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LAST WEEK THE FOX NETWORK AGREED to pay more than $600 million for broadcast rights to Major League Baseball. Last year they paid $1.58 billion for NFL football (snatched from CBS) and another $155 mil for hockey. None of those deals, incidentally, is expected to make money; media analysts estimate that the upstart web is losing $100 million a year on football alone. So the question is, Are these guys crazy—or crazy like a Fox?
Only time and Nielsen will tell, but here's the logic behind the largesse. Major sporting events bring a network other major benefits: stronger affiliates (the local stations that agree to air your programming); an ideal platform to promote prime-time shows; and an opportunity to fill many hours of the broadcast week with viable entertainment. In Fox's case, the association also provides instant image enhancement, conferring respectability on a network previously known for snickering sitcoms and squad-car vérité. Says Tom Winner, director of broadcast media for the ad agency Wieden and Kennedy: "Fox is still feeling like a stepchild, and they want the legitimacy that comes with sports."
Even more important is what David Hill, the president of Fox Sports, describes as "the big picture." Fox's owner, Rupert Murdoch, who is in the midst of assembling a global satellite system, considers sports the biggest draw for TV viewers around the world. He has already submitted extravagant—but losing—bids for Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the summer Olympics in the year 2000. Fox's first foray into boxing collapsed earlier this month when Iron Mike Tyson developed a sore thumb. "You name it," says Winner. "They want it." That means that everyone else has to pay more to stay in the game. "For the major events, it's become a situation similar to when the elephants play in the tall grass," says Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who now heads up a sports consulting firm. "If you're not an elephant, you better get out of the way."
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