The pup nipping at ESPN’s heels was finally too annoying to ignore.
The Worldwide Leader always has positioned itself as above the fray in the cable sports ratings battle, letting upstart Fox Sports spin its numbers and launch unprovoked attacks into its natural television enemy.
On Tuesday, ESPN bent its nose down.
In an unprecedented move, ESPN Public Relations crafted “Fox v. ESPN: Anatomy of a moving target,” a propagandist look inside the battle from Bristol’s point of view.
ESPN, finally on the offensive, documents how Fox Sports has angled the ratings numbers to fit the narrative that it’s gaining on the behemoth. The PR effort tries to use quotes describing Fox Sports’ ambitions against it and lays out a case that programs from “Fox Sports Live” to “Speak for Yourself” and “Undisputed” have in succession failed to knock ESPN from its perch.
“It’s going to take us a while,” ESPN quotes Fox exec David Hill saying in 2013 upon the network’s launch. “We’re not expecting to knock ESPN off in the first week or two. It’s going to take two to three years. It will be a slog.”
Four years later, ESPN cites Nielsen ratings that indicate it’s beating Fox Sports by nearly 5-to-1. Fox Sports would argue — and has — that it’s closing the gap in a war that has finally drawn ESPN’s attention. Fox Sports PR has consistently taken digs and compared its own ratings with ESPN’s — always skewed in a favorable way.
But no matter how the numbers are massaged, ESPN is winning. “First Take” ratings were down following Skip Bayless turning his cloak to work for the enemy — in November, numbers were down about 35 percent from the year prior, when it had Bayless playing on its team. ESPN shifted the Stephen A. Smith talking-head program to ESPN proper, and now the network brags it beats Bayless’ show 175,000 to 132,000.
The aggressive PR move may backfire, judging from the reaction of Fox Sports talent. ESPN, by legitimizing the battle, is admitting the presence of a rival.
In reality, ESPN’s numbers remain far, far better than Fox Sports’, but ESPN still is vulnerable to a less tangible enemy. The network reportedly lost 2 million subscribers in fiscal year 2016, as more and more viewers cut cords. It may be winning a battle and losing the bigger war.