Changes Afoot in U.S. Sports Broadcasting

A few months ago, I wrote a column ranking the different U.S. sports channels. Looks like next summer I will have to give it another go, because the landscape is about to change dramatically.

The reason? FOX Sports has announced that they are rolling out a national sports network (called "FOX Sports 1") on August 17th. They are expected to roll out a "FOX Sports 2" at some point shortly after.

The idea, in short, is to give an ESPN a run for its money. It will be interesting to see if they can, but I doubt it, at least not for many years.

The main reason is that, from a content perspective, very little will change. FOX has lost the rights to one of their leagues and gained another. Specifically, they have lost the rights to the English Premier League to NBC. They gained the rights to the new Big East basketball conference, the so-called "Catholic 7" that has broken away from the public school members of the Big East and retained the conference name.

It's hard to say for sure, but I'd say losing the EPL is bigger than getting the Big East. The new Big East is a nice get, but the season only runs for four months (at least, the part that FOX will have rights to), whereas the EPL runs for nine. There's also no telling how much interest the new conference will generate. I'd say it will certainly be behind the Big Ten and the ACC, and maybe just ahead of the Big 12 and SEC.

In terms of soccer, the loss of the EPL means the only soccer FOX still have rights to are the English FA cup, the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, and most CONCACAF events. That's not bad, but it's apparently not enough to sustain a soccer network, which is why according to Ken Fang, FOX Soccer Channel will cease to be, and will be rebranded as non-sports-channel "FX2."

If true, that'll be a pity. FOX Soccer Channel is well-produced, and if they push through a lean schedule for a year, then programming couple pick up again, because FOX Sports has won the rights to FIFA events (read: the World Cup, including qualifiers, women's, juniors, etc.) after the 2014 World Cup. If there's one thing that is lacking from a soccer perspective on US TV, it's World Cup qualifiers. ESPN shows U.S. home qualifiers, Mexico qualifiers, and that's about it. There are almost no European qualifiers on US TV.

Back to FOX Sports 1, that's all that really changes. They have Major League Baseball already, and the new network will show 26 games, but those will largely be poached from the main FOX network, who will cut FOX Saturday Baseball from 24 games to 12 starting next season. So, 14 more games total. Whoopee.

Nothing changes in college football. The FOX over-the-air network will continue to have a game of the week from the Pac-12 or the Big 12, and FOX Sports 1 will take the leavings from those conferences and Conference USA, just as now.

They'll have UFC events as well, which is technically sort-of new for FOX Sports, but not really, since the main FOX Network occasionally has UFC fights, as does Fuel and FX, both of which are owned by FOX. In fact, it's expected that Fuel will rebrand as FOX Sports 2.

If you're wondering if you will get FOX Sports 1, check your cable guide for an auto racing channel called "Speed." Do you get it? Good, because that's where you'll see FOX Sports 1 starting on August 17th.

The FOX Regional channels will still exist, and in fact some of the MLB games FOX Sports 1 will be picking up will come from the regional networks. The regional networks will have quite a few more holes to fill with local programming now that syndicated FOX events (like college football, described above) will be aired on FOX Sports 1.

In terms of non-event programming, it's a good news/bad news scenario. They will have shows anchored by Erin Andrews, thus picking up the key masturbators demographic, but will also have a show hosted by Regis Philbin, who was considered lame 20 years ago, when he was only 60.

So while I am intrigued to see how it all shakes out, I am not that impressed with the forecast thus far. Also intriguing are the drastic changes coming to soccer coverage.

NBC won the rights to the English Premier League by more than tripling what FOX was paying for it when they won their bid, and they have committed to doing it justice. For starters, they will show 18-20 games live on NBC itself. Awful Announcing's Matt Yoder is agog over this fact ("I'll give you a few seconds to get off the floor and back to your computer at the shock of NBC championing live televised sports"), but I don't really think it's so incredible. This is a Saturday morning slot, ESPN already does this, and I imagine their ratings are not much worse than NBC's showing of Saved By The Bell 4 or whatever fills their 10 AM Saturday time slot these days.

The NBC Sports Chairman, Mark Lazarus, says, "We are working to make it a consistent schedule so fans know exactly where to find games. But the Premier League fan will be able to get to every game live." That's good, obviously, but it depends on what form it takes. Sports Illustrated mentions NBC Sports Network (that's a given) as the flagship station for their soccer coverage, with the overflow going to the NBC Sports website, and their Spanish-language holdings like Telemundo and mun2.

On the other hand, Lazarus says, "It will not be unlike the Olympics where you saw programming on CNBC, Bravo, USA, or MSNBC," If he means that literally (and I don't think the details have been worked out yet), then I look forward to being able to watch all of those games, in English, on television and not on my limited-bandwidth ISP. On the other hand, I'm wary of it when the networks co-op non-sports or non-general programming channels for sports, and the effect on ratings it might have for non-one-off events like the Olympics or the NCAA basketball tournament. It's an unwieldy marriage. CNBC: your home for financial news and stock market analysis. Also, soccer.

One surprise winner that may emerge out of all these changes? beIN Sport. I said in my previous column that I hadn't seen the channel yet. I have now, and it has a lot going for it if it can continue to get in more households. For one ... they are loooow on hype. Blessed be. What they are high on is actual event coverage. We've been over the EPL. FOX Soccer also shows a Scottish Premier League game every week or two, and GolTV, which is terribly third-rate and may not be long for this world, has the German Bundesliga.

Who owns the rights to the other big leagues of Europe? France, Italy, Spain? beIN TV, on all counts. And they do a fantastic job with them as well. One of their programs is "90 in 30" which, as you might guess, is simply distilling a soccer match into its most compelling third. They also have events I can't imagine anyone cares about, like the Italian Volleyball League, but dammit, they key word is event. Not, "The Next American Beckham: The Hair Episode."

So that's what's on the horizon for U.S. sports television coverage. Once it's upon us, I'll be sure to write another column about how Lifetime Movie Channel has purchased the rights to all NFL games, and what they plan to do with it.

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