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Fox Sports 1: We won’t focus on drug usage in sports (like UFC)

By Zach Arnold | July 18, 2013

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One of my favorite sports sites, Awful Announcing, has been doing a great job in covering the impending launch of the Fox Sports 1 channel. I’ve always had a soft spot for Awful Announcing but they have really stepped up their game lately and two reports on their site deserve your attention.

With four big fight cards coming up for UFC in August, the launch of Fox Sports 1 is critical for Zuffa’s success. The channel needs to be strong. So, having a big launch will be important. Given that FS1 is a rebranding of the Speed channel, you would think that the launch would be easier… but Fox Sports 1 is having trouble with cable and satellite companies. The problem? Carriage fees.

According to a report in this week’s Sports Business Journal, John Ourand reports that three cable and satellite providers, Dish Network, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable are still negotiating carriage agreements. Awful Announcing has learned that a fourth provider is also negotiating and perhaps balking at Fox’s proposed 80 cents per subscriber cost. In Ourand’s report, the deal to carry Fox Sports 1 would eventually increase to $1.50 per subscriber.

The whole financial model for Fox Sports 1 is to basically accomplish what ESPN has accomplished, which is swallow up your television bill with an excessively high carriage fee in order to make an exorbitant profit. It’s the whole point of all of the Fox Sports television properties, from the regional networks to the Big Ten channel. When Rutgers entered the Big Ten, the excuse publicly was that it would be good for recruiting to enter into the New York market. The real answer as to why Rutgers was so key for the Big Ten is that the Murdoch empire would be able to soak up carriage fees on cable/satellite systems in the Northeast. So, everyone who is a subscriber has to pay for the carriage fee whether or not they actually watch the station in the first place.

If the television providers balk at the FS1 carriage price, then that puts a damper on FS1 expansion plans. Furthermore, it reminds us to John McCain’s attempts to create an a la carte system for pay TV subscribers. Such a system would basically slash ESPN’s revenue by at least 50% and shrink the universe in terms of number of cable channels in existence because many conglomerates own a family of channels (think: Discovery, A & E, Lifetime, etc. in same universe) and a la carte would burst that bubble.

So, negotiation over carriage fees is one hurdle for FS1. However, these types of disputes generally end up in some sort of settlement no matter how nasty they get publicly. That’s one issue. The second issue, however, is much more critical regarding the creative direction of Fox Sports 1 as a channel. If Fox Sports 1 wants to be a serious player, they need to be a real alternative to ESPN and part of that strategy should be focusing on the fundamentals of reporting and doing the things right that ESPN currently is not. The celebrification of sports by ESPN creates a myriad of conflicts, tension, and frankly some unwatchable programming on the network. It also impacts what kind of reporting is done on Sportscenter regarding stories that should or should not be focused on.

Awful Announcing warns, however, that Fox Sports 1 will be an ESPN alternative… but will it be the one many critics want?

A quote Fox Sports senior vice-president (marketing) Robert Gottlieb gave to Cynopsis (via Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch) is interesting on that front:

“It’s pretty simple, while it’s not a tagline, the message is that it’s time for sports to be fun again. There’s the perception that sports and sports television has gotten too corporate and fans ultimately want to come for fun. The fun of the great comeback, the fun of performances that we will never forget that give you goose bumps. It’s not about steroids, Tim Tebow and other BS that keep getting crammed down our throat. So for FOX Sports 1, it’s in our DNA. We make things more fun, more colorful and more vivid and that’s our position of what we are promising to viewers. Fans want an alternative.”

So, if we’re to believe Fox Sports management, the ‘alternative’ to ESPN will basically be a Spike-ified version of a sports channel. Or, to put it more grotesquely, a Best Damn Sports Show Period programming cycle on steroids. I guess they can put the clip of James Toney dropping his pants in a parking lot on a loop.

Robert Gottlieb is right — sports fans want an alternative. They want a network that will honestly report on all sports leagues, including the ones in which the network has television & business relationships with. That has been a heavy point of contention between viewers and ESPN for many years. What viewers seeking for an alternative from ESPN want is a network with a more serious approach to reporting. They want a network that is willing to go against the establishment and do things in a non-corporate fashion.

When Fox Sports talks about wanting to be different than ESPN, we should take them at their word. Both Fox & ESPN have deals with Major League Baseball. On the various Fox properties, the issue of baseball’s drug problem is rarely discussed. On ESPN, however, they have let their A-team tackle the steroid scandals in baseball and the network has done a remarkable job of reporting what is happening with baseball’s drug culture. Bob Ley with Outside the Lines and TJ Quinn, the gold standard of all scandal writers, have carried the day and brought an amazing amount of sunlight onto baseball’s biggest drug users. Pedro Gomez also has done remarkable work. This is ESPN’s strength. Despite ESPN/Disney having so much cash tied into MLB, the network has made the conscious decision to let Quinn and others do their job. The proof is in the pudding.

