Head to Head

Fox Sports Net wants to beat local TV stations at their own game.

In Denver, sports is to many locals what Catholicism is to residents of Vatican City -- and for that, Tim Griggs, vice president and general manager of Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain, would like to offer a prayer of thanks. After all, that fanaticism is one of several reasons the city was chosen to be the guinea pig in an ambitious experiment: the creation of a locally based sports program set to compete directly with Denver's late newscasts.

"This is something that's never been done before, really," Griggs says, "and we think from a viewer standpoint and a network standpoint, it will be a home run for us."

This particular brand of long ball is one that Fox Sports Net -- which came into existence in 1995, when Fox czar Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. picked up Prime Sports, a batch of sports networks owned by Denver's Liberty Media -- has been moving toward for the past several years. Initially, Fox attempted to knock industry sports leader ESPN off the winner's platform by matching the channel star for star. But while this approach has boosted a handful of personalities -- most notably, the egomaniacal Jim Rome -- it hasn't put a substantial dent into the popularity of ESPN's more prominent programming. Even the hiring of Keith Olbermann, a big ESPN star prior to his ill-advised (and temporary) jump to MSNBC, failed to convince most couch potatoes to abandon Dan Patrick and SportsCenter.

Mike Gorman

What has succeeded for Fox Sports Net, though, has been its slow but steady embrace of regionalism, an approach that flies in the face of the centralization practiced by the vast majority of cable services. Specifically, Fox has acquired the right to show games featuring most professional sports franchises (aside from those associated with the NFL, whose teams are locked into network deals). According to Griggs, 69 of 79 Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association squads, including the Colorado Rockies, the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets, are part of the Fox Sports Net family. The Rocky Mountain branch, one of 22 divisions under the Fox umbrella nationwide, also features the Utah Jazz and numerous college teams, the footballers at Colorado State University among them. In addition, Griggs oversees a fairly impressive array of broadcast talent highlighted by Drew Goodman and KOA monkey boy Scott Hastings, who narrate Nuggets action, and Avalanche voices Peter McNab and John Kelly.

"People know to turn to us when a game's on," Griggs says. "When we do an Avalanche game, we're getting around a 3.6 rating -- and when there's an Avalanche game on ESPN, they're getting less than a third of that."

In an attempt to ride the coattails of such broadcasts, Fox Sports next developed regional sports-news shows -- but in many cases, these programs don't originate from the areas they focus upon. For instance, the sportscast aimed here contains contributions from two Denver reporters, Sandy Williams and Keith Bleyer, but it's assembled in Los Angeles and delivered by L.A. anchors like Barry LeBrock and Randy Sparage, who rotate between Rocky Mountain and West Coast casts. For this reason, the report has a canned quality occasionally marked by embarrassing gaffes; one viewer remembers Avalanche coach Bob Hartley being identified by a different first name.

Griggs hopes such errors will be eliminated as a result of "dehubbing" -- relocating the news operations to the regions they cover. And thanks to a series of internal circumstances at Fox, as well as the strength of the area fan base, the Rocky Mountain arm will be the first to shift homeward. In what Griggs calls "an incredibly large undertaking" that's costing well over $3 million on the technical end alone, crews are turning studio and office space in the Riverpoint Building, at 2300 15th Street, into Fox Sports headquarters. Also on the agenda is the hiring of as many as 25 new employees, including another reporter and a pair of anchors.

"We're looking locally and nationally for people," Griggs says. "Our criteria is that we want to find who we believe will be the best talent in the long run as opposed to confining ourselves to the local market. We're in this for the long term, and even if we eventually choose somebody from outside the area, we feel in time they'll become familiar to everyone here."

The other component to the launch of the program, which will be called Rocky Mountain Sports Tonight, is scheduling. Griggs is shooting for a midsummer debut, but months earlier, on April 2, the regional report will move to 10 p.m., a full hour earlier than its current slot, setting the stage for a showdown with the local newscasts offered by channels 4, 7 and 9. (Another edition of Sports Tonight is slated to air weeknights at 6:30 p.m. except when preempted by pre-game shows.) It's an aggressive move, but one that Griggs believes makes perfect sense. "Our dominant demographic is men between 18 and 49, and we feel that coming out of a sporting event like a Rockies or Avalanche game, we'll be able to hook them and keep them by going right into the biggest story that night in the Rocky Mountain region and let it flow from there. To us, that's a very viable pool of viewers."

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