By Zach Arnold | April 26, 2016
UFC is now stuck on a sports network building around Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock, and Skip Bayless. Really in tune with MMA's audience.
— FightOpinion (@FightOpinion) April 26, 2016
The murder-suicide pact between Fox Sports 1 and ESPN is going to financially reward those who deserve it the least. It’s going to torture sports fans and sports executives alike. ESPN created the fertile conditions for the ugliness ahead and the Fox empire is going to inflame an already polarized playing field.
With fees for sporting events escalating to an unmanageable monstrosity, sports networks are slashing & burning budgets for production staffs while shifting their cash into opinion talkers. Spend less on hard news, more on blather. Go for emotion, tribal identity, and analogies over reason & logic on the persuasion scale. We’ve reached a point in television consumption where Skip Bayless is considered as iconic, if not more so, than Mike Tirico.
UFC is likely going to stay with Fox Sports, although ESPN certainly would have interest under any normal circumstance. We’re not living in normal times. ESPN is bleeding talent. They’re slashing & burning production employees. Disney, which is making money hand over fist, is scared to death of what is going to happen to ESPN in the future. UFC should be a sure-fire target for ESPN acquisition. The acceleration of losing personalities could play either way here for Bristol.
UFC wants to maintain creative control in their next television deal. That’s something that Fox will likely continue giving Zuffa, much to the detriment of fighters like Conor McGregor who needs to change this equation in order to create more labor leverage. UFC helped launch Fox Sports 1. It was considered a cornerstone. Several years into the deal, Fox Sports 1 remains as lost as ever. Nobody has any idea what kind of strategy to use to help build shoulder programming on the network.
Enter Jamie Horowitz. He’s now building Fox Sports 1 around Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock, and Skip Bayless. He’s throwing tons of cash at “big names” and turning the network into a money pit. Meanwhile, web site & production staffers are losing their jobs with Fox.
The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the new creative direction Fox Sports 1 wants to embrace is Fox News. The initial poison pill emphasis is on “opinion.” That’s not what made Fox News the Fox News everyone knows today. What made Fox News was opinion + political identity. When the opinion side fails, political identity trumps all in market persuasion. The new injection of opinion is going to fail for Fox Sports 1 and it is going to fail spectacularly. When this new strategy fails, the only option left for Fox is to turn the channel into the conservative sports network. This development is going to make a lot of sports executives extremely uncomfortable but you can blame ESPN for helping creating this atmosphere.
Bob Arum has gone after UFC fans for being Donald Trump supporters. The NFL is as corporate as you can get. In response to all the talk about concussions, we have the “war on football” debate. MLB has an older, conservative audience. NASCAR just backed Donald Trump. Guess which network has major television deals with these sports properties? Fox. “Embrace debate” isn’t enough to build brand loyalty. Politics will. It always does.
You can already see the war-gaming political playbook that Fox Sports 1 will use at its disposal to attack ESPN. Label ESPN as the “Social Justice Sports Network” and claim their big names are race & gender hustlers. Go after speech & public particiipation issues, such as the Curt Schilling/transgender bathroom rights controversy, with flame-throwers like Clay Travis. You can smell it a mile away.
ESPN will become the “liberal” sports network. Fox Sports 1 will become the “conservative” sports network. The two networks will be invested in nuclear hot takes all while their footprints shrink due to cord shaving, cord cutting, and skinny bundles. The sports networks and their contracted business partners will end up getting tarnished with political labels. UFC fans, in particular, are now stuck being associated with a group of talkers who are horribly clueless about their sport and play up the worst stereotypes.
Stephen A. Smith has managed to infiltrate virtually every talking segment about every sport on ESPN. I’m sure there are already Megyn Kelly/Donald Trump-style plans on having Skip Bayless debate Dana White over Conor McGregor. Hell has arrived.