I think it’s time for ESPN to get a little competition, don’t you?”
That tough talk is coming from an unlikely source — 81-year-old Regis Philbin. The former daytime television talk show host and David Letterman foil is one of the faces of Fox Sports 1, the cable network launching Saturday that is the latest David looking to knock off ESPN’s Goliath.
Given that Philbin is more accustomed to speaking to housewives and is more than twice as old as the viewers Fox Sports 1 is hoping to attract, his hiring seems unusual to say the least.
“It is a bit out of left field, but that’s what we do,” said Fox Sports Co-President Eric Shanks of the hiring of Philbin to host “Crowd Goes Wild,” an afternoon round table that will also feature former Baltimore Raven Trevor Pryce, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay and Katie Nolan, best known for her racy sports-related YouTube videos.
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Even Philbin acknowledged surprise when the offer came. “I never thought I would be on an hour-long sports show,” he said, adding he wasn’t even aware Fox was launching the channel when he was asked to meet with Shanks.
Since then, the hard-core Notre Dame football and New York Yankees fan has been taking a crash course on the rest of the sports world. “From now on I’m going to have to keep my eye on everything,” he said, adding that he’d spent the day reading about Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers slugger suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs.
The launch of Fox Sports 1 and smaller sister channel Fox Sports 2 highlights the dominant and growing role sports is playing in the modern television industry. At a time when broadcast and cable networks are struggling to keep viewers in front of the television and off the Internet, sports has become their surefire antidote to Web surfing and cord-cutting.
Fox, which has made a career out of taking on giants, first with its broadcast network and later with its cable news channel, will be starting this fight with one hand tied behind its back. Fox Sports 1 still doesn’t have distribution deals locked up with some of the nation’s biggest pay-TV operators, including Time Warner Cable and DirecTV. There’s a good chance that when Fox Sports 1 goes live Aug. 17 with a NASCAR race that much of Los Angeles won’t be able to see it (or the sports on CBS for that matter, but that’s another story).
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And the competition is formidable. “It is not a hill they have to climb, it’s the Grand Canyon,” said Mark Shapiro, a former ESPN executive. “ESPN has built such a big moat around itself the Russian army of the Cold War couldn’t get in.”
Moreover, while no one in sports broadcasting likes to hear it, there is not exactly a shortage of product out there. When ESPN launched in 1979, the consensus was there weren’t enough sports or fans to sustain a 24-hour cable network.
Flash forward 34 years and now the sports that critics used to make fun of ESPN for carrying in its early days have networks of their own. There’s a channel devoted to fishing. Another aimed at horse racing enthusiasts. Even big game hunters have two networks targeting them.
There are more than 20 national sports networks that don’t have the letters E-S-P-N in their names. The NFL, Major League Baseball, the NHL and NBA all have their own channels on top of the billions they rake in selling their games to other national and local outlets. Tennis and golf also rate their own networks. Several college conferences including the Big-12 and Pac-10 have launched their own channels.