Year Three of the sports TV wars will be when they start to kick off in earnest with the pending launch of Fox Sports 1, and not only is Fox making a huge push for the launch, they’re not giving up their regional sports network hegemony without a fight. Over the past month and a half, Fox has bought portions of the YES network and SportsTime Ohio, the RSN run by the Cleveland Indians.
It wasn’t that long ago that we were talking about Fox no longer having any presence whatsoever in any market larger than Dallas should Time Warner Cable win the rights to the Dodgers (though TWC SportsNet’s chances are still very much alive at the moment), about the launch of Fox Sports 1 representing the final abandonment of the FSN concept and that Fox would cannibalize FSN’s national programming to fill time on its new national networks. Now Fox has an owned-and-operated presence in the top two media markets, and if they win Dodgers rights they’ll be very hard to kick out of either one.
What might be sustaining FSN’s continued interest in acquiring existing RSNs, including a rumored bid for the MASN network co-owned by the Orioles and Nationals? It may be a clause in Fox’s new baseball contract that only recently came to light: apparently, Fox can fill up its lineup of games on FS1 by cannibalizing them from RSNs it owns – a clause that might be a remnant of the early days of the national FSN experiment when FSN would air a “national” game every Thursday. Owning a piece of YES allows Fox to fill up FS1’s lineup of games with far more Yankees games than, say, Mets games.
This suggests Fox might also be thinking about making a run at NESN and its associated Red Sox rights, and why Dodgers rights will be far more valuable, at least to Fox, than has already been suggested. As much as basketball can move the needle, baseball’s lack of a salary cap and some quirks in its revenue sharing model have made the local sports TV wars especially competitive regarding, and lucrative for, baseball teams, long higher-rated as a whole than basketball games anyway (notwithstanding national interest). If Fox has this added motivation driving them to acquire baseball rights specifically, don’t be surprised to see the values climb into the stratosphere, especially in competitive markets. In particular, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fox absolutely break the bank on the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, and Detroit Tigers in their next contracts, even without obvious competition; even the Florida teams could rake in the dough if Fox fears Comcast or Bright House coming calling.
Most speculation on national networks beyond Fox Sports 1 has settled on Fuel becoming Fox Sports 2, with Fox Soccer remaining as is, which has never made much sense to me given Fuel’s smaller reach and Fox Soccer’s loss of its best, most consistent programming. But Fox may have in mind transitioning Fox Soccer out of the sports market entirely. The LA Times reported earlier this week that Fox is considering relaunching Fox Soccer into a general entertainment network, effectively an “FX2”. That seems a substantially riskier move than turning it into Fox Sports 2; if your company runs multiple entertainment networks, it’s usually critical to make sure they have their own identity so as not to cannibalize one another (for example, TBS being all about comedy while TNT stresses its dramas), especially when the channel is starting with relatively little distribution – Fox Soccer is in about 50 million homes, better than a lot of startups but not enough to launch a big-time network and vulnerable to cable company defections, especially when many cable operators currently put it on sports tiers. To explicitly market it as a “lesser” channel to FX smacks of borderline suicide, and something no general entertainment channel I know of does.
If Fox is going to do this, I would suggest either marketing it as a comedy network (FX is primarily known for dramas though it does have more than a few comedies), marketing it towards women, or create a kids network powered by the old Fox Kids block that entertained so many kids during the 90s (though the rights to many of those cartoons may be owned by other entities). Fox could also market to niche genres, like with NBC Universal’s Cloo and Chiller channels, or pick up the geek crowd disenchanted with the state of SyFy and G4. An outside-the-box possibility could be to convert Fox Soccer into an international version of the Fox News Channel; Fox Soccer already occasionally airs the general “Sky News” from Britain. Ultimately, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if Fox decided that turning Fox Soccer away from sports risked losing too much existing distribution for too little gain to be viable and the only feasible option would be to convert it, not Fuel, into Fox Sports 2, getting that network off the ground that way. (I continue to maintain that Fuel doesn’t feel like a sports channel in the same way as the others to me; it may be about “extreme” sports beyond its UFC coverage, but, well, those are marginally “sports” at best.)
In any case, if Fox only creates two networks that means the chances are borderline at best that it shuts down Fox College Sports entirely, but recent events have still suggested it should rethink what role FSN takes when acquiring college rights – people in the Bay Area have been scrambling to watch Cal and Stanford basketball games FSN holds the rights to since the area’s Comcast SportsNet networks aren’t showing FSN programming.
I haven’t spoken about conference realignment in a while (partly because the whole thing has just gotten too depressing for me), but Fox is also the reported leader in the clubhouse for the rights to the so-called “Catholic 7”, the non-football-playing members of the Big East who finally figured out that the depleted remnants of the football half of the conference weren’t going to command a contract anywhere near as good as what commissioner Mike Aresco was trying to make them believe, especially with the Big East losing its privileged BCS status. (Once Tulane became a viable Big East member, it became clear that this was essentially Conference USA 2.0, with only UConn being a true “Big East” school – and they, not Louisville, probably should have been the school the ACC called when Maryland left for the Big Ten.) Fox has been reported to be offering something in the neighborhood of $300 million, an astonishing number for a non-football conference and hopefully a wake-up call for all the other actors in conference realignment that football itself is not what powers the money machine, but sports people want to watch.
Fox is a rather odd choice to go after the Catholic 7, but unless its existing Big 12 and Pac-12 contracts have limited at best basketball inventory for FS1 their only other option to truly establish their basketball bona fides is the Big Ten contract in a few years, which admittedly I’d be shocked if they don’t snag. But until purchasing YES Fox had very little RSN presence in the Catholic 7 territory; RSNs in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio, but Marquette might be the only school in any of those states. YES puts them in St. John’s backyard, and the Catholic 7 might be going after the likes of Butler, Dayton, Xavier, and Saint Louis (and Virginia Commonwealth, which might bring FS South/SportSouth into play as well), so they have that going for them.
But considering how much the Big East and ESPN have meant to each other, and the fact that the Catholic 7, to me, are the true inheritors of the Big East’s legacy regardless of whether they actually win the name (a basketball conference with the likes of Memphis, Temple, Cincinnati, and UConn may be a very good mid-major, but still a mid-major), I cannot believe that ESPN would let them blithely walk away to Fox so easily. I have to imagine ESPN will make a big run for at least a piece of the Catholic 7, probably sublicensing some games to CBS – the first real competition between ESPN and Fox since the World Cup rights came up. (Pre-split, NBC was considered a favorite to snag Big East rights and a major reason Aresco kept hyping how much money the conference would make from the sports TV wars – but at this point, which half they go after depends on whether NBC wants to keep piling up mid-majors in football or establish their basketball bona fides. Considering the Mountain West was literally the only FBS conference at their disposal last season, I would lean towards the latter at this point; the only major football conference they have a shot at for several years at this point is the Big Ten, and that shot is very remote.)
Last year saw Fox establish the foundation for Fox Sports 1 with its baseball and NASCAR contracts, while NBCSN settled into a third-place groove (and potentially started to establish a niche for themselves) by acquiring the Premier League, driving the final nail into Fox Soccer’s coffin. While this year will see the fight for the Catholic 7 and the awarding of the other half of the NASCAR package, and the NBA rights might come up for negotiation as well, for the most part the stage for the sports TV wars will move away from acquiring rights and towards what the contenders, especially Fox, do with them. FS1 is likely coming in August, and that is when the Wars will start in earnest.