The Sports Night Wars

The crew for Fox Sports Live, which will debut on August 17.
The crew for Fox Sports Live, which will debut on August 17.

The story that ESPN does not want you to read

Back in 1994, when the young Fox Network and its entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch got in on the sports action and acquired part of the vaunted National Football League television contract from the traditional CBS, writers and fans alike were aghast. The presumption was short-sighted but realistic at the time: How can we trust a network with (what was considered at the time) low brow programming like “In Living Color” and “Married With Children” to prove its relevancy simply by buying into the hearts and minds of NFL fans? Writers had field days with the mockery of what seemed like a short-term, shaky partnership where Bart Simpson would eventually tell John Madden to eat his shorts. With the new NFL deal in 1994 bred Fox Sports, and although it took a little while, the prime time programming on Fox eventually caught up with the galactic ratings of its NFL coverage to legitimately call itself one of the major TV networks in the United States. What was at one time considered at the lower par of the WB and UPN eventually climbed up the ratings ladder both in total viewership and demographics thanks to ratings successes like Fox News, “The Simpsons,”  “Family Guy,” “24,” and “American Idol.” But it was the NFL introducing the network to casual viewers (along with the familiar broadcast team of Madden and the late Pat Summerall) and its first Super Bowl broadcast in 1997 when the Packers beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI that set Fox Sports for life.

The NFL package, which has never left Fox since it debuted back then, was followed by short-lived deals with horse racing and the NHL and the 1996 introduction of Major League Baseball, which has made Fox the exclusive home for the World Series since 2000. They innovated their broadcasts with flavor and attitude that fit the new sensibilities of sports fandom in the highlight-friendly SportsCenter generation, but it also brought along with it incessant pop-up graphics, computer generated robots between commercial breaks, an insulting red tracker light to follow the puck in hockey games, and Tim McCarver in general. As the network’s ratings stabilized as the most watched weekly programming in the country along with the gigantic ratings boosts from the Super Bowl and the World Series, all the other sports organizations got crazy like a Fox. NASCAR enjoyed the peak of its ratings popularity on Fox (where Dale Earnhardt infamously died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500) while the NHL enjoyed record ratings for Wayne Gretzky’s last game in 1999. The 2001 World Series and 2004 American League Championship Series attracted record audiences for MLB while the Giants’ impossible upset over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII was, at the time, the most watched Super Bowl ever. The network saw the future in sports programming with the growing popularity of college sports and sprung in on that, too. They aired the BCS bowl games from 2006 to 2009, launched the Big Ten Network, acquired broadcast rights to Big XII and Pac-12 football and basketball, and has aired the Cotton Bowl for 15 years.

As Fox Sports has grown what was once seen as a whimsical farce into an empire of sports broadcasting, it now turns its full attention to one category that they have never thrived in: A 24-hour national sports network. In the beginning, Fox had foregone a full-blown attempt to combat with ESPN on the cable airwaves in favor of regional sports coverage. That is why you see many highlights of college football games, MLB games, and NBA games underneath the regional Fox graphics to this day. They have made a killing over the years in partnering at a local level with conferences and pro sports leagues, but the national programming was somewhat of a mess. Fox Sports Net had the jock-heavy “Best Damn Sports Show Period,” which had few moments of creativity along with a lot of “Who gives a shit?”. They did have names like Jim Rome and Stephen A. Smith in the fold before ESPN swallowed them up and made them household names. There were also sister networks like Speed, Fox Soccer, and Fuel TV, but those channels got lower ratings than FSN did. All of the national shows you would catch on Fox Sports Net looked like things you would catch in the fringe-dependent, faux-Gen X days of ESPN2. Shows like “Beyond the Glory” would become vividly outdated within years, Arena Football and TNA Wrestling had a cup of coffee there, and the only true standout show on the channel, “Sports Science,” also sold out to ESPN. By the time “Best Damn Sports Show” was canceled in 2009, Fox was in the driver’s seat in sports and prime time television, but they still had not hit the right note when it came to a mother ship channel… until this weekend.

