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Fox Isn't Shy About Challenging ESPN

“We’re not trying to beat ESPN, that wouldn’t make sense.”

Those words were spoken by News Corp. COO Chase Carey Tuesday morning during the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet and Telecom conference.

But when Fox Sports executives were pressed about challenging the long-time leader in the space during the company’s announcement later that day that it will launch a national cable sports network, they didn’t exactly back down either.

“It’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to give it a shot,” said David Hill, senior EVP, News Corp., who will be tasked with leading the launch efforts.

Hill, along with the rest of the executives in attendance, spoke often about Fox Sports 1 becoming an “equal” or an “alternative” to ESPN. “People need to, over time, feel like there’s a channel number in their head they can go to as an alternative to one of the more powerful sports channels out there,” said Eric Shanks, copresident & COO, Fox Sports Media Group.

Fox’s strategy for FS1 in the early going is not to challenge ESPN with live sports — though live programming will be a big part of the schedule with 55% of FS1’s lineup made up of live events. Instead, FS1 has positioned its studio shows and news franchise in time slots that go head-to-head against established ESPN series.

Perhaps the biggest is Fox Sports Live, FS1’s 24-hour news franchise that will air its daily program at 11 p.m., going head-to-head against a live version of ESPN’s SportsCenter. That hour is important because it often follows game coverage. FS1’s early schedule will include primetime sporting events like college football, basketball and UFC, so it’s hoping for a similar set up with Fox Sports Live.

The two other daily studio shows that Fox announced Tuesday are the Regis Philbin hosted Rush Hour and Fox Football DailyRush Hour, which will feature a View-styled format, will air from 5-6 p.m., which pits it against ESPN’s two longrunning debate programs, Around the Horn and PTI. The 6 p.m. Fox Football Daily, which seeks to leverage viewers’ unwavering appetite for NFL coverage, will go up against ESPN’s live 6 p.m. version ofSportsCenter.

“ESPN, quite frankly, is a machine,” said Bill Wanger, Fox Sports’ executive VP of programming and research, during the presentation. “They have very consistent ratings, obviously huge revenue.” He said FS1’s original programming slate will be a “quality play, not a quantity play.”

Fox knows that having strong studio and news programming is important, but nothing beats live games, which are DVR proof (during the upfront they touted that 97% of viewers watch sports live). Unlike NBC and CBS, which have launched their own cable sports networks in the past two years, FS1 will have major rights at the outset, including big-time college basketball and football conferences, UEFA and CONCACAF soccer leagues and the UFC. Over the next few years FS1 will add Major League Baseball (including playoff games), NASCAR and the World Cup.

“If you just put together great shows, without the rights, there’s obviously no reason for people to come to you,” said Shanks.

Fox’s biggest sports property is the NFL, though it’s limited to just the broadcast network for now. Wanger said that “while we don’t have [NFL] games yet, we will have plenty of football programming.” He added that may include a show that would air Sundays prior to the broadcast network’s pregame show Fox NFL Sunday, which would go up against another powerful ESPN property, Sunday NFL Countdown.

Fox is expected to announce soon its agreement with the “Catholic 7″ — the seven breakaway schools from the Big East, which will give FS1 another major property. It’s also a safe bet that Fox will go hard after NBA rights whose deals end in 2016. Deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who will take over for David Stern next February, was in attendance for Tuesday’s upfront.

“We’re not expecting to knock ESPN off in the first week or two,” said Hill. He argued it would take at least “two or three years” to really put a dent in the Worldwide Leader.

“The appetite for sports seems insatiable,” added Toby Byrne, president, sales, Fox Broadcasting Co. and Fox Sports Media Group. “There’s plenty of room, we think, for more competition and another national sports network.”