Fox Sports 1’s 24-Hour Sports Rumble

Mj 618_348_24 hour sports rumble
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.”

Rupert Murdoch has long fantasized about adding such a weapon to his arsenal. The reason is simple: ESPN has proved that sports, one of the last DVR-proof, advertising-friendly spaces on television, can be staggeringly lucrative. Last year ESPN pulled in more than $10 billion in revenue and today is worth $40 billion, making it the most valuable media property on the planet – a conglomerate that now includes a slew of domestic channels, a blanketing Web presence, a popular magazine, region-specific radio channels, and an innovative mobile app, all combining to amount to an estimated 40 percent of the revenue of the entire Walt Disney empire. Perhaps most remarkable is how resistant ESPN has been to competition, so ironclad in its dominance that even the most hardcore sports fans may be only dimly aware that both CBS and NBC have created their own 24-hour sports networks in recent years, ventures introduced with splashy launches that gave way to low ratings and mainstream irrelevance. Fox, too, has attempted this sort of thing before, back in the late Nineties, when it corralled its regional sports networks into a national entity, with Keith Olbermann serving as the face of what was then christened Fox Sports Net. Remember those glory days? No? Exactly. You were probably watching SportsCenter.

For all the rabble-rousing talk you’ll hear around Fox’s offices these days – where words like loose and fun echo through the hallways like a mantra – the decision to challenge ESPN with Fox Sports 1 was not made in haste. What everyone gathered in the bunker understood was that a boisterous, tailgating spirit doesn’t amount to anything if you don’t have the content to sustain an entire network, which means being able to consistently air live sporting events that people actually want to watch for hours on end. But over the past three years, Fox has gone on a methodical and aggressive buying spree. Aside from nascar, UFC, and the World Cup, Fox’s current launch has positioned it to be a serious player in future negotiations when rights to the NBA – currently split between ESPN and TNT – go on the market in 2016. “Back in the Eighties and Nineties and early 2000s, it used to be that rights deals were only three- to five-year deals, but now they stretch 10, 12, 15 years,” says Bill Wanger, the head of programming and research. “So if you wanted to start a network and you didn’t get in, you basically have to wait a decade. We saw what we had and figured now was our moment.”

The art of creating successful television requires a careful navigation through contradictory waters. Break the mold completely and you risk alienating your audience; hew too closely to what’s been done and people stick to what’s already there, as NBC learned when it wooed Dan Patrick away from ESPN and watched his audience stay put. Having decided the network had the right mix of properties for a solid foundation, the next question for the schemers at Fox was to figure out the glue to hold them all together – finding subtle new ways, in other words, to give viewers what they’ve habitually already come to expect.

During the war room sessions, the walls were papered in graphs charting what ESPN does well, where it might be vulnerable, and what it simply doesn’t do. Everyone understood that trying to imitate ESPN’s approach – a vaguely academic format, offset with a droll, sardonic edge – would be a form of hara-kiri, and avoiding that fate meant entertaining any and all ideas, no matter how outlandish. Sumo wrestling? Skydiving? Rock, paper, scissors? All were discussed. At one point, Michael Bloom, the senior vice president of original programming, enthusiastically announced what he believed at the time to be a breakthrough idea: Fishing with the stars! The room fell silent.

“That triggered a good 20-minute lecture from David Hill,” Bloom recalls. “But you kind of need that to get to the good stuff.” Indeed, it was out of those meetings that Bloom conceived of the Being franchise, a documentary series meant as a more visceral counterpoint to ESPN’s beloved 30 for 30 films that will premiere with a six-part look into half a year in the life of Mike Tyson.

The most critical component was finding the right blend of on-air talent: new faces who could emulate the frat house chemistry of the Fox NFL Sunday team that’s won its time slot most of the past 15 years – as well as host a daily football show on Fox Sports 1. “That was a no-brainer,” says Shanks. “They’re basically the model for everything we’re going for.” Recognizing the need to create a news show, albeit one that differed from SportsCenter, Fox looked to Scott Ackerson to executive-produce what became Fox Sports Live. “ESPN has done a fantastic job of educating people in terms of sports,” says Ackerson, a gruff Fox veteran who’s never far from his e-cigarette. “Well, I don’t really want to teach. I want people to believe that they are eavesdropping on a conversation among really smart people who have been in the arena, who are talking sports, and who you’d really wish you could have a beer with.”