August 17th will mark the day when we will see the official launch of Fox Sports One. If Fox Sports Net was the young son fooling around with the family money, Fox Sports One is the money-making daddy setting everything straight. What was once the Speed Channel on your channel guide will now be the haven for Fox Sports’ national television slate, and the executives in charge are pulling no punches this time around. After an epic promo hyping the channel’s debut, directed by Joseph Kahn, the first night will feature a live airing of UFC’s highly anticipated Shogun Rua/Chael Sonnen fight. The nightly flagship show from their headquarters in Los Angeles to counter ESPN’s SportsCenter will be Fox Sports Live, whose main anchors will be the fun-poking TSN duo of Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole. There will be daily programs for football, racing, and soccer, and even a variety show hosted by Regis Philbin titled “Crowd Goes Wild.” There are even rumors that Mike Tyson is developing a show for the new network. And unlike the previous incarnation where there was plenty of down time for Fox Sports Net, there will be no shortage of content for Fox Sports One. Along with the original programming will come MLB games, college sports galore, UFC fights offered on Wednesday nights, a newly inked deal with NASCAR that runs until 2024, and a stunning new contract with USGA to air the US Open for men’s and women’s golf. All of these upcoming telecasts will be followed by one of the biggest catches of them all: Broadcasting rights stateside for FIFA soccer and the men’s and women’s World Cup starting in 2015. Fox execs already have their sights set on the NBA when their TV deal expires in a few years. There are so many sporting events and shows anticipated that they will also launch at the same time Fox Sports 2, which will replace what was once known as Fuel TV.

Canadian anchors Onrait and O’Toole might seem like fresh faces for American audiences who are used to the onslaught of daily programming that the ESPN family of networks have thrown at us over the years, but Fox Sports One is going to have you covered in that department, too. The daily Fox Sports Live panels will include Charissa Thompson, who hosted ESPN’s popular Sportsnation show as recently as June, former players like Gary Payton, Andy Roddick, and Donovan McNabb, and the ushering of a college football pregame show featuring the popular Erin Andrews, who also left the Worldwide Leader of Sports, to battle her former show, College Gameday. Mike Hill left a nice spot on ESPN to go to FS1, while the immortal Bill Raftery, who coined one of the most famous catchphrases in ESPN’s history, will switch sides to team with Gus Johnson on all things college hoops, including the new Big East Conference. I am not even bringing up the star-studded personnel from the football and baseball ranks (Joe Buck, Michael Strahan, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jay Glazer) that Fox Sports already had at their disposal before this channel was even conceived. The new leaders of Fox Sports One know that viewers want an alternative to the plodding, star-humping nature of ESPN’s current shows, but they are also smart enough to know that you have to put some sizzle on that steak, as well. It should come as no shock that one of the forefathers of Fox Sports One, David Hill, is also a producer for two of the most celebrity-driven reality shows of our time, “American Idol” and “The X-Factor.”

However, as evident by the overwhelming market share that ESPN has eaten up in the sports television world before the network even debuts, there are still some daunting obstacles for Fox Sports One to overcome. The first one is the odd scenario in which Fox Sports One, taking the place of Speed, has yet to come to a carriage agreement with DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, or Dish Network to air the flagship station as of publication time. That would leave Fox Sports 2, the sister network formerly of Fuel TV, to be the first glimpse of the revamped lineup for many satellite TV subscribers while the network suits bicker over broadcasting fees for FS1. Most of these bitter carriage wars end in an agreement sooner or later, but the delay definitely has Fox Sports execs worried about losing the war with ESPN before it even begins. ESPN, the former little network that could and now loathed Goliath of sports programming, has not sat on its hands for the new launch, either. The network strategically brought back one-half of the beloved “Big Show” team of early 90’s SportsCenter by signing Keith Olbermann to a late night show on ESPN2 beginning August 26th. Alongside that will be a new NFL Insiders show hosted by Suzy Kolber. Not only does ESPN have, as John Skipper recently called it, “beachfront property” to spare in the escalating battle with Fox Sports, but it also has, along with the top-rated Monday Night Football exclusive rights, the most lucrative and anticipated American sports development in the last twenty years: The College Football Playoff. Fox and ESPN might be dabbling in the same ballparks to grab viewers in some cases, but ESPN still wins the day when it comes to viewership and availability (100 million homes versus the presumed 90 million for Fox Sports pending carriage agreements).

