Somebody needs to develop a show based on the new rivalry between ESPN and upstart Fox Sports 1.
There are moves and counter-moves. Fox Sports 1's signings include wildly divergent personalities such as Regis Philbin and Randy Moss. In response, ESPN is bringing back former outcast Keith Olbermann to do a nightly show and paid big money to hire sports/political forecaster Nate Silver.
Trash talk? Sure.
Following a major Fox Sports 1 promotion that ran during the All-Star Game, proclaiming "happy days are here again," ESPN president John Skipper responded: "I'm happy that happy days are here again for them. Sorry they were not happy before because the days at ESPN have been happy for quite some time."
It's all been an entertaining prelude to the big day. Saturday at 5 a.m., Fox Sports 1 officially launches its new entry into the sports cable universe. The network replaces what formerly had been the Speed Channel on your cable or satellite system. Its companion, Fox Sports 2, will be on what been the Fuel Network.
Fox Sports 1 will make a strong debut, arguably pursuing a more ambitious agenda than NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network. It has a healthy menu of live content (college football and basketball, NASCAR, MLB games in 2014, the U.S. Open beginning 2015, World Cup in 2018, and a lot of UFC).
However, it goes beyond live programming. Fox Sports 1 also is developing its own studio shows to compete directly with ESPN. A new daily NFL program features former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, and at 81, Philbin will host the sports version of "The View."
The centerpiece will be "Fox Sports Live" (daily at 10 p.m.), the network's answer to "SportsCenter." It will be a hybrid of anchors reporting news and highlights along with the panel-style debate that ESPN has made so popular. To give the show its own look, Fox imported Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, who formed an extremely popular and irreverent sports team in Canada. Think Olbermann-Dan Patrick in the '90s.
Implied in all this is the message is that ESPN is old and stale while the new network is going to be fun and offer a fresh perspective.
"We have to be different. We have to be the alternative," said Bill Wanger, the executive vice-president for programming for Fox and Fox Sports 1. "Otherwise, people won't change the channel from ESPN to try Fox Sports 1. Sports isn't the news of the day. Sports is fun. It is lighter. People see it as an escape and entertainment. We're going to give people what they need. It's going to be in the execution and the tone of how we do it that's going to be different."
Obviously, ESPN is confident that it still provides compelling programming and will continue to be the destination for sports fans. However, bringing back Olbermann, who in the words of one ESPN staffer "napalmed the bridges" when he departed, was triggered by the new rival's arrival. His new show, which starts Aug. 26, definitely is timed to defuse the buzz from the launch of Fox Sports 1.
ESPN does have one huge edge over the new Fox Sports 1: an arsenal of rights deals with virtually every major property in sports, and some of them go into the 2020s. Above all else, games still rule, and that should keep ESPN high above everyone else for a long time.
Fox, though, did make a major statement about its intentions last week when it outbid NBC and ESPN for the rights to the U.S. Open and other United States Golf Associations events, beginning in 2015. It was a clear signal Fox will be aggressive for the NBA, the next major rights package that becomes available in 2016.
This is a long-term play for Fox Sports 1. For all its bravado about being the upstart daring to take on the ESPN giant, Fox Sports 1 is realistic about what will happen when it flips the switch on Saturday.
"I've always said our success is going to be judged by years, not days and months," Wanger said. "Quite frankly, our ratings are going to be pretty small in the beginning. All new networks start out small. It takes a while for people to get used to the channel. So we have no illusions of coming out of the gate and being a behemoth. We're in for the long haul."
Bears watch: The Bears are ramping up their programming initiatives this year, and that includes game days at Soldier Field. In what will be a first, Lyndsay Petruny will serve as an in-stadium sideline reporter, providing updates through the public address system. She will give scores, highlights from around the league, injury updates and interviews with players and coaches. It's all part of a NFL initiative to boast the in-game experience, making it more comparable to what fans get from TV.
Also, Petruny and former Bear Anthony Adams will co-host a new year-round, team-produced show, "Inside the Bears." The half-hour magazine show debuts Sept. 14 at 5 p.m. on WFLD-Ch. 32. During the football season it will air Sunday nights at 11:05 p.m. following "Bears Gamenight Live" on Ch. 32 and every Saturday at 6 p.m. on WPWR-Ch. 50. The show will also be available on ChicagoBears.com.
North sighting: For the first time in six years, Mike North will have a regular sports presence in Chicago — at least during Bears season. The former WSCR-AM 670 star will host Bears/NFL preview show on Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on WIND-AM 560.
"Not a day goes by where somebody doesn't say, 'We miss hearing you,' " North said. "This is an opportunity to talk Bears and the NFL for 17 weeks. We'll have some fun."
North currently hosts Saturday and Sunday night shows for Fox Sports Radio.
Special contributor Ed Sherman writes at shermanreport.com Follow him @Sherman Report