Fox Sports 1 aims to get ESPN watchers to switch channels

“I think it’s time for ESPN to get a little competition, don’t you?”

That tough talk is coming from an unlikely source — 81-year-old Regis Philbin. The former daytime television talk show host and David Letterman foil is one of the faces of Fox Sports 1, the cable network launching Saturday that is the latest David looking to knock off ESPN’s Goliath.

Given that Philbin is more accustomed to speaking to housewives and is more than twice as old as the viewers Fox Sports 1 is hoping to attract, his hiring seems unusual to say the least.

“It is a bit out of left field, but that’s what we do,” said Fox Sports Co-President Eric Shanks of the hiring of Philbin to host “Crowd Goes Wild,” an afternoon round table that will also feature former Baltimore Raven Trevor Pryce, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay and Katie Nolan, best known for her racy sports-related YouTube videos.

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Even Philbin acknowledged surprise when the offer came. “I never thought I would be on an hour-long sports show,” he said, adding he wasn’t even aware Fox was launching the channel when he was asked to meet with Shanks.

Since then, the hard-core Notre Dame football and New York Yankees fan has been taking a crash course on the rest of the sports world. “From now on I’m going to have to keep my eye on everything,” he said, adding that he’d spent the day reading about Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers slugger suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs.

The launch of Fox Sports 1 and smaller sister channel Fox Sports 2 highlights the dominant and growing role sports is playing in the modern television industry. At a time when broadcast and cable networks are struggling to keep viewers in front of the television and off the Internet, sports has become their surefire antidote to Web surfing and cord-cutting.

Fox, which has made a career out of taking on giants, first with its broadcast network and later with its cable news channel, will be starting this fight with one hand tied behind its back. Fox Sports 1 still doesn’t have distribution deals locked up with some of the nation’s biggest pay-TV operators, including Time Warner Cable and DirecTV. There’s a good chance that when Fox Sports 1 goes live Aug. 17 with a NASCAR race that much of Los Angeles won’t be able to see it (or the sports on CBS for that matter, but that’s another story).

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And the competition is formidable. “It is not a hill they have to climb, it’s the Grand Canyon,” said Mark Shapiro, a former ESPN executive. “ESPN has built such a big moat around itself the Russian army of the Cold War couldn’t get in.”

Moreover, while no one in sports broadcasting likes to hear it, there is not exactly a shortage of product out there. When ESPN launched in 1979, the consensus was there weren’t enough sports or fans to sustain a 24-hour cable network.

Flash forward 34 years and now the sports that critics used to make fun of ESPN for carrying in its early days have networks of their own. There’s a channel devoted to fishing. Another aimed at horse racing enthusiasts. Even big game hunters have two networks targeting them.

There are more than 20 national sports networks that don’t have the letters E-S-P-N in their names. The NFL, Major League Baseball, the NHL and NBA all have their own channels on top of the billions they rake in selling their games to other national and local outlets. Tennis and golf also rate their own networks. Several college conferences including the Big-12 and Pac-10 have launched their own channels.

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The big broadcast networks and cable channels also have a heavy diet of sports. CBS, NBC and Fox all carry the NFL—and at a hefty price; the league it is estimated now pockets $7 billion a year from media. There are scores of local sports channels as well. In Los Angeles alone, the Angels, Lakers and Dodgers are on separate channels.

And that ever expanding universe, more than beating ESPN, is what is motivating Fox. “In the shaky swampy world of television programming, the one solid granite-like area is sports,” said David Hill, a senior executive vice president of Fox Sports 1 parent 21st Century Fox and the self-proclaimed father of the new network.

Hill, who ran Fox Sports for decades and now oversees among other things “American Idol” and “The X-Factor,” is known as an innovative producer. It was Hill who first came up with what now seems like an obvious idea to have the score and time left in a game superimposed on the TV screen. He put microphones inside bases to bring fans closer to the action.

“We spend more time and effort on audio than anyone else,” he said proudly. “Close-up audio is far more emotive than close-up video.

