Fox Sports’ International Marketing Experiment
December 30, 2013
Jonathan Elbaz

As a Washington native living in Israel, I’ve felt blessed to be an ocean away from the media circus that’s surrounded my hometown this year. I’ve evaded the government shutdown, the Obamacare rollout, the Redskins’ mascot controversy, and most crucially the Redskins’ season.

One of the ways I keep up with current events is by watching the few American networks in my basic cable package here. Included is Fox Sports, which broadcasts mostly live coverage of golf tournaments, baseball and hockey games, and selected NFL matchups. On a lucky Sunday, I get to watch the Redskins nosedive right from my sofa in Akko.

Fox Sports in Israel is almost identical to the domestic version, save for one critical distinction. During commercial breaks, you won’t see the slew of Bud Light, Chevrolet and Subway advertisements normally broadcast like a broken record. You won’t see any ads, for that matter.

Fox drops all of its American advertising as it pushes programming into Israel. I figure the network assumes that few Israelis are in the market for a Ford F-150, and apparently it has no intention to find Israeli companies to fill the space. Rupert Murdoch has more than enough money anyway, so why bother?

Instead of selling ad space to the usual suspects, Fox uses it as a marketing sandbox and experiments with strategies to attract Israeli viewers. We’re given a rare and unique example of an American network—freed from the shackles of profit margins—that can approach self-promotion opportunities with virtually nothing to lose. It sounds like the marketing department’s dream, and the results are rather hilarious.

The network’s advertisements for its own programming meanwhile pitch an unrealistic and problematic view of American sports culture.

Leading up to and for weeks after the World Series, Fox aired 30-second “Baseball Basics” clips seven times an hour, where a narrator literally explained how to play baseball to Israelis. And we’re talking about a pre-Little League, backyard T-ball standard of learning here:

“There are three outfielders in the game, whose main objective is to catch the ball before it hits the ground.” Or, “the goal of the game is to score more runs than the other team.” Or, “fans in the seats wear their favorite jerseys and cheer for their favorite teams and players alike.”

The other marketing schemes are just as goofy. You may catch Fox’s highlight reel of NASCAR drivers demolishing each other’s vehicles (accompanied by the deep narrative voice warning you, “These trucks don’t play nice…”); the slo-mo clip collection of touchdown dances and NFL players getting bonked with footballs; a magician doing card tricks with professional golfers; fans recreating the “Gangnam Style” dance in their seats; and even X Games bikers crash landing while trying to backflip. It’s a spectacle.

The network didn’t return requests for comment.

Fox is de-contextualizing American sports for a foreign audience by whittling down the complex rules and regulations into the simplest, roughest entities. Evidently, its philosophy is that athletic events worldwide are all about conflict, physicality and most of all, entertainment, so the best method to attract Israelis is to emphasize these universal aspects.

Some clips try to connect viewers to individual athletes or personalities, which reminds me of Disney Channel’s strategy back when I was a devoted preteen viewer. Disney also had plenty of money and avoided third-party advertising. It instead used commercial space to broadcast original sketches publicizing the network’s talent, where Hilary Duff, Raven-Symone and Shia LaBeouf would break character and talk about their favorite foods, ideal date spots, and other random subjects.

It was a light-hearted and straightforward technique to build greater fan attachment, giving us a window into the “true personalities” of the people behind our favorite characters. Before the current era of seemingly unlimited access to celebrities through social media, Disney Channel was trying to shrink the gap between its entertainers and the audience.

Besides studying Fox’s commercials to deconstruct marketing strategies, we can also see how the network frames American sports culture through its choice of images. Fox’s ads convey the high-impact moments—the flashes of great achievement and great despair—that are most appealing, just how action movie trailers skip the quiet coffee shop scenes in favor of the highway car chases.

But do these images really convey the essence of American sports, or just the glitz and cheap thrills that come along with them? Most loyal fans will avow that the value of watching NASCAR is certainly not in the car crashes. Golf is as traditional and averse to gimmicks as any sport. The NFL has cracked down hard on touchdown celebrations in recent years, and isn’t displaying BMX riders crash landing just plain sickening?

By luring Israeli viewers with high-octane, feverish imagery, Fox Sports is subtly pitching American sports culture as exhilarating, yet also exhibitionist and violent. Baseball is treated like a respectable and nuanced game, but the rest of the sports look more like circus sideshows. With its extremely unique promotion opportunity, Fox has somehow made American sports figures look sillier than American politicians. Now that’s a true marketing achievement.