host a live weekday show, Rush Hour.

"It's going to take us a while, and we're aware of this fact," David Hill, chairman for Fox Sports said during the media event. "We're not expecting to knock ESPN off in the first week or two. It's going to be a solid slog."

Executives said that Fox Sport 1 would initially be available in 90 million homes and offer some 5,000 hours of live programming in the first year. The launch coincides with the 20th anniversary in 2014 of Fox Sports.

ESPN, which hit the airwaves in 1979 and changed the face of sports and entertainment programming, reaches along with sibling ESPN 2 more than 98 million homes. The company also has several other adjunct destinations such as ESPN Desportes, ESPN 3, ESPNU and ESPN 3D, which along with ESPN and ESPN 2 have a combined 30,000 hours of live programming, according to industry analysts. It also has on its side the global reach of parent company Disney.

"We believe we've amassed enough live events and can package and put programming around it where we can have scale," said Randy Freer, FSMG co-president and co-COO. "We can have significance. We can be a major player in the market."

Executives were looking at Super Bowl XLVIII, which will air on Fox this February from MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, as an event of global proportions to help the Fox Sports Media Group spread the word about Fox Sports 1.

FS1 itself does not have a deal to air NFL games, which leaves it short in a significant area in its quest to cut into ESPN and its Monday Night Football audience. But it will air Fox Football Daily and feature such NFL on Fox personalities as Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw and former ESPN staffer Erin Andrews.

Philbin and Bradshaw were among the personalities in attendance.

“Building credibility and trust with our audience is paramount, so naturally we’ll provide the staples, like news, scores and highlights, but we’ll do it in a Fox Sports way,” said Eric Shanks, Fox Sports Media Group co-president and co-COO. “Just as Fox NFL Sunday reinvented the pregame show, Fox Sports Live [will break] new ground in the way sports news is presented. We already have the home-team advantage of significant audiences watching local games on our 22 regional sports networks as a platform to launch our new national news.”

ESPN also brings to the table the NBA, which Fox and FS1 do not have. But Fox executives do have two strong alliances that come with profound and potentially growing fan bases: Nascar and UFC.

FS1 programming on Aug. 17 launch day is scheduled to be anchored by the Nascar Camping World Truck Series VFW 200 race at Michigan International Speedway and a prime time UFC match.

Fox owns rights to numerous college football and hoops games from the Big 12, Pac-12 and Conference USA. In soccer, Fox has the rights to both the men's and women's FIFA World Cups from 2015-22, which come with a formidable TV audience and international reach, as well as the UEFA Champions League.

"It's going to take us a while, and we're aware of this fact. We're not expecting to knock ESPN off in the first week or two. It's going to be a solid slog."

MLB will be added in 2014 and Nascar Sprint Cup races could be added by 2015, per Fox.

According to Shanks, “Fans are ready for an alternative to the establishment, and our goal for FS1 is to provide the best in-game experience possible, complemented by informative news, entertaining studio shows and provocative original programming.”

“As a company we haven’t been afraid to innovate and take well-calculated risks,” said Freer. “We’ve devoted significant resources over the last few years to acquire and/or extend multi-platform rights with a wide variety of leagues and governing bodies well into the next decade, enough to give us a rich schedule right out of the box.”

None the less, Fox executives know that they have a formidable task ahead of them.

"ESPN, quite frankly, is a machine," said Bill Wanger, evp for Fox Sports. "They have very consistent ratings, obviously huge revenue. We're coming in trying to take on the establishment. 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."

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