The Depressing, Not-So-Fun Tale of FS1

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FS1 launched 5 1/2 years ago, promising to be the FUN alternative to…well, ESPN’s name wasn’t said specifically, but anyone who consumed sports media knew exactly to what the new FOX flagship’s ad campaign alluded.

Various reboots and myriad staff changes later, FS1 is a barren wasteland. To borrow a phrase from Billy Crystal: It’s not fun.

Barren wasteland might seem an overreaction, but the barren part is the most accurate reflection of the FS1 Twitter account. Below is a sample of the enthralling #content from a weekend that included NFL Playoffs and power-conference college basketball — both of which aired on FOX Sports properties!

Days-old retweets of talk shows and the as incorrect-as-it-is-smug gambling “advice” of a deer-in-headlights wannabe gossip monger doesn’t seem like a great way for a television network to attract viewers.

This example provides a snapshot of the frustrating existence of FS1. The network has not only failed to lessen ESPN’s virtual monopolization of sports television, but also functions as the most damning example of sports media’s dismal state in 2019.

For context on why FS1’s flailing attempts to challenge ESPN are so disappointing, rewind to the previous decade. Its ever-expanding library of broadcasting rights, innovative programming — most notably Sportscenter — and most critical, Disney’s acquisition of the brand, built ESPN into a Goliath by the turn of the millennium.

The network became indispensable if you were a sports fan, but that in turn fostered some resentment more among the die-hard audience. Just don’t watch applied, but wasn’t always so simple.

The office TVs always being tuned to ESPN was a weird bit of masochism from my days working a desk job at CBS. Beginning with the inanity of Who’s Now, transitioning immediately into the era of Embrace Debate, the daytime programming never failed to elicit groans, and occasionally, conversation among a few of us as to what we’d change if given the power.

I provide a very detailed outline for Patreon subscriptions, so check it out when you’re finished here. Now, back to the conversation at hand: Our pie-in-the-sky visions often included building out a viable competitor to the Worldwide Leader.

An obvious starting point is an established media conglomerate with the name recognition, and more importantly, monetary resources to invest. (The irony of such conversations occurring among employees of an established media conglomerate with name recognition and monetary resources isn’t lost on me, by the way.)

Both CBS and NBC own 24/7 sports channels, though in both instances, their properties were preexisting, acquired brands. CBS Sports Network began as CSTV, while NBC Sports is the evolution of VS.

The parent company in neither instance made any allusions to creating a property the scale of ESPN. FOX brass was unambiguous in its intentions when launching a flagship sports network. It planned to compete.

It had the name recognition. It certainly had the resources, with News Corp boasting almost $25 billion in equity in 2012. Between its dozens of regional channels and broadcast network, it already had television rights deals with a variety of different leagues.

The original FOX Sports 1 appeared from the outside like the necessary foundation for an actual sports-lovers alternative. If nothing else, competition might cultivate innovation.

Such was the initial hope for FOX Sports 1: Something innovative. The promises of fun hit on a mantra repeated in the as-acerbic-as-it-was-prolific first wave of the sports blogosphere. Celebritainment and the contrived drama of forced debate appealed to the casual and/or less informed audience. Give us in-depth, behind-the-scenes content.

For a lot of the die-hard audience, that is fun; hence Tony Romo’s popularity as a color commentator.

FOX Sports 1 had a real opportunity to do that, too. The flagship launched with established regional channels, most of which had corresponding websites staffed by reporters with extensive information on the teams they covered.

Incorporating deep, local insight to a national audience to help promote events on the network could have been something completely new and differentiating. Instead, the network’s initial flagship show was a lesser version of Sportscenter, which itself has attempted to reinvent its format for fear of growing stale.

That’s been a continuous theme throughout FOX Sports 1’s transition to FS1. Rather than an alternative to ESPN programming, it’s often presented a 10-years-too-late retread. The most glaring example and most telling microcosm from the network’s early days was its College Gameday counterpart, FOX Sports Live Countdown to Kickoff.

Strip away the pomp and pageantry of Gameday‘s on-campus telecasts, replace the likable personalities for a co-host who’s the single-most repellent figure in college football media, and this was what was left. The show ended after the 2015 season, and I’ve yet to come across anyone who even remembers the program’s existence.

After briefly attempting to replicate ESPN’s visionary programming of the 1990s, FS1 has since embraced debate a full decade after the Worldwide Leader infuriated a portion of its audience with this brand of phony conflict.

The efforts to recreate faux-controversial programming, using either ESPN retreads or the most loathsome figures from the blogosphere’s first wave, is sports media’s version of 1999-2000 WCW. You can call Jamie Horowitz the Vince Russo of sports TV, bro!

Meanwhile, as FS1 has produced bad recreations of 2000s ESPN shows, the Worldwide Leader beat its — ahem …competitor — in moving to the future. In the same weekend that the meager, remaining digital presence FS1 has tweeted junk gambling picks and old show clips, ESPN’s paid streaming service debuted its first marquee event.

One of the frontiers Disney competition had to differentiate from ESPN was to get in on the streaming craze early. The preexisting digital footprint FOX Sports had through its national website and various regional outlets might have given FS1 some headway in this direction, had the company not spent the first four years of FS1’s existence continuously scaling down online operations.

Contrast the above-referenced tweets with ESPN’s big web play of the weekend: Attracting more than 400,000 new subscribers to ESPN+ for the debut of a property FOX Sports once owned. There’s powerful symbolism in the Worldwide Leader preparing for its future with the launch of UFC, the first sport aired on FOX Sports 1.

And what’s airing on FS1 now? As of this writing, it’s a Maryland-Michigan State basketball game. That’s two teams in one of the best college basketball conferences, just as the push to the NCAA Tournament starts to heat it up. And you just read more promotion of that game here on The Open Man than you ever could have from the FS1 Twitter account.

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