There is a school of political economic thought that believes, when it comes to presidential elections, that everything a politician says, does or sells is meaningless. Candidates spend hundreds of millions of dollars creating and sustaining a persona, and they crisscross the country for years, holding fundraisers, shaking the hands of the disreputable and kissing a terrifying number of baby heads. And it's probably all a waste.
The theory: elections are driven by economic data … and that's it. If the majority of Americans are happy with the economy and their place in it, the person who made those economic policies, or at least whoever's in office while their effects are being felt, will win the election. Everything else -- the campaign ads, the stump speeches, the debates, the earth tones -- is nonsense. It's all about the numbers. (The last election might refute the economic theory, at least on a surface level, but there were other factors involved and it's hard not to see how big data played a large role. I'm not interested in exploring this particular topic much further, though. Please don't make me debate politics with you on the Internet.)
I was thinking about this theory yesterday and how it relates to the oncoming/impending sports cable battle between ESPN and the network Fox Sports 1, which is launching on Saturday -- well, maybe. (If you haven't heard of Fox Sports 1, it's because you haven't watched a Fox Sports affiliate for longer than four seconds over the last month.) I'll include NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network in this scrum as well, even though they've been airing for a while now, to little ratings traction.
Much of the discussion of Fox Sports 1 is how it will contrast itself with ESPN, the wooly behemoth pink gorilla of this business. When you are a challenger to ESPN, it would seem most logical to counterprogram for the thinking fan. For all the intelligence housed within ESPN's borders, that place's bread-and-butter is cheap dips*** programming like "First Take" and "COORS LIGHT COLD HARD FACTS ABOUT YOUR DRINKING PROBLEM DURING THIS PROGRAM WHICH, LET'S FACE IT, IS STARTING TO GET A BIT OUT OF CONTROL." ESPN's public face isn't Bill Simmons or Nate Silver or Wright Thompson or even Bob Ley: It's Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith and Chris Berman and Dick Vitale. It is two people sitting across from each other at a table and yelling. No reasonable person would look at ESPN and say, "Those people are nerdy stat geeks. Let's 'bro it up a bit in here."
Except for Fox Sports 1! As detailed in a memorable BusinessWeek piece, the executives of the new network seem to think that ESPN is, somehow, too smart. As the story put it: "The plan is for FS1 to be the funny, irreverent, less serious sports channel." Because nothing is more intellectually serious than ESPN! Fox Sports 1 appears to be positioning itself as the towel-snapping younger brother of ESPN, the one who would shove that Nate Silver in a locker and slap a "dork" sticker on Bob Ley's back. I do not understand this strategy -- I find it clinically insane, to be honest, like watching someone huff glue and deciding to respond by then eating the glue -- but I grant that I'm perhaps not the target audience.
Much of this is probably bluster: The network likely isn't going to be nearly as dumb as it claims, just like NBC Sports Network wasn't as cerebral as it was originally selling itself to be (though I've certainly defended it in the past). It's all just television. This is all fun and waggy gossip: People in the media (and we'll certainly include ourselves here) love to talk about themselves and their industry, so speculation about all the new players is irresistible. Fox Sports 1 thinks ESPN is full of nerds … sassy! But none of it's going to matter. Like the presidential elections, it all comes down to data. Specifically: Who has the games people want to watch?
That's what this is all about, after all. All the new personalities, shows and branding exercises -- it's all pointless, because the primary reason people watch sports networks is, of course, to watch live sports. The reason NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network have struggled is not because they have dumb shows or poor brand strategies. They don't. (NBC Sports Network has several good shows, actually.) It's just that they don't have the live programming yet. The most popular shows on NBC Sports Network are fishing and hunting shows because the NHL is in the offseason and the Premier League doesn't start until this weekend. If ESPN were just "SportsCenter," no one would watch them either.
You need sports, which is why Fox Sports 1 is being taken more seriously. Fox has more sports rights than NBC does, with college football and the NFL and UFC and the World Cup and tons more things that can both be shown and promoted on Fox Sports 1. Right now, NBC only has the NFL, sort of, the Premier League, the Tour de France and some college basketball. (They're working on it.) ESPN, of course, has a little bit of everything. That's where these wars will be won: Not in studios, or newsrooms, or branding meetings. They'll be won in corporate boardrooms where negotiations over exclusive rights are held. That's all that matters.
I'll be watching Fox Sports 1 when it launches, and if there's a show or two on there I like, I'll make sure to check it out occasionally. But I'll only make an appointment to watch the channel when there's a game I want to watch. Just like with ESPN. Just like with NBC Sports Network, and CBS Sports Network. The sports media world expends a massive amount of energy trying to convince you to read what we're writing, to watch what we're producing, to buy what we're selling. But, at the end of the day, all you want to do is just watch sports. That's all that matters. Everything else is just noise.