FS1 Looks To Boost Audience with MLB's Arrival

There will be plenty of baseball firsts for Fox Sports 1 on Saturday.

The rookie national sports network will unveil a new pregame show, introduce two announce teams, trot out the first two of its 40-game regular-season MLB slate, and make them available on the programmer's TV Everywhere service.

Most importantly, the arrival of MLB regular-season games should lift FS1’s profile, sampling and audience, while serving as a prelude to a robust post-season package that likely will generate the network's highest Nielsens to date.

Under its new eight-year, $4.2 billion rights deal with MLB, Fox Sports is doubling the number of regular-season exposures to 52 and adding a pair of Division Series (minus one game from each that will air on MLB Network).

Although Fox broadcast will televise a dozen regular-season contests, the All-Star Game and the World Series, most of the programmer’s national hardball action will appear on FS1, including the aforementioned 40 regular-season affairs and Division Series, plus one League Championship Series.

Turner Sports has a similar playoff package during the Division and League Championship rounds. For continuity of scheduling, the carriers over the life of the new MLB rights deals, will in alternate years present all of one league’s postseason games until Fox airs the World Series. MLB will likely make its decision about league post-season assignments after the Mid-Summer Classic.

Leading with a pregame show, hosted by SNY’s and NFL on Fox play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt from Los Angeles, FS1 will present the first of its 10 solo doubleheaders (it will split 10 others with Fox).

FS1 begins on-field matters at 1 p.m. (ET) with  Minnesota-Cleveland, followed by San San Francisco-Los Angeles Dodgers, which will feature Fox's main broadcast squad of Joe Buck, Tom Verducci and Harold Reynolds. The trio succeeds Buck and Tim McCarver, who had been Fox’s primary MLB team since 1996.

Moreover, FS1 has debuted MLB Whiparound, its live look-in show, hosted by Chris Myers, that competes with ESPN’s BaseballTonight and MLBN’s MLB Tonight, and will bow America’s Pregame, which will set up the night’s sports lineup, including plenty of MLB action, on April 7.

In addition to its own games, highlights and news coverage, FS1 will also offer programming from MLB Productions.

“Adding America’s pastime to the network, in terms of 40-regular season and MLB Whiparound, are the start of great things to come,” said FS1 and FS2 general manager and COO David Nathanson in an interview.“ We will have more baseball than any other multisports network, and are looking to owning Saturdays.”

Nathanson believes baseball’s bow, as well as the premiere of U.S. Open Golf and FIFA World Cup (women’s) action next year, will bring more and new eyeballs to the network.

“It’s still early days, but we’ve been a little light in the Northeast [in terms of viewership]. Baseball will certainly help with that,” said Nathanson, alluding to the sports’ popularity among fans stretching from Boston, New York to Philadelphia, down to the nation’s capital. “As we add more programming, including MLB, more people will sample the network and audiences will follow.”

Madison Avenue certainly has. A Fox Sports spokesman noted that advertising for the regular season is “virtually sold out”  and that MLB Whiparound has been “incredibly well-received and advertisers are looking to get more involved with it. There is high demand for baseball.”

Bill Wanger, executive vice president, programming, research and content strategy at Fox Sports, explained that the programmer’s MLB schedule was assembled in a three-step process. Leading off: a dozen contests selected for Fox’s broadcast window -- eight consecutive weeks of primetime Saturdays, beginning in late May, and four afternoon games in September.

Next, there are 14 “coexist” contests that will air both on FS1 and on regional sports networks in the participating clubs’ DMAs. Teams can’t appear across Fox and FS1 coexist games more than eight times.

Finally, 26 “regional elevate” games will appear exclusively on FS1. This schedule was drawn from games originally slated for Fox-owned regional sports networks. For instance, Saturday's matchup between the Twins (Fox Sports North) and Indians (SportsTime Ohio) was elevated to the national level. 

“We’re going to get the home market audience for those games. That’s going to help,” said Wanger.

He also noted that Fox was mindful of adding too many regional elevate contests that could rub up against the RSN’s contractual game exposure requirements. With the regional elevates, the home team’s broadcast team will make what becomes the national call on FS1.

Both executives believe viewers will be pleased by the quality of productions they will see from Fox’s RSN lineup, and benefit from acumen the local announcers will bring to bear. “They live and breathe with these teams,” said Nathanson.

Although Fox and FS1 have announced their full-season schedule, Wanger said modifications can be made to reflect the fluctuations of on-field performance. “We have certain windows, four weeks, two weeks and one week out to make changes,” he explained.

Wanger reminded that in addition to the national contests Fox RSNs will air some 2,500 ballgames during the 2014 season. “It’s going to be one big circle when it comes to promotion,” he said.

As to the posteason, Wanger is jazzed. "Any time you can present some of baseball's crown jewels, it's really going to create some excitement," he said.

Digitally, Fox’s national MLB regular-season and playoff schedules will be streamed for the first time.

Nathanson shied away from forecasts for MLB on Fox Sports Go. “This is the first time with MLB. I’m not going to make any predictions for the numbers this year, but Fox Sports Go has been successful with the Super Bowl and other events,” he said. “People are expecting to find their sports on multiple platforms, so it’s par for the course. “

Currently, Fox Sports Go is available to some 30 million authenticated Comcast, Cablevision, AT&T U-verse, Suddenlink, WOW! and Midcontinent subs, about one third of FS1’s base. Fox Sports Go also has deals with Time Warner Cable and Cox and the programmer is hopeful the service will launch before close to another 20 million homes by the All-Star break.

Asked if having MLB games will serve to expand its streaming roster, Nathanson said: “The appeal of baseball may prompt some distributors to sign up more quickly. Others will include [Fox Sports Go] as part of broader affiliate negotiations.”