By Zach Arnold | September 13, 2016
Despite below-average UFC 203 prelim ratings (870,000 viewers) and Ultimate Fighter viewership (370,000 viewers), UFC’s overall success on Fox Sports 1 has ripped the mask off of some very uncomfortable truths about the future of Rupert Murdoch’s suicide sports pact with ESPN.
The two sports properties saving the Fox Sports 1 ship from sinking are UFC and NASCAR. In the words of Dan Patrick, they don’t have “ESPN muscles” — they have their own muscles and have demonstrated to be capable, portable television properties.
For non-live event programming, the most successful shoulder programming on Fox Sports 1 is the daily NASCAR race hub show that attracts around 150,000 viewers. That number is only “good” relative to how else Fox Sports 1 performs. Colin Cowherd’s radio simulcast draws around 100,000 viewers. The Skip Bayless Experiment is drawing between 70,000 and 90,000 viewers. Cowherd & Whitlock average around 60,000 viewers.
You can’t build a major sports network on those kinds of figures and expect cable & satellite companies to pay hefty carriage fees like ESPN is asking for right now. The great heist ESPN has pulled off for years getting $7 a month from each cable subscriber for having shoulder programming that draws a few hundred thousand viewers has been exposed. Fox Sports 1 emulating ESPN in 2016 makes little sense.
Which brings us to the uncomfortable truths about Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to compete with ESPN:
First: Without UFC and NASCAR, there is little (if any) justification for cable & satellite providers to carry Fox Sports 1.
If ESPN executives warmed up to the idea of poaching UFC away from Fox, it would severely hurt Murdoch’s ability to demonstrate the long-time viability of Fox Sports 1.
Second: UFC and NASCAR drawing solid ratings on Fox Sports 1 while the rest of the programming tanks demonstrates that plenty of sports fans are aware of what Fox Sports 1 and they simply don’t want to watch the channel.
It also demonstrates that your average American sports fan is really only interested in one 24/7 TV sports channel. ESPN’s declining fortunes are due to self-inflicted wounds. There are sports fans who hate how hollow the network’s daily programming has become. It’s empty. It’s political. It’s a poor attempt at becoming a dumber, less sharper version of MSNBC. For the average American, sports programming is supposed to be a reprieve from politics. Instead, ESPN has gone full-throated on one-way politics.
Rupert Murdoch thought he could capitalize on this opportunity with his own sports network. He didn’t in the past with Fox Sports Net and he can’t now with Fox Sports 1. Best Damn Sports Show Period remains his greatest daily sports show accomplishment. Murdoch’s inability to capture sports fans who are sick of ESPN’s political agenda is a manifestation of two problems:
- Murdoch simply doesn’t know how to create a smart alternative to ESPN
- Americans don’t want two full-time 24/7 sports TV channels — they just want ESPN to clean their act up
In Rupert Murdoch’s world, politics are transactional. Murdoch wasn’t the driving force behind Fox News — Roger Ailes was. Outside of immigration issues, Murdoch largely has maintained a hands-off approach to Fox News. Murdoch maintains the New York Post simply as a matter of convenience if he has an axe to grind. He used the paper to shuttle Ailes out the door during the major sexual harassment scandal.
The great irony? The blueprint that made Murdoch the most money on American cable & satellite TV is the one he’s most resistant to use in competing with cable TV’s biggest giant in ESPN. Murdoch could have attacked ESPN by presenting Fox Sports 1 as the conservative alternative. He could have driven that wedge. Murdoch has chosen not to. In his 20+ years of trying to compete with ESPN, he’s used *every* tactic except the Ailes business model.
As a result, Murdoch is left with a sports channel that is wandering aimlessly and being single-handedly saved by a Mixed Martial Arts boss who is a full-throated Trump supporter. Without UFC, there is no reason to watch Fox Sports 1 and no reason for cable/satellite providers to keep the channel for a high carriage fee. The best Murdoch can do is fail with his channel while inflicting damage to ESPN. ESPN could wipe out his venture by poaching away UFC programming rights. UFC is in the catbird’s seat and can demand as much cash as they want from Murdoch in order to keep his channel alive.
Exit question: Would Murdoch consider making a deal with TNA if Dixie Carter’s out of the picture?