After a Chicago Cubs World Series victory 108 years in the making brought ratings to baseball that hadn’t been seen for decades, the head of Fox Sports had little time to rest.
For Eric Shanks, who has been president of Fox Sports since 2010, the post-World Series menu included the first-ever UFC event in New York, college football conference championships, the next Super Bowl and the 2018 World Cup. For his accomplishments in steering the broadcast network to strong results and nurturing three-year-old FS1 as it adds more meaningful programming to its lineup, Shanks has been named B&C’s TV sports executive of the year. Shanks talked about the state of Fox and the broader TV sports landscape with B&C business editor Jon Lafayette. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
How do you top something like what we’ve seen this fall?
That’s the beauty of sports, right? It keeps reinventing itself. There’s always the next amazing story around the corner. So how do you top that? You just keep going.
So you had this huge World Series. Does that mean baseball is not a dinosaur and it belongs on broadcast television?
Baseball’s never been a dinosaur. There’s not a more intertwined partnership than Fox and baseball, considering all the local baseball we do, and having the jewel events ending with the World Series every year. More people are watching more baseball today than ever before, and that’s the truth. I think that to catch a national wave with the Cubs has probably reintroduced or enlightened a lot of people to its attraction on the national level.
How big will the Super Bowl be?
Look, you tell me who’s playing in it. The Super Bowl’s always going to be the granddaddy of American sports television. The thing that’s really interesting about the Super Bowl at least at this time of year is some of the creative around the marketing that people are going to do in it. I’ll tell you, some of the clients and agencies that we’ve talked to, I think everyone’s going to see a new level of creativity around brands activating at the Super Bowl this year. And there’s nobody better they could have picked than to have Lady Gaga anchor the halftime show. So the pieces are all in place.
The big story this year has been the drop in NFL ratings. Will that come into play with the playoffs and Super Bowl?
Everybody is unanimous in saying this has been a highly unusual year. In that there’s been an unprecedented election cycle we’ve been in. And story lines are really now just coming into focus. The reality is the numbers have shown that the Sunday afternoon windows, when your local team is playing, are holding up relative to the national primetime window. There’s probably some learning to be gained from that. And seeing exactly what happens after the election. Are we concerned? I don’t think so. I think it takes more than eight or nine weeks, it takes more than a season to really understand what’s going on.
Looking further downfield, you’ve got the World Cup in Russia. How big is soccer becoming?
There’s no bigger believer in soccer from a media standpoint than Fox throughout the world. The Women’s World Cup in 2015 set the all-time record for the most-watched soccer match in history. A lot of it has to do with the performance of the U.S. team when it comes to a men’s World Cup, but there’s this underlying base where really in the younger demographic, the World Cup is really closing the gap on the Olympics and you might see 2018 being the year where the World Cup passes the Olympics in the younger demos and that would be interesting.
Any other events you’re excited about?
We kicked off the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor last year by taking the NFL pregame show over there. And we’re back over there with a couple of college basketball games. And that’s always been a big part of the Fox Sports DNA is at least try to do what we can to honor the service men and women who protect us every day. We try to do one or two big military events a year.
A lot of your big events have helped inject some life into FS1. How is that network doing?
By almost every metric that you would use to measure a three-year-old network, we’re ahead of schedule. After the first couple of years we figured out what the brand of FS1 should be and what fits well with the Fox DNA and that’s the strategy that you see being executed today, which is bold personalities anchoring the non-live event hours and it’s resonating. It’s kind of silly the percentage increase you’ve seen in those dayparts where we’ve launched personality/opinion programming. And it’s made the whole day really interesting in the sense that from 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time, FS1 is relevant every day. We had our most-viewed month ever with October, based on the great baseball postseason and some other live events, but I feel like we have a lot of momentum.
Is ESPN beatable?
I’m not sure that’s the right question. I think at this point it’s not about who’s beatable and who’s not. It’s, ‘Are you proud of the work that you’re doing?’ I feel like at this point, probably since we launched in 1994 when we put the Fox NFL Sunday crew together, we haven’t had a greater group of assembled talent and producers than we do right now. There was a week or a couple of weeks during the postseason where I walked into both Sunday morning control rooms and the director and the AD in both instances were women. And the fact is that we have actually put such a focus and an emphasis on making sure that diversity and gender diversity is a priority here at Fox both in front of an behind the camera. The fact that we’ve made such progress over the year is something that we’re really proud of here and so it’s tough. You don’t want it to be just a numbers game but it’s a quality game, it’s an organic thing and when you walk around here at Fox Sports and you see the makeup of the folks who are the creative engine behind her, it does make you really proud.
As a company, 21st Century Fox is putting a big bet on sports. Can sports still pay off?
We think so. I think so far this year, of the top 100 broadcasts in all of television, 96 of them are sports. I think that would tell you that sports is still undervalued in certain aspects. In the fragmentation of everything else, sports brings communities and tribes and families and countries together, and it’s as important today as it’s ever been. And so we think that’s valuable content that people want. We’re big believers in sports across the world.
Can the rights fees continue to go up?
Anybody who says that rights fees don’t go up, they haven’t been around very long. Of course rights fees can continue to go up. I think that’s at what rate and which sports can continue to achieve increases at what rates, with which partners. That’s the art of the market right? A lot of these sports rights are a lot like beachfront properties. They don’t make more of it. There are just more people trying to jam in and go to the beach.
When do you think Twitter, YouTube and other digital player will start competing for these rights?
It’s very cliché to say we’ll know more in a few years but it is true. What we want to do every day is to be the best partners we can to our teams and the league, put the best creative product out there, and make sure that our product is in demand, no matter how it’s distributed by what means.
What can you show fans that they haven’t seen before?
It’s usually not a binary thing and all of a sudden there’s this great new thing. It’s usually very incremental steps. So take this World Series for example. We’ve gotten great feedback saying the pictures were great, and the audio was fantastic. Well it was just a lot of hard work over a long period of time to get where we are.
What about virtual reality?
VR still has a long way to go I think but in its current state it’s super interesting. When you get a really good live VR experience, you can truly say that it is a leap in the experience. We haven’t seen something like that in a long time in live television.