For decades, ESPN has absolutely owned the TV sports market, becoming a presence so ubiquitous and so intertwined with TV sports that it's wrestled mainstays like "Monday Night Football" off broadcast channels. It's the World Wide Leader (in its estimation) or the Evil Empire (in the eyes of its competition and former employees), and on television, it's never really had a serious rival. (On the web? Ahem.)
Now, Fox is looking to change that broadcast dynamic, announcing the debut of Fox Sports 1. The new channel, set to debut in August, will feature a slate of Fox programming that includes baseball, NASCAR, college basketball and football, soccer, and select UFC fights. The channel will also feature studio shows, including one hosted by Regis Philbin.
Taking down ESPN, or even making a dent, will be extraordinarily difficult for Fox. ESPN's subscriber fees (the price each and every cable subscriber pays, whether or not they watch the channel) are an industry-high $5.15, generating $6 billion in annual revenue for the channel. And ESPN has rights to the biggest sports events, including the NFL, baseball, college football's championships, the NBA, NASCAR, and many other events. That combination of fees and rights is what has made ESPN dominant, and the fragmented market in its wake has made it all but impossible for any true competitor to rise up.
As the New York Times put it, this is the challenge now facing Fox:
Fox Sports 1 will join a market that is far more crowded than it was when Murdoch first contemplated squaring off against ESPN. Not only will Fox face the dominance of ESPN, but NBC and CBS have their own sports channels, which are struggling for viewers and identities. The Big Ten and Pacific-12 conferences have created their own networks, and the Southeastern Conference is planning one. And in the past decade, MLB., the NFL, the NBA and the NHL have started their own channels.
Is there an upper limit to America's appetite for sports? We haven't hit it yet. The key for Fox will be rights; if it's able to secure more rights to more sports, it will draw in fans. Sorry, Fox, but Regis Philbin talking Notre Dame won't exactly be reeling in prized demographics.
Fox Sports 1 will replace SPEED, a motorsports-oriented channel. One early key for Fox will be getting buy-in from subscribers; SPEED cost cable subscribers about 30 cents, whereas Fox Sports 1 could run more than three times that. If a cable provider decides that's too much, Fox has an uphill battle on its hands.
Certainly, Fox has had success before; it completely upended the entire broadcast nature of football when it secured NFL rights two decades ago. But if this endeavor is to succeed, it will require plenty of patience ... and even more money.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-