Shanks said Fox Sports 1 has hired a couple of hundred people in front of the camera and behind the scenes. The majority of the shows will be done on the Fox lot in Century City where a huge new soundstage was recently completed. Shanks, who started in production at CBS Sports, said the trick is to give fans an “information pill with a little bit of sugar.”

Keeping it light

Philbin is not the only unusual hire Fox Sports 1 has made. Its flagship show “Fox Sports Live” — a nightly three-hour recap of the day’s highlights and news — will be anchored by Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, two unknowns imported from Canada, where they hosted “SportsCentre” for the TSN sports channel there.

The pair are known for their morning zoo style, poking fun at the absurdities of sport with an ironic sensibility inspired by Conan O’Brien and Letterman. While some sportscasters these days are obsessed with statistics and overanalysis, Onrait and O’Toole want to keep it light.

“We’re not good enough broadcasters to be serious,” cracked the lanky Onrait, who resembles a young Vince Vaughn.

The two have been compared to Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, whose stint as hosts of ESPN’s “Sports Center” in the 1990s helped make that cable channel part of the zeitgeist.

Shanks said there is a simple litmus test for Fox Sports 1 personalities: “Do you want to hang out and have nachos with our guys?”

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But Fox Sports 1 will need more than a pair of wise-cracking Canadians and a spry octogenarian to bring ESPN to its knees. Not only does ESPN have a more than 30-year head start, it also has just about every major sport including the National Football League locked up for the next several years. While Fox has football on its broadcast network, a cable package may remain a dream for the time being. Wednesday, Fox did seal a high profile deal to telecast the U.S. Open men’s and women’s golf championships.

ESPN is the engine that drives its parent Walt Disney Co., making close to $10 billion annually in subscriber fees and advertising revenues. It is often, especially during football season, one of the most-watched cable networks. Last season’s “Monday Night Football” games averaged 13 million viewers.

Hill knows changing the habits of sports fans won’t be easy.

“The first thing we have to battle is inertia,” he said “For 30 years people have been watching ESPN. We understand that. We know it. We get it.”

Fox isn’t going into the fight completely unarmed. It has rights to NASCAR, a big chunk of college football, ultimate fighting, lots of soccer and starting next year Major League Baseball. “We’re starting from a pretty strong position,” Hill said. On his wish list are the NBA and the NFL. The former may be attainable in the next few years, but the latter could be locked up into the next decade.

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Hill and Shanks point to Fox News as evidence that there is room not only for it to exist but to perhaps one day even topple ESPN.

“Would you pick this point in time to go into a business that people think is mature and people think, ‘Gosh, do you need another national multi-sport network?’ and the question is, did people think there was enough news when CNN was giving people 24 hours of news every day?” Shanks asked.

The addition of a new sports channel will give media buyers something to leverage against ESPN. “Competition is good,” said Sam Armando, a senior vice president in Chicago at SMGx, a media buying firm. While Armando doesn’t think Fox Sports 1 will immediately challenge ESPN, it has enough big sports to get a serious look from advertisers.

ESPN President John Skipper isn’t sweating Fox Sports 1 and doesn’t think the Fox News analogy works. “There is a dramatic difference,” Skipper said. “If CNN had exclusive rights to the inauguration, election results and weather, Fox News wouldn’t have snuck up and whupped them.”

ESPN hasn’t built an empire by ignoring its rear view mirror. Over the past few years, it has been shelling out billions to lock up several marquee events, including the Bowl Championship Series. Besides its roster of professional sports including the NFL, baseball and basketball, ESPN has rights to practically all the big college football conferences and marquee golf and tennis events, including Wimbledon.

“We bought up a lot of beachfront property,” Skipper said.

Still, it’d be foolish to dismiss Fox Sports 1. CBS made that mistake 20 years ago when Rupert Murdoch swooped in with a big checkbook and outbid it for rights to the NFL. That deal lifted the Fox network into the big leagues and was a wake-up call to everyone else.

Hill is optimistic that Fox Sports can get on the map quickly. “It will take us two or three years to create a visible and emotional bookmark in people’s minds to say, ‘I’m going to switch on Fox Sports 1.’”