During Fox’s upfronts press call, Fox Sports chief Eric Shanks affirmed that the forthcoming gambling service Fox Bet will not put an immediate, casino-style slant on the network’s sports programming. “We’re taking baby steps,” he said.
Canada’s The Stars Group and Fox Sports announced a partnership last week, with Fox paying $236 million for a 5% stake in Stars and holding an option to increase its equity position in future years.
After a landmark Supreme Court ruling a few months ago opened the door in many states to legalized betting on sports, media companies have set forth varying strategies to go after turf largely controlled by FanDuel and DraftKings. Disney CEO Bob Iger last week said the company does not intend to enter the emerging market in a concerted way, though its ESPN unit has added programming elements for gamblers.
Fox is among the companies showing more enthusiasm, though on the conference call Shanks described the plan as an incremental one.
“Fox Sports has always been a reflection of what we believe the majority of the audience watching our sports wants. So I think that kind of leads you to say that we’re taking baby steps,” Shanks said during a conference call with the press to discuss Fox’s upfronts programming reveal. “On our more broad properties, like our pregame [NFL and college football] shows on Sunday or on Saturday, it’s going to be reflective of what the viewer wants, and that’s not going to be a heavy hand when it comes to wagering.”
Asked about the impact of wagering on overall revenue, Shanks said until a majority of states in the U.S. legalize betting on sports, Fox Bet will be more of a promotional vehicle than a profit engine unto itself. Fox Bet initially will have two tiers — a “free-to-play” one where participants place bets for prizes and another for actual wagering in states where it is legal. “The revenue driver is engagement,” Shanks said. “If you can raise the national rating for our NFL game by a tenth of a point, that’s probably more revenue” than Fox Bet could generate on its own.
Pro wrestling, meanwhile, is another new programming element that will have impact across the network. Fox entertainment boss Charlie Collier said the WWE’s Smackdown Live, which Fox landed last year as part of an overall push into live programming, “represents really well what Fox is doing, which is a great combination of entertainment and sports. The WWE in its very nature is just that.”
Collier was asked whether the Friday night broadcasts of Smackdown would be an “island” on Friday nights, drawing dedicated wrestling fans who wouldn’t sample other Fox shows.
“If it’s an island, it’s an island I would want to go to and spend some time,” the executive quipped. Turning more serious, he added, “I don’t think it’s an island. I think it’s another great promotional vehicle for us, for our other nights. It’s a unique asset.”
Shanks noted that the timing of the WWE’s fall debut is no accident, with Fox’s multi-year deal last year for the NFL’s Thursday Night Football adding to the network’s existing slate of Saturday and Sunday college and NFL games. Fox also recently renewed its rights deal with Major League baseball, locking up the World Series (aka the Fall Classic) through 2028.
“The WWE joins our schedule at clearly our strongest part of the year, when Fox has the highest circulation of any network on television,” Shanks said. “Being able to have that Thursday through Sunday circulation, it has to have a positive impact on the rest of the week. There’s just no question about it.”