One Year In, Fox Sports 1 Hasn't Lived Up to the Hype

Network Focuses on Growing Its Audience, Revamping Studio Shows

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When Fox Sports 1 bowed in August 2013, advertisers hoped it would be an alternative to sports behemoth ESPN. But one year in, that dream has yet to materialize and media buyers say expectations have become much more reserved.

In its first year, Fox Sports 1 averaged just 267,000 total viewers in prime time, less than NBCSN's 305,000, and a far cry from the 2.3 million people who regularly watch ESPN on any given night.

The addition of Major League Baseball in the spring hasn't done much for the channel, as ratings for the league have been lackluster this summer.

"Fox Sports 1 ratings have not lived up to projections," said Daniel Cohn, client director -- investment, Initiative.

"Sadly they haven't lived up to what we all hoped," another media buyer said. "Everyone was looking for someone to come in and rival ESPN, but that hasn't happened."

The buyer said its clients cut budgets significantly during the upfronts, some by more than 50%. In order for advertisers to gain renewed confidence in the channel, the buyer said they would need to see a meaningful improvement in ratings.

"It was widely reported that it was a soft upfront all around and we are no different than anyone else who was impacted," said David Nathanson, exec VP and general manager, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2.

But Mr. Nathanson said FS1 has been able to retain more than 90% of its initial advertisers and has brought in new advertisers during the year. "Our advertisers have taken a long-term view," he said.

Mr. Cohn said advertisers are still interested in the channel as it fits into brand needs, also acknowledging that FS1 was more flexible when it came to pricing than last year now that they have real ratings on which to base guarantees.

Of course, it takes a while for any new network to find an audience, and FS1 is experiencing many typical growing pains, said Brad Adgate, senior VP -- research, Horizon Media.

Mr. Adgate points to channels like Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network, which failed to meet expectations in its first year, but eventually found a following.

"Grandiose expectations often lead to disappointment," he said. Mr. Adgate said he is confident in the demand from both viewers and advertisers for live sports.

While ratings may not have lived up to the initial hype, FS1 is a vast improvement over its predecessor, Speed, which before the rebrand averaged only 151,000 viewers. The network is also attracting a younger, more affluent viewer than Speed, Mr. Nathanson said.

FS1 has seen some ratings successes, especially with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which regularly attracts close to 1 million viewers.

"We haven't released half our arsenal yet," Mr. Nathanson said.

FS1 will add more live sports later this year and into 2015, including the US Open, Nascar Sprint Cup and Nationwide races and Major League Soccer.

The network also has college football and post-season baseball on deck.

FS1 is making an investment in marketing college football, launching a campaign last week where it "apologized" for airing too many games.

Mr. Nathanson predicts October will be the biggest month for the network to-date due to post-season baseball.

FS1 is also expected to make a bid for the NBA when rights become available, which Mr. Adgate said could be a coup for the network if it succeeds. Outside of NBA, there are not many sports rights available.

Heading into year two, Mr. Nathanson said the biggest goal is to get more people to tune in on a more consistent basis.

The network is also focused on evaluating its studio programming. FS1 has canceled a batch of its initial programming, including Regis Philbin's "Crowd Goes Wild," Fox Soccer Daily and Fox Football Daily. The latter two were morphed into what is now "America's Pregame."

Mr. Nathanson said the network has learned from its first year and has revamped its daytime programming over the last few months. He points to "America's Pregame" and "Fox Sports Live" as FS1's core studio programs.

"We launched too much too soon," he said. "One lesson we learned is we need to constantly evolve the programming and have a long-term view of the business."

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