Murdoch’s Field of Dreams

Nov 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When the New York Yankees defeated the Boston Red Sox in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series last month, more than 27 million people watched, helping the Fox Network score the highest rating for any game in this year’s playoffs and World Series. It symbolized a revival for baseball that for a few brief days swept through popular culture.
The Bronx Bombers’ victory came a day after the Chicago Cubs stumbled and lost the National League crown to the unheralded Florida Marlins, and even the other networks were forced to pay baseball a backhanded compliment. Both CBS and NBC, their new-season premieres and promotion disrupted by the baseball frenzy, switched to reruns, tacitly acknowledging the sport’s surprising attraction.
“Just think,” mused David Hill, chairman and CEO, Fox Sports Television Group, “every penny all the other networks spent on marketing just drifted off into the ether.”
Mr. Hill had a right to be pleased. Fox’s $2 billion plunge into baseball has not always seemed as smart as it did this fall. In fact, the network’s parents, Fox Entertainment and News Corp., had already taken a huge write-off on the network’s sports contracts, including those covering baseball, pro football and NASCAR, in the wake of a difficult advertising market.
This year baseball roared back, primarily due to the presence of the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox in postseason play. Both teams not only represent large cities but also enjoy a national following, especially the Cubs.
For a few brief moments, it brought back memories of an earlier time, which in retrospect seems like a simpler time. That was back before pro football became an obsession and stars such as Michael Jordan and Shaq helped elevate pro basketball into a national frenzy.
That was also before the arrival of junk sports on TV and, most recently, extreme sports. That was back when channel choices were limited and sports stars were known for their accomplishments, instead of their salaries, endorsements and arrests.
Many factors contributed to turning sports into a very big business, but no single individual had more impact than Fox’s savvy topper Rupert Murdoch. Even before he launched the Fox Network against all odds in 1986, Mr. Murdoch’s plan included a major play in sports. He already owned TV outlets in England and Australia that controlled lucrative football (soccer) rights.
Mr. Murdoch understood the power that went with those sports licenses and what it could do for Fox. He correctly predicted that acquiring the rights to football would level the broadcasting playing field. While Fox started life with a weaker affiliate network than the Big 3, football helped it win broader distribution. Every cable system, every bar, every public venue had to find a place for Fox once it owned gridiron rights.
In the early ’90s, when Mr. Murdoch went after NFL rights then held by CBS, he stunned the industry with a bid that appeared to be far more than those rights were worth. What the other bidders and the public didn’t understand was that he had a different economic model. It wasn’t just about selling ads. Football instantly raised the value of every Fox affiliate geometrically. The reality of networks is that the real profits often come from their owned stations.
Fox brought its whiz-bang graphics, sound effects, music and pro producing and announcing teams to baseball. But Fox could never fix the real problem baseball faces in the modern media age. For all but aficionados, it can be deadly dull to watch. There is a lot of standing around. There are breaks in the action between pitches, batters and innings.
Then there is the mind-numbing ethic of the game’s own stars. A football player might spike the ball after a touchdown and a basketball star will jam his fist into the air after scoring, but baseball players often show the emotion of corporate accountants. “The players themselves dull things up,” said John Nadel, veteran sports columnist for the Associated Press in Los Angeles. “If somebody really shows emotion, the other side feels they are being shown up. You flip your bat or do something to exclaim in excitement, and the next pitch is behind your ear.”
Baseball rebounded this year as a TV attraction, but there is no guarantee it will be as popular next fall. Even Mr. Hill admitted that if small-city teams get hot next year, those home run ratings will once again become singles and ground-outs.
However, he added that baseball works for Fox on many levels. It provides, in theory, a great platform for promotion. That requires, of course, the right show to sell. As it turned out, “Skin” and “The Next Joe Millionaire” were not good matches. The exposure did appear to help “24,” which attracts many of the same male viewers as sports.
Mr. Hill suggested there are other hidden values to sports. He noted that most of the key Fox affiliates, like many top sports teams, are in big cities. “If you cume up the local spots and pregame and postgame [ads] from a city like New York, Boston or Chicago,” he said, “you see that you are going to make as much from that as from a network spot. The only thing you ever see are network economics. You don’t see what it does for the O&Os [owned stations], because that is never broken down.”
So if you hear anyone at Fox cheering next year for the Cubs, Red Sox or other big-city teams with a national following, there is a lot more than ballpark peanuts at stake. And if you see aging fans aiming their remotes at Fox next fall, you will know there is still life at the old ballpark.