A Closer Look at Fox’s All-Sports Network Plans

Two motorsports TV contracts were signed over the weekend that continue to firm up and clarify Fox’s plans to start an all-sports network.

First, NBC signed a deal with Formula 1, moving those races off Speed; among other things, only four races will air on broadcast, meaning unlike Fox, NBC could end up tape delaying as few as one race all year (the other three being in Canada, Texas, and Brazil). While it adds good programming to NBC Sports Network (programming that complements the existing IndyCar contract), it’s hard not to see this story as really being about Fox clearing motorsports inventory off of Speed to prepare it for a transition to an all-sports network. This despite the fact that F1 is probably Speed’s best non-NASCAR programming and generally only takes up space on the Speed schedule late at night when there’s nothing else on; even conflicts with international soccer are surprisingly minimal.

There are many ways in which the Fox network still feels a lot less mature than its older competitors, and sports are one of the more subtle ones. NBC and CBS both have all sorts of niche sports dotting their weekends on top of all the more prominent sports they’re known for, and even ABC still has an interesting variety of sports dotting its schedule. For the most part, until recently Fox Sports pretty much consisted of football, baseball, and NASCAR, and that’s it. They’ve added college football and UFC, not to mention the odd soccer game, but before that Formula 1, despite the tape delays, was the closest thing to one of those niche, “Wide World of Sports”-esque sports that Fox had. Now it’s leaving, and there aren’t more than two or three live soccer games on Fox all year. I hope Fox doesn’t neglect its broadcast network as it builds an all-sports network like ABC had; it may be all the more critical in Fox’s case than any other that an increased emphasis on sports have spillover effects on the broadcast network. (And Fox’s college football coverage doesn’t seem quite up to the snuff of the established broadcasters to me.)

Perhaps more illuminating, even critical, to Fox’s network plans is its long-rumored early renewal with NASCAR. The main reason Fox wanted to renew this deal early was so it could clarify what a Fox Sports network would be required to broadcast, and nothing in this deal is tied to a specific network, allowing Fox to move some Sprint Cup points races to Speed whether it becomes a general all-sports network or not. Fox remains the broadcaster for the entire Camping World Truck Series season, and at least for now, doesn’t pick up any Nationwide Series rights. For a Fox Sports network, Fox picked up rights that will allow it to have a nightly show devoted to NASCAR news, “NASCAR-branded pre- and post-race shows”, and the ability to re-air races for 24 hours. While I wonder how wide-ranging Fox’s ability to have on-track and pre- and post-race shows is, Fox also retained the rights to show practice and qualifying… for the races whose rights it controls.

While Fox doesn’t appear to have picked up any rights it doesn’t already have, and so might end up picking up more rights later, that may indicate that Fox’s network prospects may now hinge on what happens with the rest of the contract, and whether or not someone else is willing to take on practice and qualifying rights for every single race they show, without being able to pawn them off to Fox. Certainly Fox has enough rights now to keep Speed a motorsports-focused network if it so chooses. ESPN already shows a considerable amount of practice and qualifying for its races, but it’s not universal and one wonders how much it’ll be willing to fit more onto its crowded schedule. NBC Sports Network would love to take it on just to fill time on the schedule, but given its existing IndyCar commitment (and potential hockey playoff conflicts) I wonder how much NBC would want to take on the Nationwide Series. And while Turner, which currently outsources all its practice and qualifying to Speed, would not want to add such fairly low-rated programming to TNT, such programming (backed by Nationwide Series races) could help it build the sports profile of truTV, but may represent too much of a commitment to sports for Turner to be comfortable with it, especially given their lack of success so far.

But perhaps Fox’s network plans extend beyond a single network to a complete revamping of the structure of its sports properties, one with potential knock-on effects spreading far and wide, and perhaps already doing so.

I have referred only to an “all-sports network” of Fox’s because I don’t like the reported tentative name of the network, “Fox Sports 1”. Part of the reason for that is the lack of a Fox Sports 2, but Fox could certainly relaunch one of its other networks to fit the bill, especially in the case that Fox Soccer loses its bread and butter… or completely overturn its specialty-network strategy and take on ESPN’s family of networks head-on. Ken Fang of Fang’s Bites raised this possibility in a post last week, suggesting that Fox might not only re-launch Speed as Fox Sports 1, but at the same time relaunch Fox Soccer as Fox Sports 2 and Fuel as Fox Sports 3. (I doubt he has any evidence that this is what’s actually going to happen, but speculation is fun, so we’ll go ahead and play his game.)

