By most accounts, Fox Soccer had a strong 2015. Their coverage of the Women’s World Cup from Canada was roundly praised. Champions League ratings grew. Year one of MLS’s new TV deal resulted in plenty of praise. The Bundesliga’s most substantial foray in American television has finally opened up the league to more fans, though there have been growing pains as far as ratings go.
In 2016, Fox Soccer is in an interesting position. The summer’s biggest soccer tournaments, the Olympics and European Championships, will air on NBC and ESPN. Fox is left in a position where they have to build on their strong year only with their traditional properties – the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, Bundesliga, and MLS. Copa America Centenario would be a huge boost for Fox in June, but the American television rights have still not been finalized for that tournament – though Fox is considered the odds on favorite.
Fox’s attempt at building on 2015 begins this weekend with the beginning of the third round of the FA Cup. Fox will air nine third round matches this weekend on FS1, FS2, and Fox Soccer Plus, beginning with Friday afternoon’s Exeter City-Liverpool clash.
But why only nine matches instead of the full 32 across all platforms? As many soccer fans are aware, it’s not a Fox decision – it’s an FA decision.
“The trouble with the third round is that it’s such a massive amount of games,” said Jonty Whitehead, Executive Producer of Fox Sports’ soccer coverage. “It’s unrealistic to expect every one of those games to be covered in the standard that the broadcasters in the UK cover their main live games. But it’s certainly a request we’ve made – to make three or four camera coverage available on a live basis so that we can do some sort of wraparound show to go live to games. That unfortunately isn’t available because of the huge cost to have to cover that.”
One of the best parts about the FA Cup is the giant killing that often goes on – when a lower level league side knocks off a team from the Championship or Premier League. Of the televised matches this weekend, three pit a League Two side against a Premier League club, while another three pit a League One side against a Premier League club. Last year, the only Premier League side to get knocked out by a lower level club in the third round was QPR, who lost at home to Sheffield United.
However, in the fourth round, Swansea City, Chelsea, and Manchester City all bowed out to lower level competition, and Whitehead admitted that covering some of these giant killings is difficult because of the lack of widespread coverage of all the matches.
“What the FA makes available is a highlights feed, so later on in the night, we’ll get footage of those games from a single camera coverage. It happens when you’re in the UK, and it happens when you’re elsewhere. There are so many games and so many potential upsets that sometimes they’re not all covered. We do our best, if it’s at all possible, to at least have any shocks we’ve missed out on included in our coverage.
“Having worked with this tournament for many years, that’s the nature of the beast. In time, I think it will change as technology improves and the cost of getting pictures out of the ground lessens. But that’s the way of it at the moment.”
Fox’s Bundesliga coverage is also a work in progress, as the viewership for the league initially got off to a rough start and hasn’t dramatically picked up since. But Fox will be airing a handful of matches on their broadcast network in the coming months, and Whitehead noted their strategy with the Bundesliga this year has focused on introducing fans to the league, its teams, and its players and not just drowning them with Bayern or Dortmund matches.
“Our job was to introduce the league to people – to introduce the stars, to introduce the stadiums, to introduce the atmosphere. And those who have watched our coverage has learned that we’ve introduced not just Bayern Munich to the fans, but Schalke and the lesser teams, like Ingolstadt. We’ve had all those on our air live.
“So we’re beginning to tell those tales, and people are enjoying it. It’s a seven-year deal, and we hope those figures will grow and develop with it. But I think what we needed to get right was to explain the league, show the league in its best light, tell the stories of the league, and I think we’ve done that in the first half of the league. And from here on in, we need do our job properly. But we’re moving towards a conclusion. Can Bayern Munich hold on to their lead? There are some big stars coming back as [Franck] Ribery and [Arjen] Robben begin to hit the ground. That coincides nicely with our Champions League coverage which starts back up in February.
“It was always going to be baby steps, but as long as we’re doing our job correctly, the audience will continue to grow and over the course of the contract, we’ll see a significant increase and a significant increase in the knowledge base of the US fans of the Bundesliga.”
Sending on-air talent to either the FA Cup or Champions League Final is also an option that Whitehead would love, but it simply might not work out because of the logistics involved, much like last year when the Women’s World Cup kicked off in Canada on the same day of the Champions League Final in Berlin.
“We love to be on-site. It does bring an extra element to a broadcast, you get more of the atmosphere. It’s something we do in this country with our MLS coverage – we have both a reporter and our commentators live. And we do, within our Champions League coverage and Bundesliga coverage, we have designated on-site reporters and often, we’ll get a couple of hits from people pitchside to get a flavor of the atmosphere and latest news.
“We always look to get as much from the on-site atmosphere as possible, but there are considerations on the other side of the world for European soccer. It’s expensive, and we have a lot of stuff going on, particularly last summer.”
The elephant in the room is the Europa League, which typically suffers from lower viewership numbers compared to the Champions League, is played on Thursdays, and usually features less well-known teams compared to the Champions League. But this year, Fox caught a break with the Europa League – both Liverpool and Tottenham advanced out of the group stage (along with Schalke and Borussia Dortmund), and they were joined in the round of 32 by Manchester United, who were bounced out of the Champions League in the group stage.
Fox also got a break with Bayer Leverkusen, who have drawn extraordinary viewership numbers on Fox Deportes because of the presence of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, getting bounced into the Europa League from the Champions League with United.
And while Whitehead doesn’t necessarily *want* a team like Manchester United to fall out of the Champions League early, he’s not complaining about having them in the Europa League to boost the tournament’s profile.
“I wouldn’t say I’d rather have them, but it does give us that safety net. It looked for a long time like United was going through, which was good news, but if they’re not going to go through, you’d rather have them finish in that third spot rather than fourth and drop out permanently. Knowing that Liverpool had made it through to the Liverpool made it through the group stages and Manchester United had dropped down into it, it’s a nice safety net to have.”
FA Cup coverage on FS1 starts on January 8th with Exeter City-Liverpool, while the Bundesliga returns from its winter break on January 22nd with Hamburg-Bayern Munich. The Champions League and Europa League return the week of February 16th, and MLS coverage begins on March 6th with the Seattle Sounders vs Sporting Kansas City.