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Commentary

Can Fox trump ESPN?

It has been a long time coming.

For a generation, ESPN has been running roughshod through the sports television world. It devoured all its competition by the mid-1990s and now airs such prestigious properties as “Monday Night Football,” the Bowl Championship Series title game, Wimbledon, the Masters and U.S. Open golf and tennis.

How could anyone challenge ESPN? If the world were about to end, the last channel we’d all see would be ESPN, right?

As ESPN’s own Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friends.”

The same network that didn’t just challenge CNN’s dominance in news but crushed it, is now taking a second swipe at ESPN. A little over a decade ago, Fox tried a regional approach to attack ESPN, thinking all sports is local. It didn’t work, in part because the product was bad. This time around, Fox is going head-to-head with the network that’s viewed as not just the biggest, but most important in the television industry.

Beginning today, Speed Network becomes Fox Sports 1.

Two years ago, I wrote that the sports fan was desperate for an alternative to ESPN’s agenda-driven and predictable sports coverage. In that time, ESPN, in my view, has gotten worse, not better. However, every year this century ESPN has been voted the favorite channel of men in this country.

Can Fox or any network break the ESPN habit?

Yes, but its opening approach is not going to get it done. All Fox Sports 1 is billing itself as is fun. Watch because it’s fun.

That’s weak and it won’t work. Fox News didn’t overtake CNN by being more entertaining. Fox beat ’em by being smarter and once upon a time “fair and balanced.” That’s why we ate it up. It truly was giving us something that no one else was.

Why is Fox still No. 1? Because no one else is doing what Fox does.

Fox Sports 1 needs to be better than ESPN to win over sports fans. Period.

What drives a sports fan to pay attention?

The same thing that drove folks to Fox News: Being interesting. Part of that is having fun, but it’s also being smarter, creative and most of all providing information that sports fans can’t get anywhere else.

Can someone do sports better than ESPN? I sure hope so. Even ESPN folks know they have gotten a bit fat, lazy and dumber in recent years. When people think of ESPN these days, the dog-and-pony show that is Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless on “First Take” quickly comes to mind as anything else the network does.

In turn, ESPN has hired Nate Silver, Keith Olbermann and Jason Whitlock in the past couple of months – three polarizing but intelligent people. And ESPN has introduced an NFL show called “The Insiders,” where the talking heads are gone, in favor of former general managers and reporters. In other words, opinion is being shoved aside for facts and educated analysis.

Once a channel gets us as a viewer, it can take us on a ride.

Has there ever been a more comfortable, long-term relationship between a network and its viewers than ESPN has?

Beginning today, Fox Sports 1 will try to become the biggest home wrecker since Elizabeth Taylor.

It may find out that Liz would have an easier time prying a man from his wife than that same guy from his ESPN.

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