In the wake of the USMNT elimination from the 2014 World Cup, there were hundreds of people who tried to project the roster for the 2018 touranment.
So I thought to myself… why not do the same thing for Fox Sports?
Fox will take over World Cup rights for ESPN beginning next year with the Women’s World Cup in Canada and will also air the 2018 World Cup from Russia. Although ESPN has been bragging about ratings highs throughout the 2014 World Cup, the truth is that nobody should expect the same in four years time.
For starters, the time difference will be a huge detriment to the American viewing audience. With FIFA likely placating to European TV primetime audiences, you could see matches resemble something close to South Africa 2010 with two kickoffs in the early morning hours and one in the early afternoon. The worst case scenario would see Noon matches in Russia kick off at 4 AM ET.
But as Richard Deitsch points out at SI, Fox can’t control the time difference and a likely decline in ratings. What they can control is the quality of production for the tournament. What they can control is delivering a World Cup that just isn’t on par with the great work ESPN has done the past 8 years, but one that’s better. Given the ample evidence at our disposal… that may be little more than fantasy right now.
But when one begins to look at the possible roster for 2018, there’s hope for optimism. If Fox can make some smart hires featuring top commentators from around the world (and more importantly, tailor their production towards soccer fans in the same way ESPN has done) then they can reach the quality coverage of ESPN and NBC.
And Fox has some elements working in their favor. First, they can try to snatch some of ESPN’s top talent away using the World Cup as a selling point. Second, they can lean on the corporate synergy of Sky Sports in the UK. Sky, the home of the likes of Martin Tyler, Gary Neville, and others, do not have World Cup rights as those will be held by the BBC and ITV. And third, they have a core of soccer personnel at the network.
So what might Fox’s 2018 World Cup coverage look like from Russia? Here’s a projected roster…
Play by Play commentators: Gus Johnson, John Strong, Mark Rogondino, Daniel Mann, Bill Leslie
Fox has made no secret of their desire to have American voices call soccer. The debate of needing an American voice to call soccer on American television is quite honestly overrated. Fans desire the best, no matter the accent. However, Fox believes that having American announcers might be a bonus for the continued growth of the sport and give them a further identity as a network. (That’s why Fox gave us the grand Gus Johnson Experiment in the first place.)
That said, I see Fox snatching the talented John Strong from NBCSN to be their long-term #2 voice at the network behind Johnson. Strong not only brings MLS experience, but fits the motif of what the network is looking for as does Rogondino, who has plenty of Fox Soccer experience. (Christian Miles falls in this category too.) Bill Leslie and Daniel Mann, who has been excellent working for ESPN in Brazil, can be imported from Sky to fill out the remaining spots.
I know what you’re asking – what about Martin Tyler or Ian Darke? Well, neither of those men are going to come to Fox to be #2 behind Gus Johnson. Tyler and ESPN parted ways before 2014 so that he could find a lead job elsewhere. If Fox is truly committed to Gus, they’re going to have to sacrifice losing a chance at the very best commentators.
Game Analysts: Tim Howard, Brad Friedel, Alan Smith, Niall Quinn, Brian Dunseth, Jason de Vos
Again, in the game analyst slot we have a mix of Sky Sports vets in Quinn and Smith as well as current MLS voices in Dunseth and de Vos. However, the intriguing wrinkle here is the potential of former USMNT players that may be making the transition from the playing field to the broadcast booth.
Tim Howard would be the major catch here and Fox should do whatever they can to make him Johnson’s lead analyst partner, assuming he’s not going to be playing in 2018. Not only has Howard become the face of US Soccer after his heroic performance against Belgium, he’s been very good calling EPL games on NBCSN alongside Arlo White as an active player. Just imagine how good Howard can be if he commits to broadcasting full-time. Simiarly, Friedel has worked for Fox Sports doing spot work in the studio for the Champions League, so it would only make sense to sign him up for Canada 2015 and Russia 2018.
Studio Hosts: Rob Stone, Julie-Stewart Binks, Curt Menefee, Georgie Thompson
Here’s one area where Fox can stand pat with a solid core of very capable studio hosts. Stone has been an American soccer mainstay for years and certainly adds a different personality than Bob Ley would as the face of Fox’s World Cup studio coverage. His passion for the sport is unrivaled among the sports media world and he can bring more of a Fox stamp to the coverage. Menefee is a noted soccer fan and brings the name value, hosting chops, and credibility Fox would desire. JSB has developed a cult following amongst Mike Francesa’s fanbase and her work on Fox Soccer Daily makes her a natural fit here. Finally, before she was sitting next to Regis Philbin on Crowd Goes Wild, Thompson was one of the most recognizable hosts on Sky Sports News. Having her on board as a World Cup host would be a very smart move, assuming she still has a relationship with the network.
Again, right now, this is probably Fox’s strongest area in prospective soccer coverage and they can present a top notch set of hosts beginning next year in Canada.
Studio Analysts: Eric Wynalda, Brian McBride, Warren Barton, Stuart Holden, Jamie Carragher, Jamie Redknapp, Robbie Fowler, Janusz Michallik, Ruud Gullit, Piers Morgan (?!?!)
Here’s where it’s impossible to predict what Fox might do. Right now the best guess is once again a mixture of current Fox Soccer and Sky Sports personnel while keeping in mind there’s always the possibility of Fox importing recently retired stars. There could be scores of older players starring in Brazil that might be interested in a media career who could theoretically link up with Fox. Frank Lampard or Ashley Cole or Miroslav Klose could be sitting next to Rob Stone for all we know. Let’s hope Fox continues ESPN’s work and finds analysts from around the world to contribute differing and diverse perspectives on the tournament.
Right now though Wynalda, McBride, and Barton appear to be locks as core Fox analysts. Let’s hope Fox does the smart thing and moves Wynalda from the booth back to the studio, where his more in-your-face style is a better fit and he doesn’t have to carry an entire broadcast. McBride is vastly underrated in this role and Barton is the steady hand for the network.
Former USMNT player Holden could slide in after injuries have derailed his career. Like Friedel he’s already done spot work for Fox in the past. Although some might love to see Gary Neville listed here, his coaching work with England will probably prevent his inclusion. Nevertheless, the likes of Carragher, Fowler, and Redknapp could still move over from Sky.
If Fox could put together a roster with this kind of depth and quality, it would give soccer fans some much needed optimism regarding their World Cup coverage. Then again, they could hire Piers Morgan once again…