Fox's soccer focus lures Nike, Adidas

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While American sports fans might be more familiar with the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Steelers, they'll soon have the chance to get to know Manchester United and Real Madrid. On Feb. 7, News Corp.'s Fox Sports World remakes itself into an all-soccer-all-the-time channel.

Fox Soccer Channel, which will have distribution in about 20 million homes, is aimed at those 18 million people in the U.S. who participate in the sport and the couch potatoes who like to watch. Its promoters believe there was a hole in the market and the timing is right to launch a dedicated channel. "A well-branded channel devoted to soccer was a real no-brainer," says Guy Sousa, Fox Cable Sports' exec VP-ad sales. "We like that we'll be a consistent home for the sport."

The channel, which will be rebranded, with new logos, on-air graphics, music and schedule, will air games from around the world, devoting 80% of its schedule to game play. Other programming will include highlights, news and magazine-style shows. Original content is in the works, with places built in for sponsor inclusion. Coverage will include American Youth Soccer Organization, the World Cup-winning women's national team and games from Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Cable is increasingly an important revenue source for Fox. Operating income for the cable networks group was up 40% to about $658 million for the just-ended fiscal year 2004. The biggest drivers were FX and FSN, the regional sports networks, with midsize networks National Geographic Channel and Speed Channel also strong.

Because Fox Sports World (and now Fox Soccer Channel) is not rated, it's not sold based on CPMs, but on concept and added value. That's why the ad-sales executives have been so aggressive about product integration, billboards and other cross-marketing in addition to selling standalone spots.

"We're working with ad partners to give them a way to be contextually integrated," says David Safran, Fox Cable Sports' VP-ad sales. "We can have the brand immersed in our environment. We're trying to help sponsors above and beyond selling them a :30 spot."

The network plans to have a scrolling scoreboard on the bottom of the screen, for example, with opportunities for brand messages. Nike, which sponsored Fox Sports World, has already significantly increased its ad commitment to the channel. Tom Winner, director-broadcast buying at Nike ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, said the brand wants to support soccer and thinks a devoted channel will help build long-term interest with both boys and girls. "There's only been occasional soccer coverage on TV up to this point," Mr. Winner said. "This may help sustain interest as kids grow up."

Kids and soccer moms

Fox hopes to attract a broad demographic from youngsters who play soccer to soccer moms and adult male fans. Advertisers already on board include Adidas, British Airways and Goen Technologies, the parent company behind weight-loss supplement TrimSpa.

Goen Technologies is launching supplements called WinFuel, which it will advertise on the channel, and Fox Soccer has created "winning moments" vignettes that pair the products with game highlights. Executives plan grassroots marketing campaigns around WinFuel, extending the soccer theme into local soccer events and associations.

"We believe this channel could be a sleeper for us," says John Cowan, Goen's VP-media and advertising. "It's not like Nascar, where we get hundreds of thousands of impressions, but it's a good target." Among the programming on the channel is Fox Futbol Friday, a preview of coming games, and a tentatively named Fox Soccer USA, focused on youth and amateur soccer and targeted at 12-to-24-year-olds.

"I see this channel as a great opportunity," says Andy Donchin, director-national broadcast at media-buying firm Carat. "It's not going to be ESPN overnight, but it has real potential." He predicts many categories that will see the network as a must-buy, including those wanting to reach youngsters and the burgeoning Latino market.

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