Fox Sports 1 arrived on American cable and satellite providers in August, but many at the network are viewing Saturday as a “second launch” of sorts. On Saturday FS1 will air an MLB doubleheader of Twins/Indians followed by Dodgers/Giants, representing the first games in the company’s eight-year, $4.2 billion dollar deal with Major League Baseball. The second game also serves as the debut for the new three-man booth of Joe Buck, Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci.
More than that, it’s the first time one of the “big four” professional North American sports will air on Fox Sports 1, a significant step forward for the fledgling cable network. All told Fox Sports 1 is expecting to air about 40 regular season baseball games, along with two Division Series and one League Championship Series in its entirety in October. (Network Fox will air games in only 12 windows throughout the season.)
Regular-season weekend baseball might not drive ratings, but the postseason could be a big step forward for the cable channel.
“It’s something we’ve pointed to for a long time,” Fox Sports 1 Executive Producer John Entz said by phone earlier this week from Los Angeles. “October is the third phase of the evolution of this channel. That will be a major undertaking.”
Fox executives are excited by their new top baseball booth, which replaces the Buck and Tim McCarver pairing which the company used since acquiring MLB rights in 1996. McCarver retired following the 2013 World Series. In his place are a former player — Reynolds — and the unusual, if not inspired, choice of Verducci, a writer by trade who’d never played the game at a high level but has steadily become a television fixture in recent seasons.
Since most, if not all color commentator roles in sports are filled by ex-jocks, the hiring of Verducci is a calculated risk by Fox, even if the chemistry of the three men clicked immediately during trial runs.
“One of the main things is Joe Buck needs to feel comfortable,” Entz said. “When he walked out (of the test booth) he said ‘this is the one.’ Obviously we felt the same way listening to it.”
Entz is optimistic about the different, thoughtful approach Verducci brings to the microphone. The two worked together previously at MLB Network and that’s where the seed was planted toward elevating him into a prominent position behind the microphone.
“You came to realize when you spoke to him on the air and off the air almost everything he said there was an interesting point to it,” Entz said. “He was not just a guy who was interested in speaking in clichés. Whether he was a writer or not, he became one of our favorites on TV. In year 2 or 3 we ended up putting him on a game with Bob Costas. A lot of people put their eyebrows up there. Bob is a legend, but Tom held his own.”
Fox Sports 1 will also compete with MLB Network’s “MLB Tonight” and ESPN’ “Baseball Tonight” with its own nightly studio show, “MLB Whiparound,” which will air weeknights during the season at 10 p.m. Kevin Burkhardt, Ryan Field and Chris Myers will host from a new studio in Los Angeles. Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, Eric Karros, Gabe Kapler and C.J. Nitkowski will serve as the primary analysts. The latter two even participated in the Fox office fantasy baseball league draft.
One aspect of Fox’s baseball coverage that might take some time to get used to is when it “elevates” games to Fox Sports 1 when it owns the local rights to both teams involved. For instance, the April 26 game between the Yankees and Angels will air exclusively on FS1 since Fox owns both team’s regional sports network.
A couple more things to expect from Fox Sports MLB broadcasts in 2014:
- The first Saturday game on Network Fox is May 24 and will run eight straight weeks leading into the All Star Game.
- OPS will be one of the on-screen graphics for Fox.
- Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz will serve as FOX “B” announce team.
- Fox will air 20 Saturday doubleheaders, 10 on Fox Sports 1 and 10 split between the network channel and FS1.
- Fox will use more of the “phantom cam” it employed during the 2013 postseason. It’s also working with an Australian company on an umpire cam as well as trying to develop a way to graphically display the type of pitch being thrown during an at-bat after seeing it on display during Japanese broadcasts. Fox is will also use graphics to show viewers how fast the ball is going when it comes off the bat.
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