To create that vibe, Fox spent months courting two anchors of Canadian broadcasting, Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, who have gained a cult following for their slapstick (read: anti-ESPN) approach to news and highlights. Meanwhile, more than 150 former athletes and on-air talent auditioned for jobs as commentators, a process that involved many drinking sessions to see how they gelled as a group, before Fox settled on a crew that includes Donovan McNabb, Andy Roddick, and Charissa Thompson, a former model and ESPN sportscaster. Roddick, for his part, says he was sold after discussing it with Ackerson, who was adamant that he wanted to see pro athletes talking about more than just the sport they played. “Frankly, I didn’t retire from tennis to sit in a box and talk about tennis 12 hours a day and travel to all the same places on the same schedule as I did during the tennis season,” says Roddick. “I’m not gonna be the guy questioning Bill Belichick’s decisions – that would be ridiculous – but I can certainly relate to a quarterback’s mind-set going into the biggest game of his career. And don’t get me wrong – what ESPN does is unbelievable, but I like the idea of finding a less buttoned-down approach.”

Aside from searching for faces who were underexposed, Fox focused on going after well-known figures who could be reintroduced in a new forum, which is how Regis Philbin was brought in as the host of Crowd Goes Wild. “I’ve been a sports nut my whole life,” says Philbin, “but in my former job” – as co-host of ‘Live with Regis and Kelly’ – “I had to squeeze it in where I could.” While Philbin admits to being a bit nervous about joining a new network, he says the thrill of the unknown is part of what persuaded him to sign on. “Look, this was bound to happen,” he says. “So many stations saw what was going on over at ESPN that eventually others were going to get involved and see what they could do. I think Fox is going to be more fun than what’s out there, but we’ll have to see what happens.”

Finally, much of the discussions revolved around the sort of nuanced details that go unnoticed by viewers while slyly keeping them anchored to their couches without changing the channel. Case in point: the ticker ESPN keeps at the bottom of the screen during commercials, feeding its audience a stream of scores and headlines, or the “wing” on the left side of the screen during SportsCenter, highlighting upcoming segments. With that in mind, Fox decided to place its wing on the left side as well, and created a device called the “double box” – a picture-in-picture window that will appear in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen during some commercials, keeping viewers sated with live sideline footage while the likes of Doritos and Chevy hawk their products. “The philosophy is that we want to serve the fan,” Shanks says, “not just ourselves.”

But will any of this actually work? The question won’t be answered anytime soon, though Goldman Sachs recently downgraded Disney stock from “above average” to “average,” at least partly because, for the first time in years, ESPN seems to be showing signs of age: Ratings are down from this time last year, and in May the network laid off hundreds of employees to reduce costs. Still, a recent report by Nomura Securities, an analyst firm, projected that Fox Sports 1 is “unlikely to make a material dent in ESPN’s business for the investable time horizon.” And ESPN’s top brass isn’t too concerned. “The idea that there is some sort of sudden horse race is a little silly,” John Skipper, ESPN’s president, recently remarked.

Murdoch, of course, loves a battle, and has positioned Fox as a network hardwired to shake up the status quo ever since its inception in 1986, when it quickly morphed from being a scrappy, often-mocked start-up to a bullying contender by taking risks on shows (‘Married … With Children,’ ‘The Simpsons’) that others shied away from. In 1996, three years after securing the NFL contract, the network extended its Trojan horse approach to cable with the launch of Fox News, proving that CNN, then a seemingly untouchable force, could be knocked off its pedestal by a quarrelsome, cantankerous, unapologetically conservative army led by Bill O’Reilly and the backroom wizardry of Roger Ailes.

“We’re kind of the land of misfit toys,” says Ackerson, echoing a sentiment you’ll hear from everyone at Fox’s offices. “We all have a little chip on our shoulders, like the guy who gets traded and says, ‘I’ll show you!’ It gives you more freedom because you don’t have to listen to the phrase I despise more than anything else: ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’ I hate that! All it means is you’re just lazy, you’re boring, and you don’t really want to change things.”

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