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.

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."

There's no telling at this point what these folks are eyeballing at present, but Rocky Mountain Sports Tonight will likely appeal both to ESPN watchers tired of sitting through highlights from across the country to get to the local stuff and area newscast viewers upset by the shrinkage of sports segments.

Les Shapiro, former sports anchor for Channel 4, decried the latter in this space last week, yet he acknowledges that station decision-makers have plenty of data to justify such a reallocation of resources. "The research shows that of the 100 percent of viewers who are watching at the top of a newscast, only between 25 and 33 percent are hardcore sports fans," he notes. "The rest are either passive sports fans or non-sports fans. And the numbers also show that there are more people interested in knowing about national and community news and the weather than there are people who want to know about the sports news."

Nevertheless, sports remains important enough that news directors at network affiliates aren't averse to leading their programs with, say, the particulars of the latest Denver Broncos victory -- much to the chagrin of those non-sports fans alluded to above. If Fox Sports's ratings build, expect more of that. But no matter how stations respond, Fox is confident about the dehubbing concept, and similar moves in other cities are on the agenda for the coming year.

"Our core business model is to bring the fan his home team," Griggs says, "and applying that concept to news is a natural extension. Before long, Rocky Mountain sports fans won't have to wait around for their sports news anymore. The waiting will be over."

Sold!: The Colorado Daily -- as it's been known since the 1970s, when it declared its independence from the University of Colorado-Boulder -- is no more. On February 15, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sidney Brooks blessed the sale of the Daily for $2.365 million to an entity dubbed the New Colorado Daily LLC. The LLC's president is Randy Miller, who in December left his position as a vice president with Lee Enterprises, a Davenport, Iowa, firm that, according to its Web site, "owns 23 daily newspapers and more than 100 weekly, classified, shopper and specialty publications, along with associated Internet services, primarily from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest."

No one knows what this will mean for the Daily, but we should all find out soon enough: The deal is expected to close within the next week or so, for better or worse.

Juxtaposition of the week: In the Denver Post's February 17 sports section, a photograph of a high school wrestler whose face, marked by bulging eyes and an agonized expression, was inches from his opponent's behind accompanied an article headlined "Adams City Star Smells Title."

Unfortunately, the title didn't smell too sweet.

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