I’m obsessed with the Business Wars podcast by Wondery. Each week, the show tells the story of a classic business battle. “Netflix vs. Blockbuster” is phenomenal. “Boeing vs. Airbus” is superb. They’re all great. The latest series is “ESPN vs. Fox Sports,” and once again it delivers.
The episodes document the many moments when Fox Sports invaded ESPN’s territory, including taking the World Cup rights in 2011 and poaching ESPN hosts Colin Cowherd in 2015 and “First Take” star Skip Bayless in 2016. But there is nothing more impactful than the story of how Fox grabbed NFL rights for the first time. This story isn’t about ESPN directly – Fox didn’t steal the NFL from ESPN, which started broadcasting Sunday night games in 1987. It stole them from CBS thanks to an earth-shaking move that stunned the industry.
There are two things that are important to remember if you’re old enough to recall 1993.
First, Fox was a fledging network. There was no “Fox Sports” in 1993. The Fox Broadcasting Company launched in 1986 as a fourth network to challenge ABC, CBS, and NBC. By 1993 the network had a few hits like The Simpsons, Beverly Hills 90210, and America’s Most Wanted, but it wasn’t seen as a major competitor to the Big 3. Think The CW now…that’s essentially the space Fox occupied in 1993.
Second, TV networks didn’t show the score consistently throughout while you watched a live game. Sounds like complete lunacy now, but network heads thought viewers would switch channels if the score was on the screen all the time.
Sky Sports boss David Hill (who would become president of Fox Sports) created the score box, which showed score and time remaining on the screen. He debuted it during Premier League soccer in England in 1992 and wanted to bring it to the NFL. Fox said they’d show scores, use more cameras to create more angles, and have exciting graphics. Hill told the NFL, “Sports is entertainment, not religion. We’ll make it fun.”
Fox knew it had to bid more than CBS to get the NFL, but Fox chief Rupert Murdoch felt the bid had to be high enough to force the NFL to say yes. One of Murdoch’s analysts told him how much money the network would lose over the four years of the deal. Murdoch explained that he was looking at it all wrong. “I’m not buying NFL rights, I’m buying a network. Buying NFL rights is cheaper than buying ABC, NBC, or CBS.” Only the NFL can make Fox a real network.”
Of course, Murdoch was right. Dozens of CBS affiliates switched to Fox. Prime announcing talent jumped ship from CBS to Fox, including the legendary John Madden. Viewers and advertisers followed, and CBS stock nosedived.
But more than anything, that bold move made Fox a real network.
Coleman Insights founder Jon Coleman credits Sonoma Media Group President Michael O’Shea with the story he shares about the number to the left and right of the decimal point in the ratings share of every radio station. In short, the number to the right of the decimal point (as in the 3 in a 4.3 share) represents the majority of things radio stations spend the vast majority of their time on. This can be tweaking the music, moving talk breaks around, or giving away concert tickets. As Jon explained in the Tuesdays With Coleman blog “How to Move the Ratings Needle,” these are the tactical strategies that may take a station from a 4.3 to a 4.5 or maybe a 4.7. But what moves the number to the left of the decimal point are big time moves. This can include a format change, attracting a hugely impactful air talent, or a major memorable marketing campaign.
Big “left number” moves don’t always require the deep pockets of Rupert Murdoch. But they do require big strategic goals, strategic thinking, a competitive streak, and a whole lot of guts.
The potential reward is usually far more exciting than the number to the right.