This is what viewers respect about ESPN. They just wish ESPN would be aggressive in reporting on all their sports properties and acknowledging the competition when it comes to reporting on big stories.

So, when Fox Sports management starts mocking ESPN about their core strengths, it’s a warning sign of things to come. Those looking for an ESPN alternative aren’t looking for Skip Bayless wannabes. They aren’t looking for softball-style celebrification programming. They want red meat. So far, NBC Sports Network has failed big in this category. It’s why their upcoming Premier League agreement is really a make-or-break moment for the network’s future. The NHL is the only sports property saving NBCSN in terms of relevance. Who would have ever thought that OLN slash Versus slash NBCSN would be nostalgic for the days of WEC events?

Right now, all sports league have drug problems. However, the UFC & MMA in general has a really bad drug culture. From pain killers to testosterone to diuretics, combat sports right now is as dirty as horse racing and track & field. The UFC is the face of this problem in Mixed Martial Arts, given how many high-profile names are testosterone users and are not punished for such drug usage. When a drug scandal rocks the UFC in the future, and it will soon enough, how will Fox Sports 1 handle the situation? What will the critics of ESPN, looking for an alternative sports network with gravitas, think then?

If we are to gather how serious a network Fox Sports 1 will be, then it’s fair to say that the recent hirings the network has made will give us a clue as to what ‘alternative’ means. They have Jay Onrait & Dan O’Toole from TSN for comedy. They have their own college football version of Skip Bayless, mind you a more polished & presentable version, in Clay Travis. And then there are the impending flood of ESPN refugees like No-Charissa-ma Thompson & Mike Hill. Will these personalities be heavy hitters when it comes to handling major sports stories like drug scandals, given the current philosophy of Fox Sports management?

When Fox Sports talks about being an ‘alternative’ to ESPN, most people assume that they will aim to be a sports network with a more serious, cutting, biting programming philosophy. Instead, it appears that they are going to go for the Michelle Beadle playbook. Beadle, the former host of Sportsnation, never believed in taking sports seriously and always felt that sports coverage needed a strong tie-in with pop culture. After she left Sportsnation, she went to NBCSN for Olympics coverage but has now moved onto Access Hollywood and hosting episodes of Breaking Amish on TLC. I kid you not.

If Fox Sports 1 goes for the full Beadle-ification, then don’t expect the network to cover any scandals involving the UFC seriously at all. It will open the door, however, for ESPN to go after sports properties closely aligned with Fox. The UFC has had an amazing ability to control their message recently on ESPN. They had Chris Weidman do the Bristol car wash and got the network to allegedly go along with a request to not show the actual finishing punches from the Weidman/Silva fight. Will this blackout policy extend to the promotion of the rematch in December?

Let’s see how long that creative control lasts with Bristol once Fox Sports 1 is active and ignores scandals involving sports properties they have relationships with.

Topics: MMA, Media, UFC, Zach Arnold | 20 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

20 Responses to “Fox Sports 1: We won’t focus on drug usage in sports (like UFC)”

  1. Jonathan Snowden says:

    I understand that you want more serious “red meat” sports coverage. What evidence leads you to believe you can build an ESPN competitor around it?

    • Zach Arnold says:

      It’s basically a theory of deduction at this point given what the alternatives so far have done.

      NBC SN has tried to be the network that’s home to all the various outcast sports niches. It’s why the EPL deal means so much for them, since they poured a ton of cash into it. So far, only the NHL has delivered. None of their talk shows have worked.

      CBS Sports Network simply isn’t on enough providers on a non-premium tier to gain traction.

      The trend amongst the ‘alternatives’ has been to basically be ESPN lite or to try to dance around with live properties without being hard-hitting serious news entities.

      Fox Sports 1 is the one property that has the resources and cash to go hard-hitting if they want to do it. And really, being more serious than ESPN is the only alternative position to take if you want to be ‘different.’ Instead, it feels like we’re going to get more Hooters pageants than coverage of Penn State sex scandals, more Chael Sonnen trash talking Lebron James in an imaginary feud than talk about testosterone usage in MMA, and more Charissa Thompson than Linda Cohn.

      I would not consider that a positive.

      • Jason A Harris says:

        I know lots of sports fans. All different types of sports. They don’t complain about a lack of hard hitting exposes on ESPN, they complain about a lack of sporting events they want to watch.

