Fox Launches 24-Hour Sports Network On Saturday

For years, ESPN has been the dominant name in sports broadcasting, not to mention the most profitable bundle of channels on cable television. But it will face its first serious challenge when Fox launches its 24-hour national sports network.

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ESPN, the sports network, loves reporting on rivalries on the field. Now they might be involved in one. For years, ESPN has been the dominant name in sports broadcasting, not to mention the most profitable bundle of channels on cable TV. Tomorrow, though, Rupert Murdock's News Corp launches Fox Sports 1 into 90 million homes. NPR's Mike Pesca reports that this all-sports channel might not take ESPN down, but it could well be a viable alternative.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: ESPN is so powerful, that it's understandable that no other media entity has launched a full-frontal assault. But ESPN is so profitable, that it's hard to fathom that a competitor wouldn't look at the all-sports network like the Barbary Coast pirates looked at treasure-laden Spanish galleons. And a competitor has emerged.

Fox Sports 1 network promos are saying it's synonymous with fun. Fox is certainly synonymous with bringing bold media visions to fruition. Indeed, corporate history informs this new venture, says Fox Sports 1's executive vice-president of programming and research, Bill Wanger.

BILL WANGER: Going back to Fox broadcasting launching in 1986, 1987, taking on the established broadcast networks, and then Fox News back in 1996, taking on CNN. We absolutely have studied all those and how it worked.

PESCA: How it worked with broadcast and news is that Fox programmers figured out what parts of the audience were underserved. Fox Sports 1 will feature a lot more NASCAR and ultimate fighting than ESPN. The network will also air college football, Big East basketball, and soon the Major League baseball play-offs and the World Cup.

There's no NFL yet, but the current portfolio can bring, if not supremacy, than certainly success, says Chris Bevilacqua, president of sports media firm Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures.

CHRIS BEVILACQUA: Burger King to McDonalds, and Adidas to Nike and Pepsi to Coke - I mean, there's usually a pretty clear number one and two, you know. Seven years from now, 10 years from now, Fox is going to be in a position to really go and compete.

PESCA: Bevilacqua says Fox Sports 1's programming is strong. Its leaders are skilled, and the appetite for sports is growing. As a culture, we seem a long way off from peak sport. Fox Sports 1 seems to be well situated to be a success. There's big potential profit in cable sports, more so than even broadcast. ESPN, in addition to generating ad revenue, gets over $5 per subscriber from every cable and satellite system that carries it.

Right now, Fox Sports 1 is said to be earning 80 cents to a dollar per subscriber. Fox Sports 1 will fill out its broadcast day with non-event programming. Regis Philbin is getting a program. But the network's main show is a competitor to ESPN's "Sports Center" called "Fox Sports Live." It will feature analysis from ex-athletes like Donovan McNabb.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

DONOVAN MCNABB: What will I bring to "Fox Sports Live"? Personality, excitement, information.

PESCA: Fox Sports Live will be anchored by Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, who for years hosted the Canadian version of "Sports Center." It's not that the U.S. version of Sports Center is without humor, but the moments of levity are mostly of the snarky aside, wouldn't-want-to-break-character variety. Fox's Onrait and O'Toole are more absurdist and goofy, what you'd get if the "Kids in the Hall" had a sports show. Here's a clip of Onrait from a few years ago, opining about an NHL team's nickname.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPORTS CENTER")

JAY ONRAIT: If the Thrashers win at the Winnipeg and they don't call them the Jets...

DAN O'TOOLE: You're really - you - this is a...

ONRAIT: I will be upset then, Dan. I really, really lose.

O'TOOLE: Bur under your saddle.

ONRAIT: I will lose it.

PESCA: Recently, on a talk show to promote the launch of Fox Sports 1, the six-foot-five Onrait entered the set borne on the back of the five-foot-one O'Toole. They made it a few paces, then tripped over some stairs, a metaphor for risk-taking or judgment or the possibility of failure, but mainly for physics. Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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