LOS ANGELES - Let the games begin.
On Saturday, the new channel Fox Sports 1 will debut in nearly 90 million homes, cable TV’s biggest launch ever — and a direct challenge to sports juggernaut ESPN.
There’s a 2-ton trophy at stake. ESPN draws nearly 2 million prime-time viewers a night while reaping $9 billion a year in subscriber fees and ad revenues.
A Minnesota broadcast veteran will be a key player in this matchup. Bill Dallman, former news director for KMSP, Channel 9, will preside over the new network’s signature show, “Fox Sports Live.” The nightly newscast will take on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” where making the highlights reel has become more important to athletes than gracing a Wheaties box.
“I had my dream job in Minnesota, but this was a bigger dream,” said Dallman as he showed off his lavish new studio in L.A., decked out with five video walls, catwalks and a couch that could accommodate five Shaquille O’Neals.
Dallman, whose father is a former Gophers linebacker, feels like he’s made the big leagues.
“The other night we had this dinner and [former NFL star] Donovan McNabb looked at me and said, ‘That’s a nice tie knot. Show me how to do that.’ How cool is that?”
So far ESPN is playing nice with its new competitor.
“We love to see the entire genre lifted,” said Conor Schell, vice president of ESPN Films.
The game plan
Dallman’s giddy enthusiasm matches the Fox formula: fast, loose and slightly irreverent.
Fox Sports 1 hopes to snare viewers with a lineup that, like ESPN, mixes live events, recaps and commentary.
But unlike ESPN, it will focus heavily on mixed martial arts — Saturday’s launch features five hours of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Major League Baseball, FIFA World Cup soccer, NASCAR, Pac-12 and various college football games, including the Big Ten championship, are also in the mix.
The network, which takes the place of the Speed Channel on most cable outlets, also has attracted prominent on-air talent, including Regis Philbin, (who’ll host a weekly show), tennis great Andy Roddick and basketball hall-of-famer Gary Payton, to counter ESPN’s arsenal, which includes ex-coach Lou Holtz and baseball legend Orel Hershiser.
“It’s good to be at the beginning of something,” said former All-Pro cornerback Ronde Barber as he was miked for a dress rehearsal. “There’s a lot of energy around here. And it’s good to have options, right?”
Maybe not if you own stock in Disney, ESPN’s parent company.
This summer the investment firm Goldman Sachs downgraded Disney from its “conviction buy” list to “neutral,” citing concern about the increasingly intense competition for sports viewers, which also includes the CBS Sports Network, which specializes in college games, and NBCS, which is rebranding itself this weekend as part of its acquisition of Premier League soccer.
ESPN is the Adrian Peterson of Disney, racking up nearly half of the media giant’s revenues — more than its movie division, theme parks, radio stations and the ABC network combined.
The dominant player in TV sports since 1979, it reaches more than 100 million homes, which pay dearly to get it. Roughly $5 a month from the average cable bill goes to ESPN, compared to about $1.20 for TNT, the next priciest non-premium channel.
Fox boss Rupert Murdoch has used sports as a game-changer before.
In 1993, he stunned the broadcast world by paying $1.6 billion to acquire NFL rights for his then-struggling Fox network.
It’s now impossible to think of football without Fox’s splashy approach.
A battle for talent
Fox is trying to do for sports what it did in cable news in 1996. Within six years Fox News toppled longtime ratings champion CNN. It’s been No. 1 ever since.
Fox Sports 1 recently outbid NBC and ESPN for men’s golf, paying $1 billion to broadcast the U.S. Open and other USGA events for 12 years, starting in 2015.
Pro golfer turned NBC commentator Johnny Miller didn’t hide his disappointment over the news. “I feel bad … that money was more important than basically a good golf crew,” Miller told the Associated Press.
There’s also a battle for talent brewing. It’s no coincidence that ESPN is bringing back both Keith Olbermann and Jason Whitlock, who was working for Fox Sports.
Most believe there’s enough interest — and enough sports — to keep everybody in the game, especially since Fox’s soccer and UFC coverage will skew to a younger crowd.
“My college students are super excited about Fox Sports,” said Chris Taylor, director of digital sports production at Ball State University. “Fox’s presentation style appeals to them. They’re even excited about Regis.”