With last Saturday’s launch of Fox Sports 1 across American television sets, ESPN may soon find itself in a long bout in the ratings ring. The new network is owned by Fox Entertainment Group, and has been creating a buzz among sports fans and media outlets since news surfaced of its creation in March.
Sports fans have long cried foul over ESPN’s exaggerated coverage of the biggest sports in the biggest markets.Sportscenter routinely shows long highlights of Miami Heat games at the beginning of its broadcast while holding off news of a big-name hockey trade until the program’s final minutes. When was the last time a Yankees and Red Sox weekend series didn’t end on Sunday Night Baseball? But who can blame them really? At the end of the day it’s a ratings game, and the biggest markets have the largest number of television sets in them.
This presumed weakness is where I expect Fox Sports 1 to exploit ESPN: sweeping up ratings from large geographical areas that lack the country’s most popular athletes and teams.
Take Fox Sports 1’s debut lineup for example. It featured seven hours of NASCAR coverage followed by five hours of UFC bouts. I highly doubt that many people in their New York City apartment tuned in for a minute of all that, but I know some parts of the country found themselves glued to the couch and their TV set for hours. The new network has deals to begin running select NASCAR events as early as 2015 and will have UFC events on Wednesday nights. They also maintain the rights to air certain soccer events including the UEFA Champions League, Europa League and CONCACAF Champions League.
ESPN will probably see a slow fall from its monopoly over sports coverage, but this has been evident for some time. Some of its biggest names have jumped ship for other networks over the past year. Erin Andrews, Bill Raftery andCharissa Thompson all left “The Mothership” (as NBC Sports and radio personality Dan Patrick refers to his former employer) to join Fox’s crew.
The crucible of this whole debate most likely lies within these networks’ ability to draw ratings in the 11 o’clock hour. Sportscenter has long been the common man’s go-to program at the end of the day for scores and highlights. Fox Sports 1 will air Fox Sports Live at 11 p.m. in an effort to steal viewers from Sportscenter, which has run nonstop in that time slot since its debut in 1979.
One thing’s for certain, ESPN is not going to sit back and wait to see whether or not Fox Sports 1 is a legitimate threat. The network has already thrown its first punch back, announcing the return of former outspoken Sportscenter anchor Keith Olbermann. The journalist left ESPN under a cloud of controversy in 1997 after referring to the Bristol, Conn., as a “Godforsaken place” during an unauthorized appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
His show, titled “Olbermann,” will air Monday-Friday at 11 p.m. on ESPN2 beginning Aug. 26. ESPN is surely hoping the rarely polite, but always intriguing figure, is another piece of the puzzle in winning the 11 p.m. hour.
If nothing else, the battle between these two juggernauts over the next few years will be just one more rivalry to keep track of for those like me, addicted to all things competition.