Fox Sports 1 has turned 2 today, and it’s happy to report that ratings are up for the network year-over-year. The story was less rosy last year at its first anniversary, svp, research and program Mike Mulvihill admits, but it’s now able to boast stronger numbers: FS1 viewership increased +40% in total day and +38 percent in prime. And when considering live events solely, FS1 is up +54%, making it the number 2 network for live events. We spoke with Mulvihill about the state of the network today and moving forward.
What do you attribute the network’s ratings growth over the two-year time period? What’s changed in year two?
The two factors I would point to are the introduction of new events…some of the events that came on in year two: baseball playoffs, US Open, obviously the Women’s World Cup. For a while we were kind of fond of saying that when we launched the network we were a little bit like a restaurant that opens up and is only able to serve half the menu. That’s kind of where we were in our first year. The second year, we’re finally able to serve the full menu, and I think we’re a lot closer to what we envisioned ourselves being from the beginning…And I think it takes a long time for viewers to get familiar with who you are, where you are, and just know where the channel lives on their cable system, on their satellite service. So I think it’s just the pace that’s required for viewers to figure out where we are and the new properties coming on line.
Over these two years, has your strategy for buying rights been consistent?
I think the numbers that we’ve seen so far only reinforce the importance of being aggressive and acquiring live rights. My feeling is that ratings follow rights and revenue follows ratings. And so everything starts with being an active participant in all of those rights conversations, and I don’t think anything we’ve seen in last two years would sway us from that… The Bundesliga will start in about 48 hours and that’s probably the first deal that was done after the launch of the network. With few exceptions, you’re acquiring rights more than a year in advance, so it does take some time to see an actual ratings impact.
How much of your success is related to the Women’s World Cup this summer? How will you keep up the momentum?
One of the encouraging data points fro me is that we did see an impact from the new events that came on, with Women’s World Cup arguably the biggest of them all, but all of the returning properties also saw an increase. Frankly, it would be discouraging to me if we got this big impact from these new events, but everything that came back from year one in year two was just flat. The reality is that our college football viewership was up by almost 30 percent and our college basketball viewership as a whole has been up. Our UFC fight nights have been up, baseball has been up, all of our soccer properties beyond the Women’s World Cup—the Champions League, the FA Cup, MLS… everything that could have increased from year one to year two did increase from year one to year two. I think that’s where you see the impact of people finding the channel and just making us more a part of their regular sports channel surfing… It does suggest to me that we’re not totally reliant on just introducing new stuff.
What’s your focus moving forward? Where is there room for growth?
At some point in the last year I started thinking of Fox Sports 1 as almost two businesses: a live event business and an everything else business. And the growth that we’ve had this year for the live event properties has been tremendous: up 54% for live sports events. We’ve actually become the number two network behind ESPN for live sports events. We passed ESPN2 this year, we passed NBC Sports Network this year, and those are really significant steps, but at the same time, you also have to recognize that the room for us to grow is in the non-events part of the business—all of the studio programming, talk programming, and I think that’s where we’re already taking pretty aggressive steps to try to improve our non-event business, starting with, of course, the signing of Colin Cowherd.
Does that mean you approach the two businesses differently?
No, I don’t think it affects the way that we program or develop shows, it was just that as we were looking at our year-to-year increases, as this second year went on, it just seemed to be that it would be instructive to try to break things down a little bit. Just looking at the ratings every day you kind of knew that the live events were doing really well and that that’s where our strength was and there might be a way to kind of parse the numbers to highlight that… it’s just a way of thinking about those numbers so that you know where you need to devote resources.
Were there any surprises in how the network has evolved over these two years?
If you had told me two years ago that these are the numbers we’d be doing after two years, I probably would have been satisfied by that. But I think that the route that we took to get where we are was a little bit surprising to me. Candidly, looking back at our launch and our first six months on the air, I and others probably expected us to be a little bit stronger in year one and see some improvement in year two, and what happened instead was that we’re a little bit weaker than we anticipated in year one and then got more improvement than we expected in year two. So two years in we’re basically where we expected to be all along—it just was a different path to the same place.