Fox Sports 1 Won't Beat ESPN, but That's OK

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Fox is finally preparing to launch its ESPN competitor. It won't beat its foe, but that's fine.

Fox is going to try to take on ESPN with a 24-hour, national sports network of its own. I wish that enterprise luck, because ESPN could use some competition to find motivation to step up its game, but I doubt it will ever truly challenge the four-letter behemoth for several reasons.

Fox can't beat ESPN at its own game.

It sounds like Fox Sports 1, the title of this new venture, will basically be a Fox-produced ESPN clone. That's not going to work too well.

There are many ways that ESPN could be disrupted, and I mean this in the parlance of disruptive innovation theory. Going head-to-head on the flagship product won't do it. "The same thing, only different" isn't going to have the folks in Bristol shaking in their boots. The only thing Fox has done that truly could count as a disruption and that worries ESPN is the Big Ten Network, but it hasn't been able to repeat that anywhere else.

As the singular, dominant player in the space, the ESPN brand casts a shadow over the entire sports world. After all, the folks at ABC chose to retire the ABC Sports brand a few years ago in favor of the ESPN on ABC designation. ABC is one of the Big Three, a historic brand in the television space that has been around since the 1940s. For sports, ESPN passed it up and now puts the ABC brand in a secondary role on its own network. That's real power.

Perhaps Fox Sports 1 could approach ESPN some decades from now, but it's unlikely to do so for the next reason.

Fox's prior attempts at competition haven't been promising.

Fox has tried for years to be the Pepsi to ESPN's Coke, the edgier alternative to the relatively staid market leader. It hasn't worked out so well.

Perhaps the best example is Fox's now-defunct The Best Damn Sports Show Period. It was more of a talk show than anything, with comedy segments and interviews with athletes and celebrities. Everything about it smacked of trying too hard, and it never became anything of a cultural touchstone. It was never supposed to be SportsCenter (and it even replaced FSN's failed Sportscenter clone, National Sports Report), but it failed to fulfill viewer-attracting role of a flagship program.

Failed attempts at competing with ESPN litter Fox Sports's past. National Sports Report couldn't compete with SportsCenter. Fox Sports Radio has done fairly well, but it's no ESPN Radio in reach, ratings, and influence. FoxSports.com has never been a real competitor to ESPN.com. Fox's college sports coverage is a pale shadow of what ESPN's is. Will Fox Sports 1 somehow be different? History doesn't project nicely towards that end.

If you're not going to disrupt the major player, you have to beat it decisively in quality. I have serious doubts that Fox Sports 1 will even be able to match ESPN's quality, much less surpass it.

ESPN's flaws aren't Fox's strengths.

As a microcosm of this issue, think about SportsCenter. What would make for a better version of that show?

More highlights. Fewer pointless polls. No more anchors reading tweets from viewers on the air. More analysis. Fewer human interest stories. Fewer non-sports celebrities. In short: more sports, and less stuff related to sports but not really the sports themselves.

Put another way, making a better SportsCenter is about making a SportsCenter that is more boring to casual and tangential sports fans. There's not a chance in the world that Fox is capable of making something boring (in a good way) on purpose. Or that it would ever try, for that matter.

ESPN isn't standing still.

ESPN is a giant that isn't as nimble as it once was, but it still branches out to meet competitors.

It answered blog networks like this one with blogs of its own on ESPN.com, its TrueHoop network, and now hub pages with exclusive original content (like this one, which covers my alma mater). It spawned the Grantland.com venture outside of the ESPN.com brand proper to hedge against growing competition outside of its normal wheelhouse. It jumped aboard podcasts relatively early. It fought for the perpetually-theorized-but-never-realized hyperlocal web movement with its regional sites like ESPN New York. It expanded into recruiting and fantasy sports, not allowing the subscription-based sports web to escape its reach despite traditionally using an advertising business model. It even answered Fox's edgier TV programming with a series of debate shows, some good (Pardon the Interruption) and some bad-to-vile (First Take).

If Fox Sports 1 has something that really beats ESPN at its own game, the leadership at the worldwide leader will be able to make its own version of it just like it has in all of those examples and more. ESPN even has the advantage, because as the brand leader, its rendition doesn't even have to be as good or better. It largely just has to exist, and that's a low bar for a company with so much money.

Despite the pessimism, this is still a good thing. Probably.

Of course, competition is always a good thing in our capitalist system. ESPN has a lot of slack in its current offerings, but it doesn't have a lot of incentive to tighten things up because it's so dominant. A good Fox Sports 1 will supply that incentive to improve.

It could also be very good for your school of choice. Everyone always wonders just how much higher TV rights fees will go. This Fox Sports 1 entity has a lot of time to fill, and one way it can fill it is by out-bidding ESPN for college sports. Even if ESPN doesn't end up losing a single minute of inventory, it will still have to pay more to keep what it has.

The only danger here is if Fox ends up dragging ESPN into a race to the bottom. Not that ESPN is necessarily always a paragon of the highbrow, but Fox has a tendency to go towards more lowbrow content on all of its platforms, sports or no. Its main network is, after all, the channel that gave us When Animals Attack! and Temptation Island.

If Fox aims not for a better ESPN but an ESPN unencumbered by taste, it could turn the big four-letter into a worldwide follower. ESPN already indulges some of its bad instincts (ahem); I'd hate to see what it will do if it felt pressure to compete with a Fox Sports 1 that is more Best Damn than ESPN refined. The prevalence of lowest common denominator content out there on the Internet, from hottest cheerleader slideshows to race baiting lunatics, tells me that the temptation to go in that direction will be strong. I hope both entities avoid it.

If nothing else, it's an exciting time for the sports media. Fox Sports 1 will be the first major attempt at competing with ESPN's primary network for the first time in a long time, if ever. Hopefully the dueling forces will make each other get better, making it a win for all of us.

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