Fox Sports studio host Rob Stone’s Tuesday was probably busier than yours.
After helping ring the opening bell at NASDAQ to celebrate the 100-day countdown until the start of the 2018 World Cup, Stone went downtown to do some video for Sports Illustrated. And before a quick stop at his hotel and a trip to the MLS offices, Stone stopped by Newscorp’s Midtown Manhattan skyscraper to talk with Awful Announcing about, among many other things, how Fox is preparing for the huge event in Russia, why they’re not worried about Pyeongchang-level low ratings, how Fox will deal with strained U.S.-Russia relations, and if the Trump administration is harming the U.S.’s candidacy to host the 2026 World Cup.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity
You rang the opening bell at NASDAQ today along with Alexi Lalas and Fernando Fiore. Is that fun, or is it just a dog and pony show?
It was amazing. I think it was a little bit of both. It’s a well-orchestrated production. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I think Alexi, Fernando, and I at the end were kind of looking at each other, saying that was really amazing. That was really an impressive presentation that they put on. And it’s very Fox as well, doing things like this to get the promotion and get the word out and kind of overtake the conversation with 100 days out.
Is there a button you press? Do you just stand there and wave and that’s it?
A lot of waving, a lot of cheering. Confetti. Picture taking. It is a big, glorious photo op.
You’re basically just a model, waving.
A bad hand model.
A George Costanza hand model…
You guys have a theme song, or something, for the World Cup?
We do have a theme song. I keep getting the theme name song wrong, so now I’ve embraced it that I keep calling it “Where Doves Are Afraid To Fly” but I think it’s “Where Angels Fear To Tread.” That sounds right.
It’s really pretty and beautiful from a local Russian young composer who’s put this together. It’s really remarkable and it’s kind of the undercurrent musical theme throughout our coverage. Every big tournament, every big event has something like that, so this is ours and let’s embrace Russia, which is one of the big stories of this World Cup.
You’re 100 days out now, and you guys just saw what happened in Pyeongchang. It was the lowest-rated Olympics ever. And there are, unfortunately, parallels between the time zones, interests are becoming more segmented and divided now more than ever. Is there a concern there?
I have no concern.
I actually for years have seen these two entities trending in different directions. I always felt growing up that the Olympics were the greatest sporting event on the planet. And since 1998, 2002 maybe, I’ve changed my perspective and the World Cup is the greatest event that takes place every four years, and frankly it’s not even close.
I think people are now more invested in the game here in the United States. They care more about it. And it’s a bigger event now than the Olympics, which sounds crazy and I know there are so many different sports, but I think people lose touch with all the different entities that are out there in the Olympics and it’s hard to keep track. In the end, you just kind of want to see a tournament. Plus, I think without the U.S. being in the tournament, people have lowered the bar on the expectations for what viewership numbers and everything else associated with this World Cup will be.
And I think we’re absolutely going to over-deliver and crush it, because this nation can handle their home country not being in this tournament. I don’t know if that would’ve been the case back in 1998 or 1994, when we hosted it. But I think here in 2018, I think our numbers are going to far surpass what people are expecting.
How do you reach the American who’s native born and doesn’t really have a rooting interest with the national team not involved?
I think there’s a couple of ways. Number one, stars. We’re gonna railroad Neymar, Messi, and Ronaldo for a while to remind you that three of the best players on the planet— not just right now but really in a generation— are playing, you’ll be reminded of that ad nauseum, as you should. That’s the reason we all watch anything, it’s for the stars. Play the hits, right? And we’re gonna be playing the hits, and it’s great because the schedule sets up where those three talents don’t overlap.
The other part is the underdog, and maybe that’s just me talking because I’m a huge underdog guy. And I love those stories, and how do you not root for an Iceland, the smallest populated country ever to make it to a World Cup? How do you not have a rooting interest at some point for a Peru, or a Denmark, or Sweden, these countries that are starting to come out of the shadows of the big European giants and are ready to make a name for themselves.
I think once the tournament starts, people will understand some of these storylines and I think it’s a lot of word of mouth as well. The soccer population in America is loud, is vocal and they want to share it, and they want others to embrace it. And I think they’ll do a great job in bringing people into this family.
How much Mexican-centric content is there going to be, and do you think there could be a potential blowback from people who may not see Mexico in the greatest light?
Yeah, that’s a good one. I don’t forecast a blowback at all. There will be a heavy eye, a heavy focus on El Tri. We will have people covering them 24/7. It’ll be a talking point for us. Will it drive all our conversation? Absolutely not. But it’s going to be a massive focus of our attention, as will the stars, as will whatever storylines develop. As you know with events like this, you could plan for every curveball coming your way, but eventually there will come a slider or something over the plate that no one expected, and that will direct your coverage of an event like this.
I don’t think there’s going to be a negative reaction, I’d be surprised by it. In the end, people want to see what matters, and they want to see the stars, and they want to see the stories. And we’re more than prepared to serve all those up.