        I have never once heard sports fans saying “I wish when I turned to ESPN they would have more of those news stories about the behind the scenes stuff. I’m sick of all these sporting events.”

        The vast majority of sports fans tune to a sports channel to see sporting events, and a distant second is to get the results of other sporting events.

        By your logic, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel should be a massive ratings home run every time it airs since there is so much pent up demand for this sort of content.

        The reality is the kind of person who wants to sit down and watch in depth behind the scenes coverage of sports is a niche within a niche.

        If Fox Sports 1 wants to be a success they probably could do pretty well showing, you know, sports. Preferably ones people want to see.

  2. The Gaijin says:

    I think from the quote it is pretty obvious they are going in the opposite direction of hard-hitting exposes. It’s going to be sports, highlights, rah-rah “behind the scenes” docus and “profile pieces on your favourite athlete x” and “FUN!1!”

    My read is, they think fans want to have their sports like it was in the good old days and stars were walk-on-water heroes, everyday joes or idols and ignore the seedy underbelly or less desirable “stuff” like steroids, PEDs, truck parties and RG3 dick pics.

  3. 45 Huddle says:

    A lot of people think that the increased cable costs is due to the cable companies. This is not true. The carriage fees is what continues to drive up these prices, and it is out of control.

    http://thenextweb.com/media/2013/02/26/cablevision-suit-against-viacom-could-lead-to-the-unbundling-of-cable-channels/

    CableVision is suing Viacom over what they feel is unfair practices. Basically, these large companies force an all or nothing on these cable companies, which is why we even have channels like FUEL TV bundled into cable packages. FOX says that if you want FX, you have to take FUEL TV. At some point that needs to end, and I am cheering for CableVision to win.

    ******

    As somebody who cut the cord for 6 months…. And now has cable again (I am not happy about it)….. I really think it is a ripoff.

    At least with Bellator, you can buy the fight cards the day after on Amazon. The UFC is really hurting themselves long term as an entire generation of younger people get their entertainment outside of cable. Without access to these fans, they are doing themselves a disservice.

    I’m not sure if they should charge per card (like $5) or have a yearly subscription like MLB or NHL do. But that needs to be an option.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      I’m glad you agree with what I wrote in my article about the carriage fees. :)

    • MMA on the Reg says:

      In response to 45 Huddle:
      UFC.tv currently charges $54.99 for PPV cards and $12.99 for the major FOX cards. $5 per card isn’t very likely.

      • 45 Huddle says:

        Maybe they will charge more. If they end up having a weekly show, they could probably make it a 6-month at a time subscription sort of thing.

        What I do know is that through October of this year, the UFC will have had 24 events. 50% of those cards, people without cable will have almost no access to (they get a Facebook fight or two). And even the 12 cards they do have access to, they can’t get half the cards.

        Boxing built up a wall like this by putting all of there important cards on premium channels…. And look at where boxing is in the sports landscape.

        The push forward for the UFC needs to be a COMBINATION of FOX Sports 1 AND Internet Access.

        • 45 Huddle says:

          To add one more point…

          When I cancelled cable a while back, I was keeping track of the fights I had access to without cable. Over a span of like 30 cards…. It was ridiculously close to 50% of the fights I had access to. It was a combination of PPV, FOX, & Facebook fights. I could not get FX & FUEL TV Fights.

          With the new FOX Sports… It is going to decrease from that 50% mark. Instead of all of those FUEL TV cards airing 4 to 6 prelims on Facebook…. Now we have all of those cards on FOX Sports 1, and the prelims will be on FOX Sports 2 (Formerly FUEL TV).

          I wouldn’t be shocked if over the next year, people without cable only have access to 33% to 40% of the fights the UFC puts on. And that just isn’t going to cut it moving forward… Especially for an organization that so desperately needs that continue to build that younger demographic.

          I’m afraid Zuffa has cut off it’s nose to spite it’s face here. They are not playing the long term game. They got a taste of the big money from FOX and have forgotten about where the future of Television is going. If the recent Emmy Nominations are any indication… With 13 Nominations going to Netflix Original Programming…. It is that the established business models are going to start slowly falling apart, and you better have an online game plane moving forward.

          FOX Sports 1 is just completely in the opposite direction of everything else going on right now.

  4. 45 Huddle says:

    On a side note, Bellator Fight Master did 500,000 this week. Which is horrible considering the lead-in (Cops) did 1 Million. You have to figure that some MMA fans came in just to watch Fight Master, so they lost over 50% of the lead-in.

    I would be shocked if they had a 2nd season of the show.

