Fox Sports 1 Takes On ESPN.
Credit: Illustration by Jesse Lenz

Some called it the war room. To others, it was the bunker. On the surface it resembled neither: just a drab little conference room in Building 103, a nondescript hunk of glass and concrete on the sprawling grounds of Fox's Los Angeles headquarters. But to the half-dozen executives who began convening there in secret last February, there was no mistaking the sense of waging an epic battle – a feeling they amplified by covering the entrance in yellow police tape, blocking out the windows with thick black tarps, and subsisting for up to 14 hours a day on whatever unfortunate rations were growing stale on the craft services table. Their mission? To emerge from the confines of this darkened chamber with a clear blueprint for a 24-hour cable sports network that, if all went accordingly, would alter the landscape of cable sports as it has existed for the past three decades.

Presiding over the meetings was David Hill, the man Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox's parent company, tapped to spearhead the endeavor. "Me, I called it the room of pain," says Hill, a garrulous, no-bullshit Aussie, who has been one of the most indispensable knights in Murdoch's kingdom ever since 1994, when, as head of Fox Sports, he oversaw the network's foray into broadcasting NFL games. What Hill succeeded in doing with that franchise – creating a brash, rowdy alternative to the subdued coverage favored by rival networks – laid the foundation for Fox's approach to sports as a whole, turning Hill into something of a rainmaker who infused everything from NFL pregame shows to 'American Idol' with addictive swagger.

"He's essentially the Mr. Miyagi of this place," says John Entz, one of the players in the room of pain who was brought in from the MLB Network as an executive producer. "The trick is, how do you take the medicine and wrap it in a teaspoon of sugar?" he recalls telling the team. "That's what we did with football, and now the idea was to expand that DNA to an entire network."

If you're a sports fan, you may have already sampled the fruits of their labor while clicking the remote on your couch. Fox Sports 1 is, as of mid-August, beamed into 90 million homes. Maybe it was a nascar race that caught your eye, or a gruesome UFC fight – two sports Fox is betting on to generate interest in addition to its long-term deals with college football and basketball, Major League Baseball, and soccer. ('The company outbid ESPN for the rights to air the World Cup in 2018 and 2022.) Or maybe you were lured by 'Crowd Goes Wild,' the raucous panel show hosted by Regis Philbin that, along with Fox Sports Live, the network's more freewheeling answer to SportsCenter, Fox hopes will help draw in a viewership large and devoted enough to put a dent in ESPN's armor. Whether or not the network is able to accomplish that will take years to know, but what's undeniable at this stage is that the enterprise marks one of the most audacious gambles Fox has made in years: an undertaking built around the belief that ESPN's reign over sports broadcasting has lasted for too long. "The town, so to speak, has gotten big enough for two Chinese restaurants," says Eric Shanks, the co-president and COO of Fox Sports. "One might always be bigger than the other one, but the other can do just fine. And our Chinese restaurant is going to have a few different things on the menu and cook it differently than the other guys."