By: Keith Nelson Jr (@JusAire), Editor-in-Chief
Fox Sports 1 wants to be ESPN. ESPN knows Fox Sports 1 wants to be ESPN. On August 19th, 2013 the media oligarch Rupert Murdoch debuted Fox Sports 1, Fox’s own 24 hour sports news network, reaching 90 million households at launch with a plethora of sports programming. But, you don’t try and be a brand like ESPN, synonymous with sports and reaches over 100 million people a week, by merely being accessible to 90 million people, you have to differentiate yourself to those 90 million people. You don’t try and sell more burgers than McDonald’s by simply selling burgers, you need a secret sauce, preferably of the Good Burger kind. Boxing and UFC were Fox Sports 1’s secret sauce as ESPN has not made either sport a major programming priority in recent history.
In March 2013, six months before the channel’s debut, Fox Sports 1 signed a television series deal with Oscar De Lay Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions for 24 two-hour live fight cards, every other week for a year. The series debuted on August 19th and featured a card headlined by a middleweight bout between Daniel Jacobs and Giovanni Lorenzo.
ESPN has a boxing division, ESPN Boxing, but it does not have a UFC division, hence why Fox Sports 1 televised UFC Fight Night featuring Chael Sonnen vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua on the same day the new network debuted. UFC’s Fight Night was a huge success, averaging 1.78 million viewers in primetime. Golden Boy Live’s debut attracted 156,000 total viewers with 64,000 coming from the 18-49 age demographic. In its first year, Golden Boy Live hovered around the 160,000 viewership mark with its one year anniversary consisting of a near identical 163,000 viewership for the card headlined by Manuel Avila vs. Sergio Frias. UFC’s viewership on Fox Sports 1 peaked at the 1.78 million for its debut, but stayed within the 600,000 region. Its one year anniversary on the network featured a UFC Fight Night card headlined by Benson “Smooth” Henderson vs. Rafael dos Anjos reaching 689,000 viewers. If ESPN had viewerships this low, someone would be fired.
After a disappointing inaugural year in which the network averaged 267,000 viewers in primetime, David Nathanson, exec VP and general manager, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 admitted to Adage FS1 “launched too much too soon.” What’s the solution according to Mr. Nathanson? “We need to constantly evolve the programming and have a long-term view of the business.”
In other words: We need to fight fire with celebrity.
Four months into its second year, FS1 debuted Fantasy Football Uncensored hosted by NFL on FOX Insider Jay Glazer and actor/comedian David Spade and signed a three-fight deal with Jay Z and Roc Nation’s “Throne Boxing”. Spade and Glazer are expected to “bring together a few of their celebrity buddies for a weekly battle of football knowledge and smack talk,” according to the official press release for the show. Fantasy football is an industry generating over $2.5 billion in revenue with an estimated 40 million participants in 2014, mostly in their 30’s and 40’s. David Spade and his celebrity friends were not chosen for their sports acumen but for their star appeal that has yet to show positive results. The show debuted on August 23rd and attracted a paltry 72,000 viewers with its last airing of 2014 attracting a disappointing 54,000 viewers. The star-centric show is slowly turning into a white dwarf in the Fox Sports 1 universe, imploding from its core.
Then there’s Jay Z:
Roc Nation Sports has described Throne Boxing as “a series that will stand alone on the boxing landscape,” according to David Itskowitch, the chief operating officer of Roc Nation Sports' boxing division and former chief operating officer of Golden Boy Promotions. This is the young company's first boxing promotion and the key factor that could differentiate Throne Boxing from a long history of boxing programming is the promise of Roc Nation artists performing at the three Throne Boxing events, ushering Fox Sports 1 into the live performance market for the first time. For the first event, Throne Boxing will take place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on January 9th. Roc Nation artists veteran Brooklyn MC (and hip hop’s unofficial social media slang czar) Fabolous and DJ Mustard will be the first performers for the Jan. 9th event hosted legendary radio personality, Power 105.1’s Angie Martinez. For a label that manages high profile acts with recent commercial success such as Rihanna, Kanye West, J. Cole and Mark Ronson, the selection of inconsistent hit maker Fabolous and newcomer DJ Mustard is indicative of Jay Z testing to see if Throne Boxing can attract viewers without mega-star power. However, with only three fights scheduled for Fox Sports 1, a network that already has a history of failure in boxing programming, Jay Z and Roc Nation needs to capitalize on their greatest asset: exclusive moments.
Exclusivity usually precludes channel flipping and major moments inspire social media sharing and news coverage days after, intensifying interest in the series’ next offering. The Super Bowl has not averaged over 105 million viewers the past five years because of a football game. Bruno Mars’ halftime performance at last year’s Super Bowl attracted 115.3 million viewers, 3.8 million more viewers than the actual game garnered, a game that set a record for the most watched TV event in the U.S. This has happened for every Super Bowl for the past three years, coinciding with the immersion of social media in not only society but in how entertainment is measured. Jay Z and Roc Nation has a stable of artists full of moments that would help bolster viewership.
Rihanna, Kanye West, Meek Mill and Jay Z himself have not released new albums in over a year; over two years for Rihanna and Meek Mill. Meek Mill was recently released from prison after serving a five month bid for probation violations and has yet to release any music, do any live performances or really be out in the public eye. Kanye West released “Only One”, his first collaboration with Sir Paul McCartney, on New Year’s Day and has an upcoming collaboration with Rihanna and the legendary Beatle set to be released, with a video that has reportedly already been shot. Rihanna, Kanye and Paul McCartney could be cutting slices of bread on TV together and get 15 million people to watch them. If Jay Z and Roc Nation Sports can turn these Throne Boxing performances into world premieres of sorts, Throne Boxing will be a hit.
Jay Z’s 18 year music career is a testament to how reliable he is to deliver results, but that does not mean the man who refers to himself as Jay Hova(Jehovah was copyrighted by God) is infallible. Back in February 22nd, 2003 Showtime live broadcasted the Roc Nation boss’ performance at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee prior to the Mike Tyson vs. Clifford Etienne boxing match. Former Def Jam President Kevin Liles gushed that more Def Jam artists would do the same, but admitted to USA Today "it all depends on how this one does.” Viewership numbers for the concert broadcast were not released but the Tyson/Etienne fight only garnered 100,000 pay-per-view purchases and we never saw another Def Jam artist perform on Showtime before a boxing match again.
Will Jay Z and Roc Nation Sports have enough star power to push Fox Sports 1 into ESPN’s stratosphere? No. But, if Fox Sports 1 wants to get a step ahead of ESPN in a market they do not address (live performance at sporting events) then choosing a man who can “sell water to a well” was the perfect choice.
This article is a collaboration with premiere boxing news website, OpeningRound.com