Why analysts are betting Fox Sports can't lose by taking on the ESPN money machine (updated)

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ESPN has made a very lucrative business out of televising competition.

But for more than three decades, the sports-behemoth hasn’t had a true competitor. That could change this weekend.

On Saturday, FOX launches two cable sports channels it hopes will eventually bring down ESPN. (In the interest of full disclosure, David Hill, CEO of FOX Sports, is on KPCC's Board of Trustees.) 

Others have tried and failed to make a dent in the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports"; analysts believe FOX is ESPN’s most formidable challenger yet.

“By far and away they’re the closest in terms of the look and feel to a true competitor that we’ve seen,” said David M. Carter, principal at the Sports Business Group and Executive Director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute. "FOX has struck a chord with sports fans over the years so they’re pretty uniquely positioned to take a run at launching this national network.”

To understand why FOX – and others – have so badly wanted to take a bite out of ESPN, just look at how important it has become for its majority-owner Disney.

When most people think about Disney they think Mickey Mouse, theme parks, or animated films. But it’s Disney’s cable networks – led by ESPN – that now bring in more than half of the company’s operating income.

“The majority of the value of Disney right now, which is a $50 billion corporation, comes from ESPN,” said David Bank, equity research analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

'Making sports fun again'

FOX Sports is taking dead aim at ESPN, branding itself in promos as a more entertaining, looser alternative. (ESPN declined a request for comment.)

“We’re the ones making sports fun again,” ESPN-turned FOX anchor Erin Andrews says in previews for the channels, one of which can be viewed below:

FOX also imported two anchors from the Canadian version of Sportscenter – Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole – to host its nightly sports highlight show. They have been compared to the “Big Show” duo of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, who are credited with putting ESPN’s Sportscenter on the map in the 90’s.

Bill Wanger, FOX Sports Executive Vice-President for Programming and Research, says rather than ESPN, the model for FOX Sports is the network’s jocular NFL Sunday pregame show.

“It’s really informative and really credible, but it’s at the end of the day and they’re guys you want to have a beer with,” said Wanger. “It’s great chemistry. It’s just fun.”

But Wanger stresses the channels aren’t just about laughs and big personalities, which can be found elsewhere. What will attract lots of eyeballs are the sports rights FOX has been gobbling up the last few years.

“Besides ESPN, there’s not another cable sports network out there that has the compliment of rights that we have,” said Wanger.

They include college basketball and football, NASCAR, UFC, U.S. Open golf, and starting next year, Major League Baseball.

But none of those sports come close to attracting the massive audience of the NFL, which ESPN pays $1.9 billion a year to air on Monday nights. Even with a ratings dip last year, Monday Night Football is frequently the most-watched show on cable.

Should the NFL put some of its Thursday night games up for sale – as has been discussed for some time – Wanger says FOX would be an eager bidder. He also says the network will go after NBA rights when they go on the market in two years.

“We’re absolutely in the market for those,” said Wanger.

Can FOX Sports 1 be 'Pepsi?'

With the exception of its fledgling business channel, FOX Business, it has an impressive record of taking on entrenched competitors, and winning. In the best-case scenario, FOX Sports would do to ESPN what FOX News did to CNN, which is beat an entrenched competitor.

But at least for now, Wanger is setting modest expectations.

“Our initial ratings will probably be pretty low,” he said.  “Our success will be measured in years, not days or months.”

But sports media advisor Chris Bevilacqua says the question isn’t so much whether FOX Sports can be Coke, as can it be Pepsi?

“I don’t see ESPN being dislodged from their leadership position anytime soon,” said Bevilacqua. "The question is: Can you build a very good business around being number two?”

FOX already has a good head start. Most new cable channels struggle to get picked up by cable operators.

But by taking channels it already owned – Speed and Fuel TV – for the new channels, FOX has already solved the distribution problem.

“They were in a fantastic position by having the beachfront real estate at Speed Channel,” said RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank.

FOX has boasted that FOX Sports 1 will available in 90 million homes, which is only 8 million less than ESPN.

The different business model of cable TV

Fox’s wide distribution and relatively generous subscriber fees lead Bank to conclude something about FOX no sports team could ever dream of saying: They can’t lose.

“It actually feels fairly riskless, which you rarely hear a financial analyst say,” said Bank. “It’s just a lock it’s going to be massively profitable. We don’t worry at all."

Bank says that’s because FOX has already negotiated higher carriage fees with cable providers that are multiples of what it was getting before with Speed and Fuel TV.

So he estimates it already had more than $1 billion of revenue coming in before it sold a penny of advertising.

“The great thing about this business is that the risk has been mitigated massively by the concept of monthly affiliate fees,” said Bank.

Last-minute deals reached 

On Thursday, Fox announced that it reached last-minute agreements with three of the country's biggest pay-TV providers - DirecTV, Dish, and Time Warner Cable - meaning the channel will be available to most L.A. subscribers.

The deals ensure Fox Sports 1 will be available in 90 million homes nationwide, which only about 8 million fewer than ESPN. 

However, the providers reportedly haven't agreed to long-term deals that require substantial per-household fee increases.

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