I have a number of problems with his specific scenario, largely because I didn’t really think of Fuel as a “sports” network in the same sense before it picked up UFC rights, but rather as a male-focused network with an emphasis on extreme sports, but in an even broader sense, he seems to think that such a change would amount to little more than a change of name in the case of Fox Soccer and Fuel; most soccer programming would remain on Fox Soccer with little more than what FX already has on FS1 and none on FS3 (and little to no non-soccer programming, to the point that Fox Soccer Plus would get the absurd name of “Fox Sports 2 Plus”), and all of Fuel’s programming would remain there with little to no programming from the other networks and UFC programming on FS1 and FS3 but not FS2. What’s the point of rebranding the networks in that case? Would Fox really want a collection of straight numbered networks with such a clear hierarchy yet with such targeted emphasis outside the main network? I guess it’s possible, but so far as I can tell from Wikipedia, it doesn’t fit News Corporation’s best practices with Sky Sports in the UK and Fox Sports in Australia.

Let’s think bigger, and fit a number of other developments into this picture. If this is the direction Fox wants to go, here’s what I see happening:

  • Speed becomes FS1, Fox Soccer becomes FS2, Fuel becomes FS3. We don’t need to change Fox Soccer Plus’ new name much, either from its existing name or from Fang’s proposal; it becomes Fox Sports Plus, and keeps most of its existing programming, with some use as an overflow channel for stuff Fox has the rights to but can’t cram onto three channels.
  • FS2 remains more soccer-focused than the other two, but a lot of soccer programming leaks onto the other two networks; at the very least, FS1 picks up every Premier League match Fox has the rights to pitting Manchester United against Arsenal, Chelsea, or Manchester City not on the main network. Fox also revamps its scheme for airing UEFA Champions League matches, with FS1 and FS3 joining FS2 and FS+ in airing games every matchday – half of all the games played at a time. FX wasn’t airing games regularly partly to increase the profile of Fox Soccer but also because it had other things to do. FS1 doesn’t; I could see it taking on more Champions League games even if Fox Soccer isn’t rebranded. (One factor that could play into the chances of Fox Soccer being rebranded is the loss of Serie A and Ligue 1 to beIN Sport and the threat of more; all of what Fox Soccer has left is either programming that could almost move to FS1 full-time, or stuff that doesn’t attract any eyeballs at all.)
  • UFC broadcasts are distributed among Fox, FS1, FS2, and FS3 based on the quality of the card and what each network is doing at any given time, all branded as “UFC on Fox”. FS3 continues to show prelims for Fox and FS1 cards, with PPV prelims airing on FS1 or FS2.
  • Most Truck Series races, as well as Sprint Cup practice and qualifying, move off their current network and onto FS2 and FS3.
  • Here comes the big part: the final nail is driven into the coffin of Rupert Murdoch’s original dream of using FSN to compete with ESPN. Especially if Dan Patrick decides to move to NBC. Only fitting that it comes when Fox actually does launch an ESPN-alike, right? We’ve been seeing the vestiges of this start to slip away ever since the start of the sports TV wars, to the point that despite the return of strong Fox branding to FSN national programming, FSN itself hasn’t returned with it, only being referred to as the “Fox Sports Networks”.

    Earlier this year Comcast SportsNet, always iffy with its carriage of FSN programming, dropped it entirely; originally it seemed that this was a temporary hiccup, but right now it seems Fox has given up the ghost, finding over-the-air stations to air FSN programming in Comcast markets. CSN may be setting itself up to air its own national programming, especially if it wins Big East rights, but even Root Sports, still airing FSN programming, has been airing Big Sky football games “nationally” on its three networks. Fox just doesn’t have the hegemony over the regional sports network landscape that it used to, and Fox doesn’t even need it anymore to distribute sports that don’t fit the other networks or that need a more national audience without being on FX. Plus, it’s lost Pac-12 rights to the Pac-12 Network, leaving it with just the Big 12 and Conference USA, and even conferences like the SEC and ACC that haven’t launched networks have sold packages to regional sports networks. College sports on regional sports networks have effectively become just as regional as everything else.

    Thus, as big a reason as the threat of beIN Sport to relaunch multiple networks is the desire to bail on the last vestiges of the FSN concept and move its bigger games to FS1, which should also provide plenty of inventory for FS2 once the soccer games end as well, with FS3 able to chip in in a pinch.

  • Along with the shutdown of the national FSN concept, Fox also shuts down its “that exists?” Fox College Sports enterprise, using the networks to goad cable companies into increasing carriage of FS2, FS3, and possibly FS+. FCS-exclusive games would move into the few remaining open spots on FS2, with the rest on FS3, FS+, and other platforms. Incidentally, I see a big shakeup in the TV rights for the third-tier college basketball postseason tournaments soon as the sports TV wars affect them; with HDNet’s rebrand into AXS TV, I see them dropping the CBI soon, and if Fox shuts down FCS that means they need to find a place for the CIT. When the dust settles, both tournaments will end up somehow distributed between NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, and Fox; I see one on NBCSN and one on Fox, but it may not be the CBI on NBCSN and the CIT on Fox.

Later in the week I’ll take a look at what this might look like in practice.

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