The other deep intrigue lost in the recent hype surrounding Fox Sports One’s renewed push to fight ESPN is the fact that they are not alone in the sports night war (or should we say “wars”). While ESPN and Fox have engaged in the ultimate dick-measuring contest in the past year, we have also witnessed the steady growth of NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network. The advent of these two channels bear almost as much irony and confusion as Fox Sports One does. NBC’s new cable network originally began as a hunting and fishing channel from Comcast called the Outdoor Life Network, and made a name for itself by airing the Tour De France when it was dominated on a yearly basis by Lance Armstrong. The network eventually grabbed the rights to the America’s Cup, the Boston Marathon, the Iditarod, and, in a move that shocked a lot of media types, the NHL television contract fresh off the heels of a yearlong lockout that scared ESPN away from renewing their hockey deal. WWF and ECW fans who searched frantically for The Nashville Network on their cable box back in 2000 know exactly how NHL fans felt about this turn of events. Comcast found a hot sports asset on its hands and rebranded the network as Versus. The newly named network did away with the deer rifles and fishing rods and put more emphasis on combat sports, college football and basketball, hockey, the Davis Cup, IndyCar and Formula One racing, the now-defunct UFL, and a variety of different sports. When Comcast bought out NBC Universal in 2011, the writing was on the wall that Versus would become the flagship cable network for NBC Sports in the near future. That vision is exactly what came true and by the beginning of 2012, Versus became the NBC Sports Network with all of NBC’s sports rights (and, in some cases, Bob Costas and Dan Patrick) for the channel’s use. NBCSN took full advantage last summer by attracting plenty of eyeballs as part of NBC’s coverage for the London Olympics. They even pulled a fast one on ESPN by signing up one of their most popular personalities, Sportsnation’s Michelle Beadle, to star in her own variety show called “The Crossover.”

Then there is CBS Sports Network, or, as employee and PTBN founder Scott Criscuolo proudly calls it, “The Eye.” The network was originally a brainchild of Fusient Media Ventures, who also created Classic Sports Network and many wrestling fans will remember as the group who, along with Eric Bischoff, tried to buy WCW from Turner in 2001 before it was sold to Vince McMahon. After a successful sale of Classic Sports Network to ESPN (which is now called ESPN Classic), Fusient in 2003 created College Sports Television, also known as CSTV. I have a vague memory of CSTV, but I remember quite a few random replays of football games from yesteryear and unheralded college sports like volleyball, lacrosse, and hockey. Two years later, Brian Badol and Stephen D. Greenberg struck gold a second time by selling CSTV for over $300 million to CBS. When we last left CBS in 1994, they were out on the mat after losing their NFL contract to Fox Sports, which launched that channel as a national TV contender. But five years later, Les Moonves bought his way back into the NFL fold (where they still remain to this day) and helped push the prime time programming to make what was once seen as an archaic, behind-the-times network the most watched one in the country by 2005, when CBS bought CSTV. The network was renamed CBS College Sports Network in 2008, and alongside the available NCAA Basketball Tournament coverage and the golden era of SEC football, which CBS has carried for many years, the channel began to uptick. Along with the football and basketball would be dabbled in sports like baseball, lacrosse, hockey, mid-major conferences, and even Ultimate Frisbee.

