Fox Sports Net runs up the score

Fans, ad biz drawn by cross promotion, nat'l/local mix

The Fox Sports Net’s collection of 20 regional sports networks is a revenue-generating machine for News Corp., harvesting more than a billion dollars a year from cable-operator license fees –second only to ESPN in all of cable — and winning fans with a combination of local game coverage and nationally distributed shows.

Fox Sports chalks up $100 million a year from advertisers, who buy time in the shows Fox Sports funnels to all its network members.

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Everything Fox does in sports “gets leveraged across all of our platforms,” says Bob Thompson, president of Fox Sports Net, who’s based in Los Angeles.

Thompson cites Fox’s eight-year, $1.6-billion contract with Nascar as the perfect example of siphoning every last drop of sports programming for use on multiple Fox-owned networks.

The Fox broadcast network gets most of the big races, but cabler FX also carves out its share of live events. Speedvision, another cable outlet, fills its 24-hour schedule with Nascar-related programming, and Fox Sports Net distributes Nascar shows to the 20 regional sports channels.

“Even our Spanish-language service carries Nascar events,” says Thompson, referring to Fox Sports en Espanol. “We don’t just give lip service to synergy.”

For all of the sports programming that Fox carries, he says, “we do a ton of cross promotion that we coordinate with the Fox Sports Net and the regional networks.”

The most highly publicized of the national shows produced and distributed by Fox Sports Net, the nightly two-hour “Best Damn Sports Show, Period,” gets talked about in the media because, led by the comic actor Tom Arnold, it proudly trumpets its irreverence in going after the sacred cows of the sports biz.

But the show barely registers on the Nielsen-rating charts because its job is to act as filler on Fox’s regional sports nets.

“Damn Sports” premiered in January 2002, and its viewership for the first six months of 2003 has slipped by 18% from the same period a year ago.

The local games tend to score big ratings on each of the sports regionals, pulling in millions of dollars in advertising revenues. Most of these revenues, of course, go to the escalating license fees the networks pay the teams to carry their games.

Very few of Fox’s regional nets play “Damn Sports” in the suggested 8 p.m. timeslot, because their first priority is to produce live coverage of local teams in each market, both professional and college.

But ad spending on the show is always sold out, says a spokesman for Fox Sports, because most of its viewers fall into the hard-to-reach category of men 18 to 34.

And Fox Sports also extracts a premium from the selected advertisers it allows to become part of the show’s content.

For example, the Labatt beer logo is prominent over the bar where the guests congregate, and the Home Depot banner also gets prominent display. Other advertisers who have engineered limited-run product placements in “Damn Sports” include Kentucky Fried Chicken, Outback Steakhouse, Dockers jeans, Snapple beverages and various videogame companies.

Another national show, “54321,” which focuses on extreme sports for a half-hour every evening at 5, has not yet found an audience since it premiered in January, managing an average of only 83,000 households.

Auds materialize for the right content, however. Fox Sports Net got a total of 848,000 households to tune in to a blistering two-hour special on Mike Tyson July 16 at 8 p.m., with a repeat at 10:30 p.m., the night after Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game — when MLB was taking a night off.

The Tyson program was part of a special edition of “Beyond the Glory,” the weekly hourlong primetime series that runs Sunday night at 8.

Still, although Fox Sports is putting more production and promotion money into “Damn Sports,” “54321” and “Beyond the Glory,” they’re still window dressing. Ultimately, cable systems pay Fox Sports’ regional networks $1 billion a year for the live local games.