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Credible sports news program, live coverage rights Fox Sports 1’s keys to taking down the ESPN giant

Back in 1979, when Bill Rasmussen had the crazy idea of launching an all-sports TV network, many were skeptical. Okay, most were incredulous. That would never work. And, if you read the outstanding oral history of ESPN, “Those Guys Have All The Fun,” you can see that there were several moments when the all-sports giant might well have crumbled.

Thirty-four years later, we have another reason to doubt. This time, Fox Sports 1 is the reason for the conjecture, and while few wonder whether the Rupert Murdoch-financed all-sports concern will survive, we will speculate whether it can launch a serious challenge to ESPN’s primacy. Despite its myriad faults, ESPN has positioned itself as one of the true giants of today’s media landscape and no matter how much money Murdoch throws at his new endeavor – scheduled to start in August – it might never be enough to take down the champion.

That said, there are some things Fox can do right away that can position it as a legitimate threat. The first is obvious: Fox must grab any available broadcast rights that are available, cost be damned. When the NBA’s contract comes up at the end of the 2015-16 season, Fox must grab a part of it. When the Big Ten opens negotiations for its games, Fox must jump in with a gigantic check. The NFL creates another broadcast package? Be there. The one edge ESPN has over its competition right now – especially sportsnet offerings from CBS and NBC – is live game programming. By snapping up high-profile leagues, Fox Sports 1 will be able to attract the viewers it needs to generate awareness and bring eyes to its other offerings. It’s capturing of the “new” Big East basketball league is a good start. But more must be done. This part of the puzzle is non-negotiable. If ESPN can shut out Fox from big events and important games, it will remain atop the mountain, no matter how much further it sinks into a self-promotional morass.

Speaking of pumping up the product, Fox absolutely must engage in some of the synergistic spinning that has come to characterize the ESPN brand. Just don’t be so blatant about it. Fox must do things like show hockey highlights, even though it doesn’t broadcast the NHL. Don’t lead off Fox Sports Live with a 10-minute promo of an awful game, just because it will appear on the network later that day. Show some real news judgment, rather than using what is supposed to be a news program as a one or two-hour promotional vehicle for network offerings. By differentiating itself from ESPN with a credible news product, rather than one designed to protect broadcast partners and advertise future programs, Fox will attract real sports fans, rather than those who want to watch music videos of select sports highlights.

Fox has already said its coverage would have a definite analytical bent, and that’s a great idea. But don’t try to come up with proprietary stats designed to enhance your brand. ESPN has done that with its Total QBR, which it considers a more precise measurement of a quarterback’s performance. The trouble is, that nobody pays much attention to that, and the stat comes off as an ESPN promotional creation. Employ a staff of smart numbers savants who can break down sports in ways viewers don’t normally see. By awarding praise based on fact, rather than who is popular or  “Next”, Fox will establish itself as a legitimate source, rather than a cheerleader.

Although Fox is trumpeting the hiring of Regis Philbin to host a show as a significant accomplishment, it’s going to need more than him to establish itself as a leader in original programming. ESPN’s “30 for 30” series has been extremely well received and has told great stories, but Fox has a chance stake out harder-hitting, more investigative ground with its original work. Instead of glossing over some of the uncomfortable details of stories in order to make them more palatable to the general public, Fox should embrace the tough spots and provide unvarnished accounts. Though ESPN does this with its fine “Outside the Lines” program, the network buries OTL on weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings. Fox should put its strong news work up front.

Finally, Fox must avoid falling into the celebrity culture that it has already shown a proclivity for favoring. Don’t fill game broadcasts and news reports with an endless parade of “stars” from other Fox shows and movies. Don’t fall prey to the growing entertainment-ization of sports, to the point where it’s difficult to tell the game action from the halftime show. Fox Sports 1 has the opportunity to provide a real alternative to ESPN, and to do that, it must be about sports first, second and third. Leave the other stuff to the Disney promo machine, and you just might find fans will be tuning in.

A new challenger has entered the ring, and people are skeptical. Let’s hope it packs a real punch.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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