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New Fox channel to go head-to-head with ESPN

(MoneyWatch) A new sports rivalry is set to emerge, but unlike the Yankees versus the Red Sox or the Giants versus the Eagles, this one is between broadcasters: Fox is going up against undisputed champion ESPN.

Newscorp today announced the launch of Fox Sports 1, a 24-hour channel that will carry Nascar races, Major League Baseball games, college basketball and football, soccer and mixed martial art fights. The channel, scheduled to start broadcasting in August, will also feature studio shows, including one to be hosted by Regis Philbin, who is a renowned fan of the University of Notre Dame's teams.

Fox Sports 1 will replace motor sports channel Speed in the cable-TV lineup, a move that will give it instant access to millions of homes. Speed is currently available in 80 percent of the pay-TV market, which amounts to more than 80 million subscribers, according to research firm SNL Kagan.

"We really feel we have the ammunition to launch a channel right out of the gate that will be substantial," said Bill Wanger, a Fox Sports executive vice president, today to reporters and advertisers gathered in New York.

Wanger said Fox also hopes to go after the rights for the NBA and the NFL if the football league creates an additional package of games for cable.

While sports has always played a large part in drawing audiences for network TV, today it is more important than ever. Sports is still almost exclusively a watch-it-live viewing event, making it the one form of programming that can stand up to the many options that now exist for viewers. TV networks have seen their audience shrink under the onslaught of hundreds of new networks, digital video recorders, video on demand, Netflix and other services.

Another plus for Fox Sports 1 is that parent company Newscorp is already a major player in sports, with nearly two dozen regional sports networks, including Prime Ticket and Fox Sports West in Los Angeles, while its Fox network already carries baseball and football.

Still, the new channel will have a tough time taking on ESPN. The reigning sports TV network, which has been attracting viewers for more than 30 years, already has at least some rights from every big sports league (and plenty of minor ones). Fox also can't expect to outbid ESPN for sports events. ESPN has plenty of revenue, and in a pinch could probably get more from parent company by Disney.