Back in October, when NBC/Universal outbid Fox and ESPN for the TV rights of the Barclays Premier League, I asked how the loss would affect the two marquee soccer networks, Fox Soccer and Fox Soccer Plus. (Read it here if you’re interested). If recent rumors are to be believed, we have our answer.
According to various reports in the media, Fox Soccer would disappear and be turned into an entertainment network as part of a major rebranding and programming shuffle by Fox. In short, Speed and Fuel – Fox’s two automotive racing channels – would be rebranded as Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 respectively. They would assume all the sporting broadcast responsibilities of the other Fox channels: soccer from Fox Soccer and Fox Soccer Plus, UFC and college football from FX, NASCAR, Grand Prix racing, NHRAA racing and Formula 1 from Speed and Fuel. Fox Soccer could potentially become FX2, a sister to their successful FX network, home of Justified, Archer, Sons of Anarchy and Louie.
On a short term outlook, it makes sense for Fox to do this. Having lost the Premier League, they are left with tournament events like the FIFA World Cup, the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League as their big marquee programming events. Thing is they’re not an every weekend event. World Cups happen only once every four years while the Champions League happens every two weeks on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Far easier to find a way to make that fit within a network with other sports and not drag a network around with just biweekly programming and endless loops of Fox Soccer News, Sky Sports News and repeats of bad paid-advertisement.
Longer-term, one does have to ask what is going to be the make-up of this new national sports network and how it will relate to soccer. In this new network, Fox will have MLB, college football, UFC, NASCAR and soccer. While the marquee Champions League and FA Cup matches – stuff like Real Madrid vs Manchester United or Liverpool vs Chelsea – will obviously land on Fox Sports 1, how much of it will be shifted to Fox Sports 2? Will it matter as long as both are equally available? Or will match-ups like Brighton vs Arsenal end up on a new Fox Soccer Plus (behind a paywall) or worse on some web-only channel?
And just what does become of Fox Soccer Plus, the premium-priced sister to Fox Soccer. The remains of the old Setanta Sports network, Fox Soccer Plus shows Premier League, Champions League, Scottish Premier League, Australia’s A-league and rugby. If the soccer is all sucked away towards Fox Sports 1 and 2, Fox Soccer Plus would then end up with almost no programming worth of its $14.95 a month price tag. Would that programming be folded in with the two Fox Sports channels? Would they go away altogether? Move online as part of Fox Soccer 2Go, Fox Soccer’s pay-per-game service?
A long time ago, Fox tried to go toe-to-toe with ESPN and lost. This is what led to the break-up of Fox Sports into regional networks. They just couldn’t compete with the market penetration of the big Bristol behemoth. Losing the Premier League may, in a way, force Fox back into the ring with ESPN. The key will be how smart Fox becomes about taking on ESPN. Fans of any sport will follow their teams and their sports to whatever channel has it. The key is how you present it and how you engage your viewers. Give them news, quality analysis and statistics and they’ll stick. Give them shouting heads and debate embracing and they won’t stick around. In this, Fox Soccer has been found wanting time and again – hiring ex-jocks to give platitudes and speak in generalities doesn’t work! If Fox is serious, they better line their ducks in a row and get it right.
Because with beIN Sports, NBC Sports and others offering soccer elsewhere, the growing fanbase for the sport in the US won’t hesitate to change the channel on you once their team is off the screen. Fox Soccer may have been the #1 soccer network in America for a long time. But those days appear to be numbered.