No sweat on ESPN’s brow

Fox Sports 1 won't be able to paint itself as the 'fair and balanced' alternative

Terry Bradshaw. Erin Andrews. Tim McCarver.

Even Regis Philbin.

All the stars in the Fox Sports galaxy gathered Tuesday afternoon in midtown Manhattan for the big announcement: After years of rumors and false starts, Rupert Murdoch’s sporting arm at last is ready to challenge ESPN’s empire. The creation of Fox Sports 1 (Fox’s motor sport channel Speed has been repurposed, complete with a name tailor-made to eventually make room for the inevitable FS2) will provide fans not sufficiently serviced by ESPN—to say nothing ofh NBC and CBS’s recent forays into 24/7 programming—with yet more pontificating over LeBron James, along with as much live sports as the nascent channel can acquire. At the launch, for example, Fox announced that it will air weekly UFC matches, along with a UFC studio show, among other pursuits, when it goes live in August.

On one front, the move isn’t much of a gamble by Murdoch. Live sports have proven to be a reliable ratings draw in this age of the DVR and online viewership. While FS1 won’t (at least for now) be airing the ultimate draw, NFL football, Fox’s existing inventory of baseball, NASCAR, college sports, soccer, and the aforementioned cage fighting should give it a good shot at sustainability. Look for the network to be a major player in upcoming rights bids for other sports as well. And recent international acquisitions, including a takeover of ESPN Star Sports (formerly a joint effort) and Indian cricket, make it a likely outpost for “exotic” sports, much as ESPN began its life airing a steady diet of Australian Rules Football.

The real question is whether ESPN will ever have to sweat Rupert. While the temptation to compare the Bristol gang to CNN at the launch of Fox News Channel in 1996 is inviting, the analogy doesn’t fully convince. ESPN’s 30 years and change of market dominance and unfettered brand extension won’t be nearly as easily overcome as was CNN, which suffered not only from complacency and brand awareness, but also from the overcharged emotions and loyalties of politics. For all of ESPN’s annoying tics and pointless debates, few, with the possible exception of hockey fans, would seriously accuse the network of bias or favoritism. Naked ratings chasing, sure, but nothing involving political persuasion. Fox’s sports arm won’t be able to so easily paint itself as the “fair and balanced” alternative to ESPN, or so easily trade on cynicism in its programming. That’s one of the great things about sports—there’s always a scoreboard to serve as an arbiter of spin.

On the other hand, it was announced that Philbin will host a daily sports show, to be called Rush Hour, so perhaps Fox can challenge ESPN on its faux-cranky-but-actually-cuddly flank.

Ironically, FS1 comes along just as Fox and ESPN have partnered on several ventures, including the new breakaway Big East basketball conference (the so-called Catholic Seven). Execs at rival NBC, according to the Sports Business Journal, have taken to derisively calling the strange bedfellows “FOSPN,” even as 30 Rock seems to be left out in the cold. Many original ESPNers left for Fox in the mid-1990s when it began operations, and relations are close at the top of the two mastheads. The same can’t be said for NBC, in part a reflection of the scorched-earth personality of former Peacock sports chief Dick Ebersol.

While the notion of any organization actually overtaking ESPN in the foreseeable future is a stretch, there is certainly room for the Fox initiative. The sheer tonnage of games demands multiple platforms to air them, and leagues and conferences are no longer content for networks to “warehouse” product (not airing content that doesn’t have an outlet), insisting instead on the sort of partnerships “FOSPN” has recently undertaken. Anything that forces ESPN to remain nimble and on its game is a great thing for the viewer.

Fast breaks

An early sign of the risk-taking Murdoch & Co. will bring to FS1 was the recent stunner that Gus Johnson, an announcer best known for near-hysterical NCAA Tournament calls and extreme popularity with younger viewers, would become the long-term voice of Fox soccer telecasts, including the 2018 World Cup Finals (ESPN will air the 2014 tournament). Johnson, an admitted neophyte to the beautiful game, is being given several years to grow into the gig, a daring and unusual move by Fox Sports execs.

Johnson has been calling a few high-profile Champions League games lately, and while his debut wasn’t horrifying, he still has a long way to go to even approach the brilliant job done by British vets/ESPN gamecallers like Derek Rae and Ian Darke. Typical for announcers new to a sport, Johnson wanted to pass along all the info he had crammed into his noggin while preparing for the Real Madrid-Manchester United and Arsenal-Bayern Munich matches (Tuesday Gus called the return engagement between Real and Man U). He was consistently a pace behind the game’s tempo and seemed, understandably, a little tentative, not the usual cocksure Gus basketball fans love.

While the hope is that footy will pass into Gus’s veins through osmosis, one technical challenge must be overcome posthaste: Large international soccer events, like the Champions League and the World Cup, are produced by a host broadcaster. Play-by-play men calling the action are thus at the mercy of pictures called up by producers who are not in their ear, meaning the calls of games often have an ad-lib quality, especially when replays come up without warning, inevitably in the midst of a long tangent by the announcer. Seamlessly weaving around such speed bumps is what separates a veteran soccer caller like Darke from the likes of Dave O’Brien, a baseball man ESPN thrust on soccer fans during the 2008 World Cup, drawing much derision (which I found over the top at the time, by the way).

The sizable majority of Gus’ work will be on such outsourced matches, so he will be better served clicking off Robin van Persie’s Wikipedia page and spending some time watching how the Brits handle the international broadcasts. We’re all rooting for him.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , , ,