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Sports Media

With new network, Fox to challenge ESPN

Television personality Regis Philbin, left, and Michael Strahan attend the Fox Sports Media Upfront party celebrating the new Fox Sports 1 network on Tuesday.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Television personality Regis Philbin, left, and Michael Strahan attend the Fox Sports Media Upfront party celebrating the new Fox Sports 1 network on Tuesday.

Who would have predicted, say, five years ago that former New York Giants star Michael Strahan would be the popular cohost of a daytime talk show with Kelly Ripa, while his predecessor, Regis Philbin, would be preparing for the debut of his own sports talk show on a fledgling but potentially powerful new outlet?

Maybe the silly unpredictability of the Strahan/Philbin role reversal is a telling statement on the current hypercompetitive, it’s-so-crazy-it-might-just-work state of sports cable television.

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Or maybe it’s nothing more than a whimsical thought in the aftermath of Fox Sports’s formal confirmation Tuesday of a poorly kept secret: that, yes, it is rebranding the Speed Channel as Fox Sports 1, with an Aug. 17 launch date, immediate availability in 90 million homes, and a sure-to-be-fascinating yet daunting direct challenge to ESPN’s cable sports television dominance ahead.

David Hill, the affably brash executive who oversaw the launch of game-changing Fox Sports in 1994, is in charge of Fox Sports 1, and he told USA Today with his standard tongue-in-cheek confidence that it shouldn’t take long for Fox Sports 1 to legitimately challenge ESPN, which is in approximately 99 million homes, as is ESPN2.

“We’re not expecting to knock ESPN off in the first week or two,’’ Hill said. “It’s going to take two to three years. It will be a slog.”

Two to three years? That’s no slog; that’s a full sprint, one that certainly would not be sustainable for long against ESPN, which owns an extraordinary arsenal of broadcast rights (NFL, MLB, NBA, various college basketball and football conferences).

But make no mistake: ESPN will take Fox Sports 1 seriously, as it should. It did not go unnoticed Monday that the ESPN public relations department put up a post titled “ESPN by the Numbers’’ on its Front Row blog on ESPN.com, sharing extensive audience and personnel data to “help translate the size and scope of what ESPN does.’’ The message was clear: You’d better realize just how massive and successful we are, and on multiple platforms. Maybe you’d like to reconsider this challenge.

Of course, Fox isn’t reconsidering anything. The reach of Fox Sports 1 already gives it an advantage over recently rebranded cable sports networks such as CBS Sports Network, which was in 48 million homes as of December, and NBC Sports Network, which has 80 million homes but has had a difficult time building an audience.

ESPN president John Skipper made his respect for what Fox Sports 1 is capable of apparent when he wryly suggested in a Sports Business Journal interview earlier this year that the true casualties of its emergence could be NBCSN and CBSSN.

“If Fox starts a 24/7 network, it doesn’t mean that whatever they will do will come from us,” Skipper said. “Maybe the other guys should be worried. Maybe it will come from them.’’

Now that Fox is starting a 24/7 sports network (with an opening day in August that includes a NASCAR Truck Series race and a UFC card), taking inventory of its programming is irresistible. And it is starting from an impressive place.

Its roster of live sports rights, while not approaching ESPN’s, gives it an instant advantage over CBSSN and NBCSN.

UFC will be featured prominently, with Wednesday “Fight Nights,’’ an extraordinary opportunity for the rapidly growing sport to gain an even greater foothold with a mainstream audience.

Fox Sports 1’s most valuable live sports property doesn’t kick in until 2014, when it will air 26 weeks of Major League Baseball games as well as some Division Series and League Championship Series games. It will also air some World Cup matches beginning in ’14 and will have extensive content from European soccer leagues.

NASCAR will still be prominent on the network, even as the “Speed Channel” name disappears, with the possibility of some live Sprint Cup races in 2015.

The network is also expected to add a Thursday night college football game, and Fox reportedly is close to a deal for the rights to the “Catholic 7” basketball schools that are departing the Big East. According to an ESPN report, Fox’s bid was for more than $500 million over 12 years. It will also air Big 12 and Pac 12 games.

Further down the road — right around the time the two-year “slog” ends — it will bear monitoring whether Fox Sports 1 pursues the NBA rights when that contract expires with ESPN and ABC after the 2015-16 season. That will be its first real chance to pluck a property of value from ESPN.

As for studio programming, Fox Sports 1 will offer a direct challenge to the iconic if fading “SportsCenter’’ with an 11 p.m. highlights show titled “Fox Sports Live.’’ A morning version will be added in ’14.

Fox was vague on details Tuesday, but here’s hoping its show is closer to the brilliant old Nick Charles-Fred Hickman “Sports Tonight’’ shows from ’90s-era CNN, and less a results-driven version of “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period.’’ Wishful thinking? Probably.

On paper, perhaps the most promising program is “Fox Football Daily,’’ which will air weekdays at 6 p.m. and feature well-known analysts and personalities such as Jay Glazer, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, and, yes, even Strahan. Fox does the NFL well even with occasional overbearance, and chances are it will be a strength of Fox Sports 1.

Oh, right, and Philbin’s program, “Rush Hour,’’ will air at 5 p.m. weekdays. Given the 81-year-old Philbin’s admission that he first talked to the network about a monthly show, it’s fair to wonder whether it will be anything other than a curiosity.

This much we do know: Five-plus months from its debut, Fox Sports 1 is already much more than that.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.
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