FOX Sports To ESPN – And Magic Johnson: Game On

Sources say FOX is planning to launch a new national cable sports network, perhaps as soon as this year, with ESPN in its sights. Revenue from such a network could offset high sports broadcast contracts, potentially if they were to land a new deal with the Dodgers, now partly-owned by Magic Johnson (shown here from his old show "The Magic Hour" on FOX TV).

Get ready for another sports cable network with intentions of national distribution.

On the heels of CBS transforming its College Sports network to CBS Sports Network, and subsequently, NBC replacing Versus with NBC Sports Network, FOX is planning to launch its own sports network – and they’re gunning for sports behemoth ESPN (or if you prefer, the ABC sports network).

Anonymous sources revealed that FOX’s parent owner, News Corporation, “is assembling the required rights from pay-TV carriers and sports organizations,” and clearly has the Worldwide Leader in their crosshairs.

To ignite this battle with ESPN, FOX is going to add fuel to the fire – that is, Fuel TV, the action-sports oriented network currently cleared in about 36 million homes – or less than a third of the available cable households.

Keep in mind, FOX also owns other existing sports cable networks with different niches: FOX Soccer Channel; FOX College Sports; Big Ten Network; and SPEED, which specializes in auto racing, especially NASCAR: SPEED airs original live pre-race and post-race programming every race day. In addition, FOX operates dozens of regional sports cable networks across the country, either under the name “FSN” or “Root Sports”; their existences on the cable dial are usually buoyed by local sports broadcast contracts.

Currently, Fuel TV specializes in UFC-oriented programming; the network landed rights to the mixed martial arts sport just last year. This year, Fuel TV’s logo changed to a font that looks strikingly similar to the one used by UFC for their logo. Fuel TV also carries motocross programming which, if need be, could easily move over to sister cable network SPEED.

Word of FOX’s plans to launch their own version of ESPN came no less than 24 hours after a group featuring NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson successfully placed a bid for ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. The Dodgers’ current television contract with FOX Sports West/Prime Ticket – the great Vin Scully still going strong at 84, by the way – expires after the 2013 season. After locking up lucrative long-term contracts with the Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels, at $3 billion and 20 years each, for their respective regional sports cable networks, FOX will be chomping at the bit to lock up a like deal with the Dodgers. Or, Johnson and the rest of the new Dodgers ownership could choose to start their own regional sports network, likely a partnership with the popular cable operator in Southern California, Time Warner Cable.

Points of irony here: Last year, Time Warner struck a twenty-year deal, effective this fall, for two new local sports channels (English and Spanish) with exclusive broadcast rights to the Los Angeles Lakers – Johnson’s former team. Johnson was once a FOX employee, though for a rather forgettable project: the short-lived late-night program, “The Magic Hour.” And Johnson currently is an NBA analyst with ESPN – the very entity that FOX is now going up against.

If FOX is able to ink a new long-term deal with the Dodgers, with a figure that potentially could trump both the Angels and Rangers deals combined, the revenue generated from a traditional sports network in the vein of ESPN could offset some of these high rights fees in the long run.

But first, FOX has to set the table. They have to make pitches to sports teams and leagues for live content. They should continue coming up with new ideas for original programming (perhaps a daily show a la NBC Sports Network’s “NBC Sports Talk,” or NFL Network’s “Total Access,” or, of course, ESPN’s “SportsCenter”). But above all this, they must nail down double, if not triple, the availability of the canvas of the new channel, which, while there is no official word, is expected to be Fuel TV – especially if, according to a source, the new network “could begin service by the end of this year.”

One thing is for sure: You won’t find “Magic Hour” reruns on the new FOX sports network.

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