Fox Sports 1, the new network from 21st Century Fox, has made no
bones about directly challenging ESPN for live events, TV viewers
and sponsors on Madison Avenue. The combo of Fox Sports and FS1
combo just outbid Disney's ESPN for the rights to U.S. Open
Golf starting in 2015.
Ditto for Comcast's NBC Sports/NBC Sports Network
combo, which beat out ESPN for NASCAR beginning in 2015 along with
ESPN has already seen a migration of on-air talent to its new
competition. Erin Andrews and Charissa Thompson left for Fox,
Michelle Beadle to NBC.
And All Things D reported that Google has begun talking to
the NFL about taking over DirecTV's Sunday Ticket game package --
raising the possibility ESPN will have to compete with
Google/YouTube and other digital platforms for sports rights in the
It's even come in for some political heat. At an average cost of
more than $5 per subscriber, U.S. Senator John McCain singled ESPN
out for criticism this year as one of the prime reasons why
consumer cable bills are so expensive. Mr. McCain pushed for
so-called a la carte cable, where consumers pick their own channels
rather paying for expensive programming bundles.
'Sharper and better'
Referring to the FS1 and NBCSN, Mr. Skipper said they'll make
ESPN "sharper and better." He reminded the various old and new
media types in attendance that ESPN continues to make its own big
Prodigal ESPN son Keith Olbermann's new show debuts Monday
night. Mr. Skipper promised the controversial anchor will stick to
sports, not the partisan politics he became known for at MSNBC.
"What Jon Stewart does for the news of the day, I think Keith
will do for the sports news of the day," said Mr. Skipper.
Similarly, just-hired Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock will
stick to sports, culture and TV, according to Mr. Skipper. Mr.
Whitlock told ESPN columnist Bill Simmons he envisions his planned
site as a "black" version of Mr. Simmons' own Grantland.com.
Statistician Nate Silver, who wrote the FiveThirtyEight.com blog
for the NYT, is also coming on board. Ex-NBC analyst Jerome Bettis
was just added to ESPN's NFL coverage. ESPN is also bringing back
funnyman anchor Kenny Mayne as a fill-in anchor for SportsCenter
The key content: sports
But all the on-air talent in the world won't matter without the
actual sports franchises. And ESPN isn't going to give those up --
to broadcast, cable or internet companies -- without a fight. For
starters, Mr. Skipper said the network will defend its TV rights
deal with NBA, which expires after the 2015/2016 season. "The NBA
is a critical product for us. It's a league in great shape right
now doing very well. Our clear intention is to maintain our
relationship with the NBA. We expect to be aggressive in doing
Mr. Skipper was "pretty skeptical" that major sports leagues
such as the NFL and NBA will sell live game rights to digital
platforms such as Google/YouTube or Yahoo instead of broadcast or
Certainly, sports leagues like to "float" the idea to drive up
prices, said Mr. Skipper. But live sports are the ultimate
appointment TV. He doubts sports fans will go to Google/YouTube, or
other digital platforms, to watch live games.
"I don't believe that's going to happen. Those sites are not
built for appointment viewing. You go there to watch archival
content," Mr. Skipper said.
Not that the network is ignoring the web. ESPN's in preliminary
talks to sell its programming to Web-based TV services said Mr.
Skipper, although he declined to name names.
Similar to the way that ESPN dealt with then-new satellite TV
providers such as DirecTV, Internet TV providers would have to pay
as much, or more, than ESPN's current cable/satellite clients. They
would also have to pay for the company's whole suite of products,
About a la carte
When it comes to the politics of a la carte pricing, Mr. Skipper
defended the current pay TV model, saying it's a "myth" that many
homes are forced to pay for ESPN without watching it. "Eighty-three
percent of every household that gets ESPN watches ESPN," he
If a la carte cable is implemented and ESPN ended up costing
more money for viewers -- the industry's argument against such
proposals -- sports fans would pay it, he predicted.
"We'd be fine," he said. "Showtime and HBO have already proved
that some large numbers of people will pay a monthly fee, a
significant monthly fee, for great content."
ESPN also made it a point to show off a cavernous new digital
center under construction that will become the new home of its
flagship "SportsCenter" program. The nearly 10,000 square foot
studio will enable ESPN to employ different sets for different
editions of "SportsCenter," said Senior VP Mark Gross.
But make no mistake: The rank and file at ESPN all closely
watched the rollout of FS1 on Saturday, said ESPN anchor Steve
"Not that we needed a wakeup but it's been a nice bump," said
Mr. Levy about FS1. "I can tell you our show meeting on Saturday
had a different feel to it than previous show meetings. Everyone is
well-aware of what's at stake here and what's going on. We're
rather confident and we like our chances to continue on top."