Since Eric Shanks took the solo reins as president of Fox Sports last October, he’s overseen a record-setting Super Bowl in New York, a seven-game World Series and watched Fox Sports 1 become the fastest-growing network in cable.
Shanks’ fans represent some of the most powerful organizations in sports. “When we go to Fox and ask them for help on things, he doesn’t just respond, he usually responds enthusiastically and with a different creative slant to things,” says Howard Katz, senior VP for broadcasting at the NFL.
“Everything he says he’s going to do, he does,” adds UFC President Dana White. It was Shanks’ idea to add a Fox announcer desk to UFC live events and use an octagon-shaped camera lens during The Ultimate Fighter. “Everyone’s talking about the new look this season. That was Eric Shanks,” White says.
B&C business editor Jon Lafayette asked Shanks about the state of Fox Sports and the sports business. An edited transcript follows.
It’s been a tough year for TV, but a good year for sports. Would you say Fox Sports has had a good year?
When we started our 20th year we knew it would kick off a new era at Fox Sports. I don’t think we could have in our wildest dreams planned to have the results that we’ve had on our biggest events on broadcast and the success that we’ve had really across the board.
You started out with the Super Bowl. Did that exceed your expectations?
From the very first play, I don’t think that anyone would have expected it to perform the way it did. It was the gift that really kept on giving. As more numbers came in, both on the linear side and the numbers for the entire week on Fox Sports 1. I think it still holds the record for us on digital as well. As things kept coming in the Super Bowl was a great way to kick off the year.
Did holding the game in New York make you nervous?
It was one of the more exciting events that we’ve ever planned. Every Super Bowl is special. You only get it once every three years. When we knew that our next one was in New York, I don’t think I’m underestimating it by saying it literally was two years of planning that culminated in the execution in New York and in Times Square and really all around the country. There probably wasn’t an element of Fox Sports that didn’t have something to do with the Super Bowl that week and I thought that the preparation really led to an amazing television event, right now, the greatest television event in the history of the United States.
Were you rooting for snow, or not rooting for snow?
I was secretly rooting for snow after halftime. I was very specific in my prayers that it should snow after halftime.
21st Century Fox COO Chase Carey has said FS1 is ahead of plan. Where do you see it?
We’ve got quite an investment wrapped up in what really started out as a reorganization of our national sports brands, focusing on getting out of niche programming channels like Speed and Fuel and trying to create more value in a broader sports asset. And so since we’ve launched we’ve actually added things that really weren’t in the plan from the beginning, like the FIFA World Cup and U.S. Open Golf with the USGA. I’d say even with all those additional investments, yeah, we’re still on plan, or ahead of plan, especially considering the added investment over the last 18 months.
When we launched we were always looking really towards this past month of October with postseason baseball really being the second milestone after launch. And I think by all measures, it was a fantastic October and catapulted us into that mark of being the fastest-growing network on television.
There were some complaints about it being hard to find baseball playoff games because they were on so many different cable channels. Is that something you need to address?
I think going into it, one of the things that we talked about as a comparison was would people find Fox Sports 1 at the same rates that they found TBS. And actually I think we exceeded that rates at which people found Fox Sports 1 and found TBS. So when you have things on that people want to watch, they find your channel. St. Louis was doing something like 55 shares, outpacing the Sunday NFL Rams games. So clearly people were finding it and it does take time, especially considering that now you’re not only thinking about new channel numbers, but you’re thinking about new devices. Am I going to watch this on my iPad? And then how do I find it? It’s not getting easier, and being the new guy on the block, yeah, we’ve always said it will take a little bit of time, but clearly we’re in it for the long haul.
Speaking of baseball, going into game 1, San Francisco-Kansas City may not have seemed like the best World Series matchup you could have had. But going seven games helped, right?
Every year going into the postseason and into the World Series especially, people get really caught up in the markets, probably more so than we do, and make a bigger story out of it, rather than looking at, is this going to be a great series, is it a great matchup and are there great story lines. And I think even before the World Series started I thought there were going to be great story lines and it turned it to be so. The Royals were the fantastically entertaining new kid on the block, and going up against the dynasty. That’s always a great story.
And you’re right. Any time you get seven games it makes everybody forget about the fact that they were complaining about the market sizes beforehand. But it turned out great. We couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.
You mentioned golf coming to Fox. Tell me how you’re going to keep the Fox attitude when covering golf.
The Fox attitude that has been a part of the place since the very beginning, it all starts with people. It all started with Terry [Bradshaw] and Howie [Long] and Jimmy [Johnson] and now [Michael] Strahan in the mix. But it starts with people and that’s the first decision that you have to make and I think that having Joe [Buck] and Greg Norman lead the coverage, that immediately makes it so that even if you wanted to, you couldn’t be like anyone else because the voices are different. And I think with Greg we have an amazingly unique voice and somebody that really feels like they fit here at Fox.
Are you going to mike the clubs and holes?
We are on eBay buying as many microphones as we can. We may run out. We don’t even know where we’re going to put them all. We may have extras.
The one that got away was the NBA. Did you guys feel you had a shot at adding the NBA to the mix?
We love being in business with the NBA. We’re one of their biggest partners on the local and regional side. We love our partnership with the NBA on that level. If the opportunity had presented itself, I think we would have really tried to be engaged.
Among other sports, college football is fueling the ratings on FS1. Is the Big 10 the next rights negotiation you guys have?
I think that’s next, depending on what happens with NFL Thursday [night package]. Then a little bit further out, you’ve got Big Ten and you’ve got the Premiere League in there. So there’s a few things.
You’ve also been in business with the UFC for a while. What have you learned about the UFC and will ratings grow for that sport?
