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Fox Sports channel to rival ESPN is no sure thing

March 28, 2012 |  3:53 pm

Fox Sports is again toying with a national channel
News Corp.'s Fox is again weighing starting a national cable sports channel to rival Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN juggernaut but there is no guarantee that such an effort will get off the ground.

Fox has toyed with the idea of creating a national sports network for more than a decade. It already owns 20 regional sports networks, including Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket in Los Angeles. Its Fox Broadcasting Company has long-term deals for professional and college football as well as baseball and NASCAR.

A Fox Sports spokesman declined to comment on the renewed speculation about a national sports channel, but people familiar with the matter said there are no immediate plans and dismissed a report in Bloomberg that said the new channel could be launched as soon as late 2012. Given how lucrative its regional channels are, Fox and News Corp. executives have for the most part viewed a national network as a luxury item, not a necessity.  

Though Fox Sports is an established brand, going after ESPN would not be cheap. ESPN and its various spinoff channels have dominated the cable sports space and spend heavily to lock up rights. For example, ESPN is paying an average of almost $2 billion a season for "Monday Night Football."

NBC's new parent company Comcast Corp. is also looking to compete more aggressively against ESPN with its NBC Sports Network. NBC has the rights to the Summer Olympics in London and will use the games to boost awareness for its channel.

Sports teams and leagues would no doubt welcome another competitor to ESPN because it would mean one more bidder for rights, which could lead to even higher prices.

Consumers, however, may not have the same reaction. Cable sports channels are already among the most expensive sources of programming. ESPN, for example, costs cable and satellite operators more than $5 a month per subscriber, according to industry consulting firm SNL Kagan. (USA Network, for comparison, costs just over 60 cents per month per subscriber.) Much of that cost is passed on to the consumer. If another channel emerges and drives bills even higher, there could be renewed calls that high-priced sports channels should be sold as separate packages instead of being bundled into basic cable service.

"At some point there may be a real move for a la carte programming," warned David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute. 

-- Joe Flint


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Photo: The Bengals battle the Texans. NFL football is among the sports that Fox broadcasts nationally. Credit: Al Behrman/Associated Press