How a National Fox Sports Network Can Challenge ESPN

Posting the link to the details on Fox's potential ESPN competitor earlier today got me thinking about what it is about Fox's sports coverage that I don't like and ways it could make a really good competitor to ESPN.

I admittedly don't watch much of Fox's sports work, but the general feeling I get from it is that of a sports package run by people who don't know much about sports. They put Joe Buck all over everything because he's famous and his father was famous even though a lot of people hate his monotone delivery. When they had the BCS contract, they famously did 5,000 band shots during the game because marching bands are what make college different than the NFL, right? ESPN is the big competitor, and it can get a bit saccharine thanks to being owned by Disney. So, Fox tried to be edgy by naming its flagship recurring program The Best Damn Sports Show Period. You can tell it's going edgy because it has a swear word right there in the title! What could be edgier?

For me, Fox's coverage reeks of trying too hard in the wrong areas. Its on screen graphics tend to be garish and overdone, while its production values on its regional sports networks can sometimes be Jefferson Pilot '94 bad. It tries to appeal to children (I guess?) with animated characters like the NFL robot, Scooter the talking baseball, and Digger the NASCAR-loving gopher. Those things just infuriate adults, while sports appeal to children anyway because children like to play and watch sports.

ESPN, the Goliath this Fox channel would be taking on, tries to be all things to all people. The big Four Letter has expanded far beyond its roots of broadcasting sports and doing recap shows about those sports. The E sometimes threatens to overtake the S in the network's name (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network). It's partially a celebrity gossip channel, only the celebrities are all just sports figures. It has breezy talk shows that would be at home on any other network, only they superficially discuss sports instead of superficially discuss movies and TV shows. It has a movie production wing even, although its documentaries are usually pretty good and are certainly better than some of its past attempts at dramatic movies.

ESPN can get away with all of the fluff largely because there is no real competition, but also because it gets its core sports coverage right. Game broadcasts are well produced, and its studio hosts generally make highlight montages entertaining. Some of the B-team guys aren't great and the former coaches are a mixed bag, but the fundamentals are there. It just strays from the fundamentals far too often.

I fear what Fox is going to end up doing is trying to out-ESPN ESPN. I can see it having some kind of sports TV morning zoo, E!-ish sports celebrity shows, and loading up on as many out-of-work loudmouth former coaches it can find. I can also see it falling into bad habits, going back to the edgy well to stock its studio shows with the kind of abrasive blowhards it seems to love to employ on Fox Sports Radio.

Fox really should instead work on getting the core coverage right. If that foundation is good, then it can branch out into the rest. Building another ESPN as we know it today won't work because people already have ESPN. Starting a network with a laser-like focus on BS-free sports coverage would at least have a chance to challenge the WWL because it would be different.

Realistically, a national Fox Sports network would live or die by the live sports it broadcasts. NASCAR, the Pac-12, the Big 12, FIFA, and UFC seem like shoo-ins for it, but those combined do not an ESPN competitor make. Will Fox bite the bullet and put its NFL and MLB coverage from the broadcast network on this new venture? Could Fox put its premium NFL and MLB games on it, or would those leagues refuse to allow their premier content on a smaller cable network with less reach than ESPN much less the over-the-air Fox?

I think that, for better and worse, ESPN is going to continue to dominate sports media indefinitely into the future. I don't think any of the establishment players (Fox, CBS, NBC) are going to be able to challenge it without making very risky changes, and broadcast rights are prohibitively expensive for an upstart player to get in the game. The only opening I could see is if/when TV becomes entirely streamed over the Internet rather than broadcast as it is today, but even then, the start up costs are still going to extremely high.

I really want Fox to prove me wrong. I really hope Fox will prove me wrong. I just don't see a national Fox Sports network making serious headway in competition with ESPN.

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