With 2014 being ESPN’s World Cup swan song, there’s more intrigue now than ever before as to what the tournament will look like when Fox takes over rights after this year’s tournament. As we’ve discussed on this website previously, the journey for Fox as America’s flagship soccer network begins next year with the Women’s World Cup and their ever-growing soccer package.
Fox’s soccer coverage has lagged far behind the critical and fan acclaim of NBCSN’s EPL offering and ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup. Fox took a major risk with Gus Johnson being the face of their soccer coverage, and so far the results have been a very mixed bag at best, with many fans losing patience with the network. I still think Johnson has potential, but he needs many more reps working lower profile games to truly grow into the role and announce major club games, let alone be a World Cup lead announcer.
A bigger issue might be who Fox has paired alongside Johnson as their lead broadcast team at the moment, Eric Wynalda. The former USMNT star is typical Fox panache in that he’s more volatile and outspoken than soccer analysts working at other networks currently. Wynalda’s short time in the booth alongside Johnson has also drawn the ire of fans and critics.
It flew under the radar this week, but Wynalda had a bizarre appearance on The Dan Patrick Show in the wake of the USA’s Round of 16 loss to Belgium. And it won’t encourage anyone looking forward to Fox’s takeover of World Cup coverage.
Wynalda was obviously very irritable with the defeat, had to be calmed down by Patrick, dropped a word you can’t say on national radio, and called head coach Jurgen Klinsmann “un-American.”
And this is Fox’s current lead soccer analyst???
“This whole country is singing this song I believe. The only guy who didn’t believe was Jurgen. That’s hard on the players, that’s hard on all the people in this country who are really ready to get behind this sport, who were congregating in places like Solider Field… Man, that’s just almost un-American for us to go out there and strap one arm behind our back and take 1,000 punches.”
Wynalda can criticize Klinsmann all he wants, but you wouldn’t hear one of ESPN or NBC’s soccer analysts put forward a scorching hot take like this that belongs with the likes of Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. (Michael Wilbon not withstanding, of course.) To imply that Jurgen Klinsmann, the way he set up his team, or the way they played against Belgium was somehow treasonous to our country is a leap nobody with a properly functioning brain should make. Or at least be allowed to say to a national audience.
To have this appearance represent Fox Sports and the future of American soccer coverage is a very worrisome thing for fans. To go from people like Bob Ley, Mike Tirico, Ian Darke, and Taylor Twellman to Eric Wynalda shouting and swearing about whatever is not a comforting message at all from the next rightsholder for how they will treat the sport. In fact, it does little but confirm the worst fears about Fox taking the outstanding work ESPN has done with the World Cup and driving it off a cliff.
What has made ESPN and NBC’s soccer coverage so appreciated by fans is that it’s free of the buffoonery seen elsewhere in the sports world. There’s no talk of “clutch genes” or “who choked worse” or questioning the “Americanness” of those involved with the sport. ESPN and NBC treat the sport and the viewer with the ultimate respect, and that is why they are so admired as some of the best productions in sport. You could put NBC’s EPL coverage and ESPN’s World Cup package against any other property as the absolute best in the field. Fox Soccer is far off the pace at the moment. And if this Wynalda rant is any indication, they are falling further behind.
Hopefully this can be a wake up call for Fox. They can watch ESPN’s World Cup coverage very closely and take the best elements of what has made it such a success over the last four years and build on it. They can continue to push the bar higher for American sports coverage and step up to the work that ESPN and NBC have done. Or, Fox can place the Fox brand and attitude above all else and blow it all up with rantings about the US National Team coach and team playing in a way that’s un-American. Unfortunately, I think I know which direction we’re heading.