Fox’s Biggest Fan
Sports Net President Tracy Dolgin revamps programming to give cable network a sharper identity in ever-costlier industry.
By DARRELL SATZMAN
Fox Sports Net President Tracy Dolgin likes to say that he ended up in his current position by “pure blind luck.” But Dolgin has earned his stripes. After stints at Atari, General Foods and HBO, Dolgin was hired by Fox in 1993 to run marketing for the fledgling television network. Later, he was tapped to launch the company’s cable sports ventures, which, in L.A., now include two channels Fox Sports West and Fox Sports West 2 that carry the Dodgers, Lakers, Kings and Angels. But like ESPN, Fox Sports Net is being hit by the escalating costs of airing pro games, as well as the challenge of keeping viewers tuned in after the games are over. Dolgin is trying to retool their programming for “the moderate fan.”
Question: There’s been a huge investment by Fox in Fox Sports Net. Is it paying off?
Answer: We’re making money. There’s no question about it, and it’s really a great asset. It was the foundation for creating this whole cable group. It was really the driver for Fox’s entry into cable. We have really changed the playing field and created these local powerhouses where you actually watch sports more than just during a game. I think the formula sports entertainment for the moderate sports fan is gaining some traction.
Q: Initially, did you set out to be another ESPN?
A: What we did looking back was a mistake. The ESPN model was very simple. It’s a national network based on creating news and information programming and events about sports. Advertisers were begging us to go in there and put a competitor against ESPN. What they wanted was an alternative to Sports Center, so they could get the rates down and so that they could extend their reach to a hard-to-reach audience. We said we’ll take the Fox brand and we’ll put it on there and we will try to create high-quality programming and up the quality of the game production.
Q: So what did you do wrong?
A: We tried to produce programming that already existed. And the way that Fox got into the sports business was sports as entertainment. We forgot the lesson. We created programming that really was an imitation of ESPN programming.
Q: You couldn’t compete with ESPN like that?
A: We got fairly good ratings, but our programming didn’t match our brand and that catches up with you after a while. If you try to do it exactly the same way, you’re always going to be Avis to their Hertz. You’re always going to be the second choice.
Q: So how did Fox Sports address that problem?
A: We did a big research study because I was just thinking this is not the right way to go. I’d rather be the first choice to some people than the second choice to everybody. As an old brand guy, it was just bugging me. So in the study we found out that the opportunity for the Fox Sports brand was being unrealized. People who were moderate sports fans accounted for 62 percent of total viewing of sports on TV. And their favorite thing to watch was home games.
Q: But how has the rising cost of local and national broadcasting rights affected your business?
A: You have to take a long-term look at it. We have, in general, long-term contracts with all of our teams. The average length of our deals is over six years. So as rates go up, they don’t all go up at once. And obviously, what’s happened in the economy in the last year has moderated people’s belief in what the value of those rights are. Ad revenues took a hit last year and there has been an adjustment in the value of sports rights in the idea that rates would be going up and up infinitely.
Q: Does having the rights to numerous teams in numerous markets allow you to spread the risk?
A: Yes, we’re like a mutual fund. You have to take more of a portfolio approach than betting on a particular team. So, if the Dodgers are having a bad year, maybe the Lakers and the Clippers are up. It gives us some protection.
Q: How much has the ad slump hurt?
A: More of our revenue comes from (cable) affiliate fees than ad revenues, but when ad revenues go down like they did, it knocks you down a peg. We’re profitable, but we had to go through some cost cutting to get where we wanted to be. It was a tough year and when you have a bad year, it definitely gives you pause when you negotiate your next contract. But we had 10 years of growth before that and maybe we’ll have 10 more now. Things seem to be improving somewhat.
Q: Let’s talk about ‘The Best Damn Sports Show, Period.” It’s been a hit for Fox Sports Net, but it’s also been the target of criticism due to the antics of the hosts.
A: It’s the signature show for the direction we are going. People love it and it’s really being talked about. The athletes love it. It’s their show, it’s their kind of attitude. It’s the poster child for our brand. It feels like you’re overhearing a bunch of guys at a bar that you really want to hang out with.
Q: What would you say to those who complain that the show is another example of Fox appealing to the lowest common denominator?
A: That’s the TV business, isn’t it? If you do something that’s different, some people are going to like it and purists and traditionalists aren’t going to like it. It goes back to my overriding philosophy: I would rather produce a show that is the favorite show for a percentage of the audience than being just an OK show for the entire audience.
Q: What other type of non-traditional sports programming do you have on tap?
A: We have looked at, I would say, a dozen new kinds of shows that have never been done before. I can’t tell what they are because they are in development and I don’t want somebody to take the idea before it’s on the air. But there are some reality shows, some non-reality based stuff, something more like a network would do in terms of comedy or drama.
Q: Fox has lost John Madden to “Monday Night Football” and Jim Rome has announced he’ll give up “The Last Word” at the end of the year. How much will losing them hurt?
A: We’re talking about a weekly show with (Jim Rome), so he’s still here. John was really important for the credibility when he started at the network and he did an amazing job. Nobody’s better than John, but football is the number one game and the credibility is there. If you still have the best matchup, will (losing Madden) make a difference in the ratings? I don’t think so.
Q: Landing the NFL was huge for Fox and for you personally. How did that come about?
A: The NFL didn’t really want to take our money for our bid. They weren’t trusting that Fox was in the same league as CBS or NBC or ABC, and it really wasn’t. But we put a presentation together that convinced them that they needed us more than we needed them. They were losing all their young viewers and Fox stood for edgy, hip young, urban all the audience that the NFL was losing.
Q: You’ve said that you set out to “Foxize” football. What does that mean?
A: We vowed to treat sports as entertainment instead of treating sports as religion. Nobody remembers but up until that point ESPN wasn’t doing funny commercials. There was no attitude. It was very serious stuff.
Q: Explain how Fox has changed the concept of regional sports networks.
A: Regional sports networks are incredibly valuable assets, but (six years ago) they weren’t. They were places where they showed games, but there was nothing else on. You’d watch the Lakers and then it would be beach volleyball, or inline skating, or whatever. It was just a holder on the dial to put pro games.
Q: How has the regional nightly sports news show been received in Los Angeles?
A: The ratings are pretty good and they improved when we moved the show to 10 p.m. Over the last three or four months I think we’ve really started to find a good place. In L.A., I think the biggest move is moving our news operation to Staples Center. And I think the show has been 50 percent improved since the day it started there because now you have the energy of all the people standing outside the window, like the “Today” show.
INTERVIEW: Tracy Dolgin
Organization: Fox Sports Net
Born: Chicago, 1959
Education: Bachelor of Science in Industrial Labor Relations, Cornell University; Masters Business Administration, Stanford University
Career Turning Point: Getting NFL contract for Fox and moving to sports from entertainment side of company.
Most Admired Person: His mother, who worked and raised two children on her own
Personal: Married; two daughters, one son.