Fox's latest sports venture raises visibility, some ire

ON THE AIR

November 21, 1994|By MILTON KENT

On Dec. 17, Fox Sports will celebrate the first anniversary of the biggest acquisition in sports broadcasting history, the lifting of NFL telecasts from CBS -- a rights holder for 38 years.

That heist alone was enough to shake the industry to its foundation, but the new kids in town have hardly stopped there.

Since football kicked off in September, Fox has made forays into professional hockey and now golf, with last week's announcement that it will sponsor and televise a new World Golf Tour that seeks to challenge the PGA.

In the process, Fox has again defied conventional wisdom and left many wondering what's next.

"They put everyone on notice by getting the NFL. This just keeps everyone on their toes," said John Mansell, of Paul Kagen Associates, a California-based media analysis and consulting company.

The new golf tour -- which pledges up to $3 million in prize money at each event and a $1 million bonus to the year's top player -- intends to bring the top international players together in at least seven tournaments next year, some of which will run in direct competition with PGA Tour events.

And though PGA commissioner Tim Finchem has expressed opposition to the World Tour, saying the new tour could have a "negative impact on existing events," the newly created organization already has lured one big name to its tent: Greg Norman. Norman is a close friend of Fox chairman and fellow Australian Rupert Murdoch.

Fox's move seems peculiar, because golf's demographics appear contrary to the younger, hipper audience the network of Bart Simpson seeks and the ratings are usually low.

But golf does attract a more affluent clientele that also is attractive to advertisers.

Murdoch, who stunned the sports world last December with the successful $1.58 billion bid for NFL rights, has once again pushed himself and his company into the faces of the traditional Big Three networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC.

Fox beat CBS by $5 million in its bid for NHL regular-season and playoff telecasts, because the majority of the PGA's televised weekly events air on CBS.

Early in September, newly installed CBS Sports president David Kenin, who came to the network after it lost football, expressed mild exasperation with Fox.

"They have bought their way in. They have not been bottom fishermen," said Kenin. "They have not been people waiting for something that is at a troubled level and then gone in and bought it and then made something of it."

Kenin predicted that Fox's presence in the marketplace will "increase the demand on a limited supply" of programming, thereby "raising the prices and changing the game."

Indeed, published reports indicated that Fox, in an effort to buy the rights to Wimbledon from NBC and Home Box Office, bid significantly higher than expected, though its bid is considered likely to fail.

And though Fox is expected to lose tons of money on its football and hockey efforts, many believe Murdoch already has achieved his main goal: raise the visibility of his 8-year-old network.

NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol said last month that in money terms, Fox's success likely couldn't be measured for two years. But Ebersol acknowledged that by acquiring football, Fox has made itself more attractive to advertisers and possible affiliates.

In fact, not long after it got NFL rights, Fox staged another huge coup, converting 11 New World Communications stations from CBS affiliation to Fox, mostly all in larger markets such as Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix, St. Louis and Tampa, Fla.

Though in most markets such as Baltimore, Fox's affiliates are on lower-powered UHF stations, the network has VHF affiliations in most of the nation's top 25 markets.

And Fox may not be done yet acquiring sports properties.

Mansell said the network may bid on major-league baseball if, as many believe, the Baseball Network does not reach $330 million in advertising revenues after the 1995 season, thus triggering an out clause in the six-year contract baseball signed with ABC and NBC before the '94 season.

And the biggest prize may be down the line, when bids for the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, in 2000 are accepted.

Murdoch is said to crave the chance to televise the world's biggest sports spectacle from his home turf to the rest of the planet.

The last year has proven that usually what Rupert wants, Rupert gets.

Poor choice of words

Don't blame ESPN for Tim Gullikson's brief but unfortunate guest appearance in the booth during Friday's play in the ATP World Championships in Frankfurt, Germany.

Gullikson said Andre Agassi was "playing Jewish tennis," saying, "He's not giving any points away for free." He said he was quoting Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach, who is Jewish.

No matter. Gullikson should have known better than to repeat something so stereotypical and offensive. Thankfully, analyst Mary Carillo apologized for ESPN.

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