MBPT Spotlight: As Fox Sports 1 Celebrates Its First Anniversary, COO David Nathanson Says The Best Is Yet To Come

Fox Sports 1 celebrated its first anniversary on Aug. 17 and the network was rewarded with negative stories in the press about it not living up to its hype or becoming a viable competitor to ESPN, which launched in September 1979.

The FS1 folks have been humble in acknowledging that some missteps were made during the first year on the air but that they continue to be psyched about year 2 when the network will be adding 500 more hours of live sports, including 150 live telecasts of sporting events. Among them: MLB post-season games, the NASCAR Nationwide Series, FIFA Women’s World Cup matches and USGA pro golf, including the U.S. Open.

If Fox Sports 1 execs wanted to be aggressive in answering some of those who believe they should have been a serious challenger to ESPN’s 2.3 million viewers in primetime in their first year on air, they could have pointed to what ESPN programming and viewership looked like in its first year.

When it first went on the air, ESPN carried programming like Munster Hurling matches, Irish cycling, kickboxing, volleyball, Australian Rules Football, some NCAA soccer and some NCAA college football games on tape delay. The net did televise some NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship tournament games during its first year, but didn’t carry a pro sport until 1982 when it televised some NBA games and in 1983 when it added the USFL. About 30,000 viewers tuned into ESPN during its first night on the air 35 years ago.

Fox Sports 1 in its first year carried live MLB regular season games, UFC matches, NASCAR Truck Series, Big 12 and Pac 12 college football, Big East college basketball, UEFA Champions League soccer and Golden Boy boxing.

David Nathanson, executive VP and chief operating officer of Fox Sports 1, does believe that “there hasn’t been a real competitor to ESPN” since it came on the air more than three decades ago, but he also believes that it is going to take several years for Fox Sports 1 to grow into that viable competitor.

“If you judge Fox Sports 1 by the standards we set for the network and by the product we set out to initially put on the air, yes, we have met expectations,” says Nathanson of the network meeting first-year expectations. “I’m not saying there wasn’t room for improvement during the first year. We did have some missteps and we could have done some things differently. But we started a new national sports network and built a foundation for the future, and in that regard, we got off to a good start.”

Nathanson says despite the critics, 90% of Fox Sports 1 advertisers are back for year 2, and new advertisers have come on board. And as far as ratings go, he says every advertiser was given makegoods for any underdelivery.

Fox Sports 1 averaged 108,000 viewers for total day during its first year, which is flat with Speed Channel, the network it replaced. In primetime, FS1 averaged 267,000 viewers, 46% higher than what Speed Channel averaged in its final year on the air. FS1 trailed NBC Sports Network in primetime viewership, however NBCSN aired two weeks of Winter Olympics programming. On Saturdays since the MLB season began on March 31, FS1 has averaged 409,000 viewers from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. -- higher than ESPN2’s 318,000 viewers during that time frame. So slowly, inroads are being made.

“We put on over 2,000 hours of original programming in our first year, including 11,000 live telecasts, Nathanson says. “From that perspective, we built a foundation that is going to allow us to succeed long term.”

Among the 150 new or additional events that FS1 will televise its second year are 10 NASCAR Nationwide Series telecasts; six NASCAR Sprint Cup races; 27 Major League Soccer matches; 11 CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer matches; about 29 FIFA Women’s World Cup matches; four U.S. Open golf telecasts; four U.S. Senior Open telecasts and two Women’s Open telecasts; and this October, up to nine MLB League Divisional Series games and up to five League Championship Series games. FS1 will also televise eight more MLB regular season games next year than it has this season.

“In our first year we didn’t release the full arsenal of the sports events rights we own so more of that will come in year 2,” Nathanson says. “As far as our returning programming such as college football, we need to elevate the level of coverage and draw more viewers in this coming season. We are continually evolving our programming to meet the desires of our fans. As we grow as a network, we have to learn from our viewers what they are looking for and what makes them want to tune in. Then we need to make adjustments to our programming as we have been doing. Building a network is a lot of trial and error. But live events are the crown jewels of sports networks. It’s what draws people in and we are adding a lot more of that over the next year beginning with post-season MLB games.”

While media buyers for the most part have accepted the low ratings, since they were given makegoods for any under delivery, one area that may have rankled the 10% of advertisers who are not returning this year was the aggressive stance Fox took in tying in the 2014 Super Bowl ad sales to FS1.

“There was some pressure by Fox ad sales last year that if you wanted to get into the Super Bowl and get a decent price, you had to buy a certain amount of FS1 inventory,” says one media buyer, who does not want to be identified. “Some of the marketers didn’t appreciate that so there might be a bit of a backlash toward FS1.”

However, the buyer adds that the drawing power of live events like post-season MLB and the World Cup could draw some of those advertisers back in. “It’s all about negotiating and posturing and FS1 is going to be around so some marketers will play the waiting game.”

As for Nathanson, he remains confident that the network is going to not only grow its ratings but also its ad roster in the coming year.

“Yes it’s a competitive environment in the sports network field, but we are in it for the long haul,” says Nathanson.