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Aikman-Buck Exodus Fuels Speculation Fox Could Sell Sports Arm

  • Fox in ‘cost-cutting mode,’ says investor.
  • Letting NFL duo join ESPN shows Fox waving ‘white flag.’
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
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The loss of both Troy Aikman and Joe Buck is raising speculation that Fox Corp. might consider selling Fox Sports.

Aikman and Buck were the longest-running NFL broadcast team, calling six Super Bowls together over 20 seasons.

But parent Fox will save up to $160 million from its bottom line over the next five years by letting the duo walk to rival ESPN. Many companies try to slim down financially prior to a sale.

“The fact that Fox Sports let Joe and Troy walk suggests that they are in cost-cutting mode. If that’s the case, it’s reasonable to guess whether Fox Corp is thinking of selling all of Fox Sports,” said Eric Jackson, founder and president of the EMJ Capital hedge fund.

Former Fox Sports talent Jason Whitlock tweeted ESPN’s poaching of the network’s two top sports talents indicates tycoon Rupert Murdoch is retreating into “sell mode.” 

“It looks to me like Fox is waving a white flag,” Whitlock said. “It’s mind-blowing they didn’t try to compete [vs. ESPN]. It feels like a surrender.”

On the other hand, an insider told FOS the cost-cutting “could mean [Fox] is going into acquisition mode.”

“When you are selling off assets, you are trying to make yourself more attractive to a buyer or losing some weight so you can purchase something,” the source said. 

Fox hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites to acquire a minority stake in NFL Media, which has seen interest from Apple and Amazon.

The league hired Goldman Sachs in June to explore ways to grow NFL Media — which includes, NFL RedZone and NFL Network — via a partnership or selling up to 49% of the league subsidiary. 

With billions worth of media rights to the NFL, MLB, NASCAR, and the Big Ten Conference, Fox Sports could be an attractive target for a tech giant like Apple that wants to dive headfirst into sports. 

Or one of the NFL’s seven sportsbook partners, like FanDuel or DraftKings, that want to become media companies. 

Fox boasts the rights to the NFL’s most-watched game window through 2033 – plus Major League Baseball’s World Series through 2028.

Fox Sports’ gambling entry, Fox Bet, is only available in four states, and Fox Corp. has been in a legal dispute with Flutter Entertainment, the betting conglomerate it partnered with to create the betting platform.

Last April, Fox sued Flutter in federal court over the network’s value of its option to purchase 18.6% of FanDuel Group, which upped its stake in Flutter to 95% late last year. 

History of NFL Success

Since bursting onto the scene in 1994, Fox has emerged as arguably the NFL’s strongest TV partner.

Fox’s late Sunday afternoon NFC game package — dubbed “America’s Game of the Week” — has ranked as the most-watched TV show for 13 years, averaging 23.1 million viewers this season. 

The popular “Fox NFL Sunday” program with Terry Bradshaw and Michael Strahan is even more dominant, ranking as the league’s No. 1 pregame show for 28 years running. 

Last March, Fox renewed its deal for Sunday afternoon games, agreeing to pay over $2 billion a year through the 2033 season. Fox will air two of the next three Super Bowls, including Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 12, 2023. 

But Fox Sports’ FS1/FS2 sports cable networks have fared much worse against ESPN. 

Despite paying Skip Bayless over $30 million over four years, FS1’S “Undisputed” lags behind Stephen A. Smith’s “First Take” in TV ratings. Its website has gone through numerous iterations over the last decade and has failed to grab the audience of its rivals.

In a dramatic reversal from five years ago, Whitlock believes ESPN’s parent, The Walt Disney Co., is now the NFL’s favorite media partner. 

Disney/ESPN successfully fought off a serious challenge from Fox over broadcast rights to the NFL Draft

During the NFL’s recent contract negotiations, ESPN scored the right to broadcast its first two Super Bowls, which will air on sister Disney broadcast network ABC after the 2026 and 2030 seasons. 

Said Whitlock: “ESPN is now the voice of the NFL, whether people like it or not, whether they understand it or not. They do a daily NFL show [“NFL Live”]. They’ve now got as good a broadcast team as anybody.”

With annual revenue of $12.9 billion, Fox Corp. is the NFL’s smallest media partner, compared to Paramount/CBS ($28.6 billion) Disney/ESPN ($67.4 billion) Comcast/NBC ($116.4 billion) and Amazon ($469.8 billion). 

Bit by bit, Fox has been shrinking its sports portfolio. 

  • Fox will hand off the “Thursday Night Football” package to Amazon Prime Video starting with the 2022 season. The move will save Fox $660 million a year. But letting Amazon into the NFL game could prove disastrous for legacy media networks in the long run. The ambitious Amazon is already poaching top talents from NFL competitors, hiring Al Michaels from NBC Sports and Kirk Herbstreit from ESPN for “TNF.” It’s also looking to swipe the popular ManningCast with Peyton and Eli Manning from ESPN.
  • Fox sold off its 21 regional sports networks as part of Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Twenty-First Century Fox in 2019. ​​The U.S. Department of Justice made Disney sell those RSNs, which were picked up by Sinclair for $9.6 billion and rebranded as Bally Sports.
  • Fox backed out of its 12-year United States Golf Association deal seven years early in 2020, with TV rights to the U.S. Open and other events shifting to NBC. Fox’s first Open telecast with Buck and Greg Norman on the call in 2015 was widely panned.
  • Fox Sports lost UFC — which provided major content for FS1 and FS2 — to ESPN. In two separate deals in 2018, ESPN acquired both the broadcast and streaming rights. ESPN+ is the exclusive home of pay-per-view events in the U.S.

The 28-year old Fox Sports is just one entity in the Fox Corp. portfolio that appears to be under scrutiny from the highest levels of the corporation led by the 91-year-old Murdoch, one source told FOS. 

Sinclair — which acquired Fox Sports’ regional sports networks and employs a handful of former Fox Sports execs — has come up as a potential buyer if Fox Sports goes on the market, two industry sources told FOS. 

Would Tech Giants Want Fox Sports?

But other sources doubt Fox wants to sell Fox Sports at this point.  

One warned a buyer would probably need access to a broadcast network given the NFL’s commitment to free, over-the-air television. 

Another noted Fox’s willingness to go to the mat in negotiations for the Big Ten Conference’s billion-dollar media rights could prove to be a bellwether of its sports intentions. Fox holds a majority stake in the Big Ten Network — and splits the conference’s media rights with ESPN.

Meanwhile, Fox’s constellation of sports media rights would not automatically switch over to new ownership, warned sources.

The NFL, for example, is believed to have a clause in its contracts that gives the league the ability to revoke media rights when there’s a corporate change of ownership.

“You don’t buy NFL rights, you rent them,” warned another source.

Even if Fox Sports does come up for sale, Jackson doubts tech giants like Apple or Amazon would be interested. 

“Too much hair comes with owning a legacy cable asset for them,” he warned.

Both Fox Sports and parent Fox Corp. did not return emails seeking comment for this story.

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