    With that said, the next “Summer Series” show is probably one of the Top 5 cards on paper they have ever done.

  5. Rob Maysey says:

    Not sure where I stand on that issue, but there is a lot of truth to Huddle’s post regarding the carriage fees and “all or nothing” bundling.

  6. 45 Huddle says:

    One more minute on my soap box…

    Somebody released this awesome 4 minute video of Weidman/Silva in a Mike Tyson’s Punchout presentation. It was absolutely fantastic.

    The UFC had it taken down off of YouTube.

    They are so worried about losing one dollar today that they go overboard at the expense of the future.

    Let fans have a fun time with it. You actually build MORE fans long term when you have fans putting videos out there for people to see. They end up doing your promoting and advertising for you.

    This idea that everything has to be under lock and key is bad business. White & Fertitta are just too stupid to realize it.

    Is the WWE hurting for ratings? They have a deal with Hulu & Netflix along with having their programming on USA Network. Get the content out there and it promotes itself….

    • The Gaijin says:

      Co-signed on all of this and have been saying this for a long time. They are so hardline about everything, including fan made promos and HL reels…all you’re doing is limiting your audience, when instead you could be allowing people to do your PR/marketing for you and often in more creative and less homogenized/watered-down ways then you’re already doing it. They need to jump on to the “crowdsourcing” wave for things like this…

      I think the obvious reason is that they need to defend their IP/copyright, etc. However, why not think outside-the-box and have something along the lines their own form of “open-end user agreement” for things like this – e.g. akin to something like what Google does with the android platform. UFC can set something up and say to fans that want to make videos, etc. – you can use clips but no more than x seconds per certain fight and/or uninterrupted clip, must come from legal source, not for your own commercial use, no full fights, no altering UFC/sponsors logos, must include disclaimer re. all property/rights of UFC and this video is a fan made HL.

      That way UFC can still pull stuff that is blatant piracy and/or harmful to their brand, still be seen to be protecting their IP/copyright and ensure this sort of fan engagement, free PR/advertising.

  7. Jason A Harris says:

    There are plenty of other places covering the gossip and drama around sports and not the sports.

    Do we really need Deadspin on TV?

    You’re stretching hard to spin “We’re going to focus on sports” into “WE ARE WILLINGLY GOING TO IGNORE STEROID USE IN UFC BECAUSE UFC IS OUR PARTNER”

    Also, your headline was literally longer than the part of the quote you were basing it on.

    • Jason Harris says:

      As much as I disagreed with your article, I had to chuckle when BleacherReport straight copied the premise.

      I didn’t realize BloodyElbow did it too but that’s pretty much the level of journalism over there. I’m sure if someone mentioned it in the comments KidNate would just delete it and ban them though, that’s about how he takes to people challenging his “journalism”

      • kid nate says:

        You clearly didn’t read the BE post which is just an aggregation of posts on the FS 1 move, mostly centered around the carriage issue and whether or not many US households will even have the network when it launches.
        I did quote and cite Zach’s analysis because he’s a writer I respect even when I disagree but his premise is hardly at the center of the piece.

  8. Zach Arnold says:

    http://www.businessweek.com/printer/articles/136132-fox-sports-1s-strategy-vs-dot-espn-jockularity

    So, the focus will be on ‘jockularity’, anchors dropping their pants on camera, and athletes talking about sports other than the ones they were/are active in. And Regis Philbin saying ‘this is sports, we can’t take it too seriously.’

    The great irony in all of this is that Fox’s second biggest sports property is baseball. And what have been the two biggest storylines over the last generation in that sport? Stats and steroids, the two topics FS1 management is mocking ESPN for focusing on. And with the NFL, the crime blotter & Roger Goodell have been sucking the oxygen out of football-related headlines over the last decade. You can’t be humorous when talking about guys like Josh Brent or Aaron Hernandez.

    Basically, the attitude FS1 management is employing here is the same attitude that gave us the Best Damn Sports Show Period, only with more live sports programming at their disposal. It’s like watching Eric Bischoff & Hulk Hogan in TNA right now…

    http://www.awfulannouncing.com/2013/july/fox-sports-1-faces-the-unenviable-pressure-of-high-expectations.html

    Why do I have a feeling that when a topic like a sex scandal pops up that ESPN is thinking about Penn State while FS1 management is thinking about the potential of an Arianny Celeste nip-slip…

  9. [...] a serious contender in the American sports media landscape. And before the channel even launches, network executives are mocking ESPN for covering drug scandals in sports and marketing FS1 as a network all about ‘fun’ and ‘jockularity,’ which [...]

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