The media landscape has never been as fragmented as it is today, with brands fighting tooth and nail for viewers. We see this every day with business and financial media, but no one is feeling the effects of it more than cable sports behemoth ESPN.  With more and more viewers deciding to ditch cable television, or “cord cutting,” cable networks like ESPN are faced with having to deal with significant subscriber losses.  According to a recent regulatory filing, ESPN has lost about seven million subscribers in the last two years, down from approximately 99 million homes in 2013 to about 92 million homes this year.  In October 2015, the Disney-owned company was forced to eliminate 300 positions, or close to 4% of the company’s 8,000 workforce worldwide.

There are also many sports fans out there looking for an alternative to ESPN’s blend of entertainment and opinion-based programming.  ESPN, which now has seven daily debate shows, adopted a mantra known as “embrace debate” in 2013 that pushed controversial personalities Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless to the forefront of the network.

Enter Fox Sports 1 (FS1).  The sports arm of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire was launched in 2013 with a mandate to challenge ESPN’s dominance in the sports marketplace.  The network made high-profile hires (among them excitable play-by-play fan favorite Gus Johnson and sideline reporter Erin Andrews), launched copycat versions of popular ESPN shows “SportsNation and “SportsCenter”, secured part of a $3 billion rights deal with the Pac-12 Conference, as well as rights to Big East Conference basketball.

But as Jim Weber from Sports Illustrated’s The Cauldron surmised, “Almost every move FS1 has made has failed miserably. Andrews was moved from college football to the NFL after one year of FOX’s disastrous college football pre-game show. Crowd Goes Wild was quickly cancelled, FOX Sports Live is dwarfed by SportsCenter, and FOX’s college sports coverage gets crushed by ESPN.”

In January 2016, SI.com reported that Fox Sports was ending “Fox Sports Live” in its current format after it struggled to find an audience.

So what’s Fox Sports’ plan for a turnaround? Well, simply put, they’re trying to out-ESPN ESPN. In April 2015, the network hired TV executive Jamie Horowitz to oversee all programming for FS1 and sister channel FS2.  Horowitz, a onetime ESPN executive, was once called “the midwife of Bristol’s Embrace Debateera” by the popular sports website Deadspin.  Horowitz’s first high-profile move was to bring over national radio personality Colin Cowherd from ESPN (before leaving the network Cowherd was taken off the air for making disparaging comments about  Dominican-born baseball players). Horowitz also hired ESPN personality Jason Whitlock after the network removed him as editor-in-chief of The Undefeated, ESPN’s long-delayed website that will cover the intersection of sports and race.

So how have these moves panned out so far?  As Mad Men’s Pete Campbell once famously said “Not great, Bob!”  Here’s a sampling of the headlines:

  • Vocativ – “Fox Sports Is ESPN For Awful People” (12/26/15)
  • Deadspin – “There’s something toxic about Fox Sports 1” – (02/05/16)
  • Awful Announcing – “Why I’ve given up hope for FS1” (02/08/16)
  • Awful Announcing – “FS1 is becoming the ESPN alternative nobody wanted” (11/19/15)

As Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder astutely summarized, “ESPN’s programming is far from perfect, but at least that network has some substance, something FS1 is sorely lacking at the moment. Yes, ESPN has the worst of all in First Take, but that’s a very small percentage of ESPN programming.  ESPN also has many hours a day of SportsCenter, some of the best reporters in the business, longform journalism with Outside the Lines, excellent documentaries in 30 for 30, and the best live game coverage there is for pretty much every sport in America.  Over the last 35+ years, ESPN has built an incredible worldwide operation that can report, cover, and analyze every piece of sports news there is.”

Fox Sports has missed a huge opportunity to become a serious challenger to ESPN at a time when massive changes are shaking up the cable television industry, leaving the biggest powerhouse in sports suddenly exposed in a fragmented media landscape.  As the landscape continues to rapidly evolve, it will be interesting to see whether Fox stays the course and continues to double-down on their out-ESPN ESPN strategy, or if they can differentiate themselves from their rival and find a distinct voice and the consistent audience they need to become a serious threat to ESPN.

Scott Lessne

Image via Giphy.com