Like a lot of kids who grew up in New Jersey, Randy Freer was a New York sports fan through and through, pulling for adopted home teams like the Giants, Knicks and Rangers. That understanding of home-team devotion has helped Freer to build Fox Sports Networks (FSN) into a powerful and profitable group of regional sports networks.
In his 10 years at Fox Sports Net, Freer has channeled his fandom into brokering key deals that helped make FSN the premiere source for local sports. Now, as president of Fox Regional Cable Sports Networks, he is looking to expand FSN’s reach in the digital realm as well.
Long before he joined Fox, Freer capitalized on his love of sports. A self-described “adequate” shooting guard, he became the first member of his family to attend college when he earned a basketball scholarship from NAIA St. Joseph’s College in North Windham, Maine. There, he was a three-year starter and averaged more than 14 points a game his senior season.
THE SPORTS BUG RETURNS
After graduating, Freer moved to New York and became an assistant media buyer for Ed Lebov Associates, which handled media buying for Toys R Us. He then got a job as a media buyer for Plapler & Associates, which did the buying for People Express Airlines.
Working with People Express involved professional sports sponsorships, and it wasn’t long before the sports bug returned. “Sports was something I always had a passion for,” Freer says. “So putting sports together with media sounded perfect.”
At the same time, Freer began to consider another change: moving from the buy side to advertising sales. “I saw a lot of the ad-sales people coming through,” he recalls with a laugh. “And they all went to better lunches and had better suits.”
So Freer moved over to Katz Sports, where he became an account executive selling professional- and college-sports radio packages. He went on to sell for Selcom Radio and, later, Madison Square Garden before jumping at a chance to sell news at Turner Broadcasting’s CNN in 1987.
MAKING SALES CALLS WITH TED TURNER
After three years as an account executive, he was promoted to sales manager, a job that offered the chance to make sales calls with the notoriously bombastic Ted Turner.
“It was exciting because you never really knew what was going to be said,” Freer recalls. “You learned to expect the unexpected.”
(Asked to recount some choice moments, Freer buttons up as if he still works for Turner. “No way,” he says. “I’m not going to be the one.”)
After two years, Turner promoted him to run entertainment sales for TBS and TNT. Freer left two years later for a stint at an animation syndication firm under the Active Entertainment umbrella.
In 1997, he was lured to FSN by Lou LaTorre, an old Turner colleague who is now president of ad sales for Fox Cable Networks.
Then a joint venture with Liberty Media, with seven regional sports networks—not the 18 it has today—FSN was “small, exciting and chaotic,” says Freer. He thrived there as FSN geared up for a showdown with ESPN, and soon became COO in 2001.
“The thought was to use the core business of local regions as a backbone to build a national competitor to ESPN,” Freer recalls. “We had a great deal of success in some areas, and some areas we weren’t so good in.”
The successes came in the form of local sports deals that he and Bob Thompson,now president of Fox National Cable Sports Networks, secured at a breakneck pace, making the regional networks major players in each of their markets.
“We never expected we would end up with virtually every team in our markets, but in the end we did,” Freer says. “That helped us expand that core local business further than we thought.”
But the local success was a blessing and a curse. With each regional sports network running on different local schedules, finding a consistent window for national programming was impossible and contributed to FSN’s failure to mount a true challenge to ESPN.
“You couldn’t go out and compete for national rights deals, because you couldn’t guarantee you could clear them around the country,” Freer says. “And in the end, we found we couldn’t create compelling enough programming to generate enough viewership to really work against ESPN.”
As a result, FSN rededicated itself to local programming and now covers about 4,000 local professional games each year.
Freer’s boss, Fox Networks Group President/CEO Tony Vinciquerra, praises his compulsion to learn: “He is one of the few people that actually recognizes what they don’t know and tries to learn.”
TAPPING INTO SOCIAL NETWORKING
And what Freer wants to learn next is how to turn FSN’s valuable programming into the digital dollars the whole television industry is chasing. Among his goals is to find a way to tap into the social-networking power of MySpace, a fellow News Corp. property, to bring sports fans together under the FSN umbrella.
As he well knows, no one is more passionate than sports fans.
“Grown men still paint their faces; it doesn’t make any sense, but they still do it,” Freer says. “We need to give those fans a place to interact.”
He may not paint his face before watching a Knicks game, but his enthusiasm takes over when asked what he may want to do next.
“Of course, I would like to have [Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill’s job or [News Corp. CEO] Peter Chernin’s job,” he admits. “But it’d be really great to own the Utah Jazz: I could ski in the morning and go to games at night. Not bad.”