ESPN has been doing everything in its power to keep NBC from becoming a competitor for their sports hegemony, and they haven’t been above making enemy-of-my-enemy arrangements with Fox to do so. They tag-teamed with Fox last year to keep the rights to the Pac-12 out of NBC’s hands, and they recently signed a joint extention with the Big 12 with Fox as well.
That may prove to be a mistake, as Fox has done as well as anyone since NBC fired the opening shots in the sports TV wars, picking up rights to the UFC and World Cup without ESPN’s help and even stealing the latter from ESPN. All these sports contracts have been made primarily with an aim to improving the presence of sports on its FX cable network, hoping to follow the blueprint of TBS and TNT in using sports to attract eyeballs to their general purpose cable network. Beyond that, Fox has an established infrastructure of cable networks, eschewing a single all-sports network in favor of attracting eyeballs to their sports brand through a wide variety of special networks – their dominant collection of regional sports networks for local sports, Big Ten Network for college sports in the Midwest, Speed Channel for NASCAR fans, Fox Soccer for soccer fans, and Fuel for “action sports” and recently UFC fans.
Given this, it’s somewhat surprising to learn that Fox is considering launching its own all-sports network to compete with ESPN, which, yea back in the days of yore, Fox Sports Net was supposed to be. It’s worth wondering what Fox is thinking here, and how it affects their efforts to put more sports on FX – and color me skeptical that converting Fuel to be such a network is going to create something much bigger than Fox College Sports, let alone CBS Sports Network. But if Fox comes into this with a plan and puts enough emphasis on this all-sports network, and converts a network with a big enough reach like Speed to do it? They, not NBC, immediately become the best-positioned competitor to ESPN.
NBC’s biggest advantage over Fox was always the presence of an all-sports network. Take that away, and Fox has three things that NBC doesn’t but ESPN does: a sport-specific Spanish-language network, a national radio network that Fox has taken to start adding live sports to recently, and an international distribution arm. Fox can match NBC in other areas as well – most obviously its regional sports networks, but Fox can also match Telemundo as a Spanish-language broadcast network with the pending launch of its MundoFox network.
Now consider what Fox can put on such a network without adding a single new contract. From FX and Fuel it can show college sports from major conferences and UFC programming. From Speed it can show NASCAR truck series races, Formula 1 races, and the NASCAR All-Star Race. From Fox Soccer it can show marquee English Premier League games, the UEFA Champions League, and World Cup competition. If Fox was serious about this, I’d argue that right off the bat they can create a network that’s at least as much of a draw as the NBC Sports Network, and if they can add just one major-league contract, they can actually legitimately claim to challenge ESPN.
This is a potential game changer in the sports television wars, one that could ripple across all of this year’s big contract showdowns, especially the ones over Major League Baseball and NASCAR, which could affect whether or not Fox actually decides to go forward with this network, as well as Thursday Night Football if the NFL ever decides to put that back on the market. The fight for TV sports supremacy may officially be a three-way fight.