ESPNExecutive Voice

Fox v. ESPN: Anatomy of a moving target

(Nick Caito/ESPN Images)
(Nick Caito/ESPN Images)

Network rating battles can be a sport in and of themselves, providing entertainment for media watchdogs, and sometimes, we have to admit, an element of fun to our industry’s competitive landscape.

Since FS1’s creation, its executives have naturally targeted ESPN, but it can be hard to keep up with their changing focus. Their target moves with the speed of a Tom Brady pass over the middle, and with the elusiveness of Julio Jones.

Their aim at first was very broad: It started with ESPN overall, then late night SportsCenter, then late afternoon, then First Take and now, very narrowly, the 10 a.m. ET SportsCenter on ESPN2.

Like the other targets, SportsCenter is alive and well. This Digiday story explores how SportsCenter is successfully evolving. And the next innovation is SC6, which premieres Feb. 6. And for the record, since we switched First Take to ESPN, ESPN2 continues to top “Undisputed” in its time slot (175K to 132K).

As the target shifts again, we thought it would be helpful to deconstruct the history, with help from the words of Fox executives.

Target No. 1

In the spring of 2013, FS1 set the first expectation for its new network—match ESPN within three years. The Fox Sports chief shared the strategy with USA Today: “It’s going to take us a while. We’re not expecting to knock ESPN off in the first week or two. It’s going to take two to three years. It will be a slog.”

2016 marked the end of that three-year slog, so how did it work out? On a total day basis, ESPN beat FS1 nearly 5-to-1 (Nielsen data: ESPN 811K versus FS1 176K).

Target No. 2

By the August 2013 launch, FS1 execs had already recalibrated. SportsCenter wasn’t fun, they declared, and their new late show would fill the fun gap. Execs boasted to many outlets, including Bloomberg: “If you look at a show like SportsCenter, there’s a seriousness to it that is reminiscent of old pregame shows. We feel like we can come in and give you the same information, but do it in a way that is so much more entertaining and fun.”

The result? Since the “Fox Sports Live” relaunch last February, the 11 p.m. ET score is now 12-to-1 as SportsCenter delivered 692,000 viewers and FS1’s show in the window attracted 55,000. And Scott Van Pelt’s midnight ET SportsCenter not only easily topped FS1, it was the No. 1 late night talk show among M18-34 in all of television in 2016. Time to debate a new target.

Target No. 3

SportsCenter was trouncing FS1, so in 2016 it was time for Fox execs to deflect in the press. SportsCenter is a “dinosaur,” they told The Sporting News. It is in “record free fall,” they told The New York Times. The age of “opinionists” was born, they declared, and the gauntlet was thrown down as “Speak for Yourself” launched last June. “SFY” first aired opposite the 6 p.m. SportsCenter and lost the viewership battle 8-to-1 and was quickly moved opposite Around the Horn and PTI (which curiously launched 15 years before the dawn of opinion shows), and the margin grew to more than 11-to-1 (726K versus 63K).

Target No. 4

It was time to double down. With Skip Bayless’ departure to FSI and a Super Bowl-sized promo campaign behind it, “Undisputed” was going to take down First Take. “One guy has had an impact on three different shows on two networks. It’s been incredible,” Fox told Awful Announcing. How incredible? In 2017, First Take is topping “Undisputed” 4-to-1 (528K to 132K).

Their target has moved repeatedly. ESPN’s leadership position in sports television has not.

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