The transition to the more streamlined CBS Sports Network was, like a lot of CBS’s moves in the past decade, a lot smoother and less intrusive than Fox Sports One or NBC Sports Network. What was once envisioned as a 24-hour getaway for the college sports fan branched out into all walks of sports, both college and professional, under the wing of CBS’ expansive network coverage. Now there was a spillover for events like PGA Golf, tennis, the NBA Developmental League, Arena Football, and even pro volleyball to mix it up with the amateurs on CBSSN. While the personalities who cover the sports on the network (Adam Zucker, Brian Jones, Tracy Wolfson) are not as bombastic or ear-perky as the ones you will see on ESPN or Fox, CBS Sports Network comes with a sort of traditional classiness that you find lacking in a lot of sports shows that have more hot air than a Goodyear blimp. The mass exodus of ESPN talents also made a pit stop at CBS Sports Network as we have seen the likes of Dana Jacobson, Doug Gottlieb (who has already gotten into a little bit of trouble), and Bruce Feldman jump from Bristol to “The Eye.”

 The one fear for CBS and NBC Sports Network, even after years of pre-existence compared to Fox Sports One and Fox Sports Two, is the fact that despite the network association, ratings for those two channels have been quite meek compared to the monster numbers that ESPN produces. There is a reason why ESPN is upping the ante now that Fox Sports is puffing its chest while it basically lied in wait during the launches of the other two networks: There was not much competition to offer, and that disadvantage has been from the get-go. NBC Sports Network is available in 20 million less homes than ESPN (I cannot get NBC Sports Network on Dish Network even after paying extra for the NFL RedZone package), and CBS Sports Network has topped off recently at 50 million, far lower than the other three cable stations. CBS executives are pushing hard to get to the 90 million number that NBC Sports Network is nearing and Fox Sports One has already set up for itself upon launch, but the network still has a long road to travel despite being supported by Viacom and the most watched network on TV.

On top of this newly revised four-way fight for viewership in the cable sports ranks is not only the ultra-fragmentation of audiences thanks to mobile apps and instantly downloadable content across all digital platforms, but also the fact that the sports leagues THEMSELVES have sunk their hands into the money pit. Not only do almost all the major college conferences have their own hefty network deals to lavish in, including the Mountain West and the still-mind-boggling Longhorn Network, all four major pro sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) have their own major networks and have exclusive rights to tons of different programs. The NFL has done fans one better by not only airing the much-watched Thursday night games on the NFL Network, but also adding the addictive NFL RedZone package I mentioned, where you can see every big moment in every game without even changing the friggin’ channel! Renowned  journalists like Peter Gammons and David Aldridge, outspoken Hall of Fame players like Deion Sanders and Charles Barkley, and ESPN castaways like Harold Reynolds and Melissa Stark flood the airwaves on these official league networks to steal eyeballs from the corporation-affiliated ones we have been familiar with for so long. Even network news is jumping into the fray. Even after CNNSI, the first true 24-hour sports network to try to compete with ESPN in 1997, which got the axe in 2002, Jeff Zucker plans to give it another try by giving former ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols a showcase weekend sports program later this year. I did not even mention the expansions of the Golf Channel, the Tennis Channel, and ESPNU.

All of these different branches sprouting on the same oak tree of sports consumption has seemed to lead to the proper theory that there is an undying, monstrous hunger in fans for all things sports on nearly a minute-by-minute basis. But there has to be a fear that with this rapid cable TV arms race to take as many viewers as possible from the wrench of the domineering ESPN, we might be losing a bit of ourselves as sports fans by spreading the butter too thin on what is looking like the largest piece of toast you will ever see. Certainly Fox Sports One could hit the zeitgeist of sports fandom with a nightly duo that might duplicate the fun-loving style that Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann mastered in Bristol back in the 90’s. But now that you have Olbermann himself competing with that highlight show along with the growing coverage of NBC and CBS Sports Network, the nightly recaps for hardcore fans on the league networks, and the complex overlapping of all of these different sports properties jumping from network to network… it starts to make your head hurt. The launch of Fox Sports One this weekend, like the introduction of Fox Sports into the mainstream in 1994, is definitely a good thing for sports fans because, as any wrestling fan will gladly tell you, competition always brings out the best work in people. But in the case of pro wrestling, the number of companies battling to be the last one standing topped out at three. With SO many different networks biding for our sports time when we sit on the couch and just want to watch a good game, one has to ask: Is this too much of a good thing?