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Fox Sports to reach 90 million homes for its Saturday debut

By Liana B. Baker and Lisa Richwine

(Reuters) - Fox Sports 1, the new sports cable channel, will reach 90 million homes when it goes live on Saturday and will be carried by all major TV operators, the network said on Thursday.

A top-ranking executive of the new cable channel, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox, also said that Fox would consider bidding on Thursday night National Football League games for the new channel should the league decide to sell those rights.

"We will certainly take a look at it," if a package of Thursday night games become available, Randy Freer, chief operating officer and co-president of Fox Sports' media group, said.

"The question is, the NFL always comes at a pretty hefty price tag. ... Can you make it work in a way that creates any economics for anyone other than the NFL?" Freer told Reuters on the sidelines of Variety's Sports Entertainment Summit.

While the NFL Network currently has the rights to show most Thursday night matchups, sports networks and broadcasters expect the league to eventually sell the rights to those games, sparking a bidding war between media companies.

No other programming would help Fox Sports 1 grow more quickly into a full-fledged competitor to ESPN, the highly profitable cable sports leader owned by Disney. Consultants estimate the rights to those Thursday football games could fetch more than $1 billion.

For now, Fox Sports 1 will hit TV sets without any NFL, unlike ESPN, which has the rights to Monday Night Football. In terms of distribution, former holdouts DirecTV, Dish Network Corp and Time Warner Cable Inc will carry the new network, Fox said in a statement on Thursday, which the three companies confirmed.

But three sources familiar with the matter said that Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish are not paying more for the network and do not have a long-term programming deal with Fox Sports 1.

Fox Sports 1 replaces the Speed channel, which focused on motor sports, and has been asking for higher fees for when the channel makes the switch to cover sports more broadly.

Operators on average pay Fox 22 cents per subscriber per month for the Speed channel, according to research firm SNL Kagan. Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish have not yet agreed to pay more than they do for the Speed channel, the sources said.

A Fox spokesman declined to comment on terms of its deals with operators.

21st Century Fox is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the channel, which will feature Nascar, college football and basketball, mixed martial arts and a new show starring Regis Philbin, as it aims to take on ESPN.

Fox has to compete with a powerful lineup at ESPN, which has multi-year rights to many highly watched programs, including the NFL's "Monday Night Football," college football's national championship, pro basketball games and the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Shares of 21st Century Fox were down 1.3 percent at $31.82.

(Reporting by Liana B. Baker; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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