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SPORTS WEEKEND | TV-RADIO

Murdoch's Net Doesn't Cover World Yet

June 27, 1997|MIKE PENNER

Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson II was originally the only major heavyweight bout on the TV calendar this week, but that was before Rupert Murdoch peeled off $850 million and fired a shot across the bow of Michael Eisner, Disney and ESPN on Monday.

That $850 million bought Murdoch a 40% interest in Rainbow Media Sports Holdings Inc., bringing eight more regional sports channels--and such major markets as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco--under the Fox Sports umbrella with the formation of Fox Sports Net.

Fox Sports Net will give Fox a sports regional presence in 17 U.S. markets--including 15 of the country's top 20 markets--and a subscriber base of 55 million homes, up from 35 million, which was roughly half of ESPN's base of 72 million homes.

The move has been interpreted as a direct challenge to ESPN and to Disney, which owns the 24-hour all-sports network. And the matchup does looks intriguing up there on the marquee:

Fox Sports Net vs. ESPN!

For the sports television championship of the cable-ready-and-wired world!

The Sound and the "Hurry, Where's That Video Clip of Tiger Woods Pulling Off the Nike Baseball Cap and Going With the Nike Visor Instead?"

That would be the hook, if Don King were promoting this one.

Unfortunately, reality creeps along at a somewhat slower pace.

Fox Sports Net and ESPN won't be going head-to-head as long as they operate in different realms. At least at the outset, Fox Sports Net will concentrate on regional coverage (or "home team" coverage in Foxspeak)--i.e. broadcasting Dodger games to the Southern California audience and Knick games to New York area viewers. ESPN programming remains nationally based--featuring national NBA, NHL, NFL, Major League Soccer and major league baseball telecasts.

"It's too early to tell how big a change this is going to be," says Chris LaPlaca, ESPN vice president of communications. "If you accept the premise that we have been competing against the regionals forever and ever, and continue to compete against them, it's too early to tell if this is going to be a major change from what we're already competing against."

Southland viewers won't see much of a change, if any, once Fox Sports Net starts rolling. Fox Sports West and Fox Sports West 2 will continue televising local professional and college games as well as the national Fox Sports News program (Fox Sports' answer to ESPN's "SportsCenter") and the national Thursday night major league game of the week.

Eventually, however, Fox Sports Net could mean an occasional out-of-the-area telecast for Fox Sports West viewers--say, a Fox Sports Chicago telecast of a Bull game at 5 p.m. leading into Laker broadcast at 7:30.

If Murdoch succeeds in his bid to buy the Dodgers, there is speculation he could use Fox Sports Net to give the Dodgers a national television presence, much as WGN has done with the Cubs and TBS with the Braves.

For anyone wondering why Ted Turner is so worked up about Murdoch possibly purchasing the Dodgers, there's one more reason.

DOWN THE ROAD, HOWEVER . . .

Murdoch was looking at long-term perks when he hatched the idea of Fox Sports Net--specifically, the bidding that will take place in 1998 after the existing NFL and NBA television contracts expire.

Previously, Murdoch's regional sports network consisted of nine channels--and only one of the top six markets: Los Angeles--and 35 million homes.

With Fox Sports Net, Murdoch has a presence in each of the top six markets (and eight of the top 10) and 55 million homes.

That not only makes Fox Sports more attractive to national advertisers, but also raises its profile with the NFL (which has an eight-game contract with ESPN) and the NBA.

And that is where the Fox Sports Net-ESPN rivalry will intensify, once Fox launches its frontal assault at the negotiating table and ESPN buttresses to protect what it already holds.

THE OTHER HEAVYWEIGHT FIGHT

Saturday's rematch between Holyfield and Tyson will be broadcast live on Showtime (pay-per-view: $49.95) and is, in the estimation of the telecast's executive producer, Jay Larkin, "the biggest boxing event in two or three decades."

That has to be the least surprising pronouncement by a boxing telecast executive producer in two or three decades.

Larkin also says he is "pretty confident" Holyfield-Tyson II will break the pay-per-view record of 1.6 million buys, set last November with Holyfield-Tyson I.

"Anywhere between 1.6 and 2 million is within reach," Larkin says.

Two million buys translate into $100 million in pay-per-view revenues. Half of that money goes to cable distributors, with a reported $65 million being paid to the fighters.

How does Larkin expect to turn a profit?

"We make money from a lot of revenue sources," Larkin says. "You've also got the live gate and international television rights and the merchandising. That climbs it up around the total you need to have to make money [while] paying these kinds of purses. . . .

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