Dana [White] and Lorenzo [Fertitta] and the UFC folks were really the first ones to buy into the whole vision of Fox Sports 1 and what its potential could be. The partnership with the UFC is probably one of the models that we love as far as working with leagues and content partners and business partners. We want to see their business grow and become more valuable and vice versa. So it’s a great relationship and there’s nobody you’d rather be in business with than somebody that’s as aggressive as those guys are. And they continually reinvent their business. We don’t have a relationship with a league that has as their main star right now a female. And I just think that is so cool as to how they are able to transform their sport and their business and embrace the fact that somebody like Ronda [Rousey] can take their sport into their next generation.
Do you think the next World Cup can be a bigger deal than this year’s?
The absolute interest in every World Cup going forward I believe will get bigger and bigger. With any international event, you deal with time zones, how to generate ratings points. Our women’s World Cup, we’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it and I think it will be a fantastic kick-off to our World Cup coverage. Russia has its time zone challenges—not time zone challenges that haven’t been seen before because there was an Olympics there recently—and then you’ve got Qatar. Time zones play a lot into what the television results are. That doesn’t necessarily have an effect on interest, how many people are talking about it, how many people are reading about it, how many people are interested in it. So I do believe that not only interest in the World Cup but in all forms of soccer will continue to grow. But you’ll see those bumps in interest in World Cup years.
What else is on your to-do list?
In-market streaming for baseball. You have the ability to deliver all of your baseball product, including the World Series and all of your postseason games nationally and all of our Games of the Week nationally. The one thing that we’re still working with baseball on is the ability to bring your local team, every game, to your mobile device. Both us and the league are really engaged and hopefully trying to find a solution that works for everybody by the beginning of next season.
And just continuing to increase the creativity around Fox Sports 1 and a lot of its shows, and get ready for the added product.
How does it feel flying solo now that you and former Fox Sports copresident Randy Freer, who’s now COO of Fox Networks Group, have different offices?
Nobody flies solo here. It’s a great team effort and now I would say the Fox Networks Group, overall, has never really worked closer together.
In terms of decision-making, you’re still in a consultative mode?
I get out my Ouija board every day and I will consult with anyone who wants to talk. And look, [former Fox Sports chairman David Hill] is still around, which is fantastic. You get to consult with David. He’s off doing any number of things but still has his heart a lot of the time here in sports. Even though we’re past our 20th anniversary, a lot of the people who started this place are still here.
The past year, what’s been the toughest call you’ve had to make?
It was the [bidding to continue TV rights for the Los Angeles Dodgers]. The Dodgers were one of the crown jewels in our portfolio. But after much soul searching and trying to figure out where we fit in to the future of the Dodgers, we just decided that it didn’t end up making sense for us and it just so happened at the same time the opportunity to get into business with the Yankees and the YES Network popped up. I would say that was one of the biggest decisions.
People look at the sports business and see how fast it’s growing and how big the dollars are getting in terms of rights fees. Are we near the peak of the sports business, or is there still room for this to grow as far as the television business goes?
I think there’s two different things there. I think that the value of sports inside of the context of entertainment will no doubt continue to grow as the entertainment choices—scripted and non-fiction—continue to grow.
Now as that continues to grow, how quickly do the economics follow it is the question. Do you continue to see the sharp increase or just modest increases, and a lot of that depends on the landscape of technology, are there new competitors coming into the marketplace to compete for rights. So the value of sports absolutely will continue to go up, but how quickly the economics follow that, that comes on a deal-by-deal basis.
Do you expect competitors, particularly the digital over-the-top-type businesses, to try to get into sports?
I don’t know. Scale is important in sports. Having a sports portfolio where you’re really not just a one-trick pony is important. Having a broad portfolio of rights makes you relevant all year round to multiple constituencies. There’s no question that the digital players have the resources to be able to dip their toe in the water, but they still have to run a business.
The king of all the sports leagues is the NFL but they’ve had problems this season. Have you seen all the negative headlines about player conduct having an effect on your business broadcasting football games this year?
From a metrics standpoint I think you have to say you haven’t seen anything that would lead you to believe that that has had an effect on pure viewership, pure interest in the games themselves. So I think that people are somehow able to separate their love of watching the games on Sundays from some of the other things that go on around the league and the issues it’s had to deal with. So from a viewership perspective I don’t think anyone would say that you can take a look at the 1% or 2% up or down in a given week is related to any off-the-field issues.
Any blowback from advertisers?
There were large advertisers that made public statements, but I think that the league addressed a lot of those issues at the time and as [NFL commissioner] Roger [Goodell] said between now and the Super Bowl there’s going to be even more from the league that they’re going to do to look at their policies going forward. The advertisers were probably in line with the way the rest of the country was feeling and I think they made their feelings known.
Any plans for what happens when or if players like Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson get reinstated in games you have to cover?
There’s no particular plans now. I think you would see what the exact specifics are and you’d consult with their production teams and decide the correct approach in your pregames and your games. Those are things you really have to see the specifics of before you know exactly how you’d approach them.
Did you see Michael Strahan coming as such a huge success in TV?
We did. We absolutely did. We knew from the age of 12 that Michael was going to be a massive television star. Seriously, [former Fox Sports president] Ed Goren and David [Hill] did that deal with Michael contingent on whenever he retired because there was something in Michael that was special and unique.
Talking to Michael now, he knew this is what he wanted to do as the next phase of his life and he actually put plans in motion before he finished playing. And so it is not surprising to me at all the success that Michael is having. He’s a special guy and a unique talent and when you talk about the next generation of Fox Sports, he is one of the first guys to really kick that off.
Do you have him tied up for a good long while?
We have him tied up. We have Michael as long as he’ll have us.