There’s no way to get around that you’ll be in Russia, and all over the new is what Russia did, might have done, everything surrounding that. How do you handle that? How do you logistically handle being in Russia, where the U.S. may not be seen in the greatest light, and vice versa, where many Americans don’t view Russia positively?
I think we’re actually going to embrace Russia, but it’s the Russia that isn’t of the political aspect that we tend to deal with now. It’s more the culture and the people out there. But if something comes up in the diplomatic realm between our country and Russia, absolutely it’s going to be hit. I don’t think we’re going out of our way to find it and dig into it, I think in the end we’re all kind of hoping it can be a month-plus of just pure sporting.
But we’re not naive, and we know that there is a conversation going on between these countries, and I get it all the time from my friends who travel to World Cups all the time. And they say, are you going to Russia? And I say absolutely. And that’s not their game, that’s not for everybody right now.
I don’t know how big of a talking point it’s going to be. I think it’s certainly a discussion building up to it, but my gut is once Russia and Saudi Arabia kick off the tournament, I think there’s going to be a lot less political talk, and the focus is going to be where we all want it, on the games.
So whenever there’s an Olympics, or a World Cup, there are always these taped pieces on the location itself. Is that going to be shied away from?
No. The story of Russia is gonna be a big theme for us going forward. We have this partnership with National Geographic, which is gonna talk about the culture and the cities and the people, and just what Russia is.
Frankly, we as Americans don’t know anything about Russia. What we know is what we read in the papers, what we read online, what we watch on television. So few of us have actually been there. So few of us actually know what their daily life is really like. And my guess is, we’re going to walk away from there having a lot of Russian friends that we’re going to keep in touch with down the road. I’m excited to learn more about that country. I’m well aware of what’s going on there politically, and I do keep tabs on it. And if things come up, we will present it and we’ll talk about it. But I think in the end, we’re there to learn more about what that country and its people are all about.
Let’s stick to politics. They usually say stick to sports. The 2026 World Cup is an important event for the U.S…
It’s the biggest event this summer for U.S. Soccer, is June 13. Who gets the World Cup bid? And you talk about politics, absolutely politics are in play right now, between the joint North American bid and Morocco.
So do you think what’s going on in this country is really impacting our chances, and our being the United States’, chances at this bid?
I think there’s absolutely an element in play right now with how our country is governed and perceived outside of its borders that will be a factor on the vote come June 13. I also think the fact that the United States was leading the charge to end the corruption within FIFA is going to have a huge backlash as well. Most sensible people would see that as a positive, but I think there’s a lot of people there that still have some controlling interest in votes that were negatively impacted and hold it against the United States, and are going to hold it against the North American bid. And it’s up to Canada’s and Mexico’s and the U.S.’ representatives to assure people that the World Cup being hosted in North America in 2026 is the right decision for numerous factors.
I think if you put the two bids together apples to apples, it’s an absolute no-brainer. Don’t put Morocco and don’t put North America on the cover sheet, and you look at it and you say, well clearly, we’re going with this pile of documents. Why wouldn’t we? But that’s not the reality.
The reality is that we have Qatar hosting in 2022.
And we have Russia in 2018.
And apples to apples is not how FIFA has operated.
No. That’s not how politics operate. And this is still politics. It’s not how the Olympics operate all the time either. I’m going to be fascinated to see how this plays out. Because if we see the announcement of Morocco on June 13, that is a second major blow in just a few short months to the structure of U.S. Soccer. That is a real kick in the head if we don’t get to host.
So there’s that potential of two factors working against the U.S., the current administration and how it’s perceived globally and the fact that FIFA’s being investigated by the FBI based here in New York.
Without a doubt, those two factors are in play in a lot of people’s decision making. My hope is that they’re able to overlook that and see the positives that have come out of these changes that were really necessary. I’m proud of America for stepping up and putting an end to this corruption in FIFA. I’m stunned that more people didn’t step up earlier to do something about it, and it takes brave people to do that. And unfortunately, usually with bravery there’s some blowback.
How important is this 2026 bid for MLS, segueing from the World Cup to the new domestic season?
It’s important for every single entity of American soccer. That goes down to AYSO [American Youth Soccer Organization], USL, Major League Soccer, the national team, men’s and women’s. Everything that touches American soccer, I firmly believe will be impacted by this 2026 bid.
You’re talking, financially, billions of investment that would be coming into U.S. Soccer. The eyeballs, the commitment, the carrot out there for the young players to say I might be able to A, represent my country and B, do it on our home soil at the World Cup in 2026? That is a remarkable motivating factor. The companies that will get behind this sport and get behind it early because they know what’s coming in 2026.
Week one of MLS is in the books, and there were some surprises.
Oh, man. A lot of surprises. A fantastic opening week. A litany of goals, some major upsets. Some early storylines, and VAR getting a lot wrong, I thought. I would love to be in the conversations this week that officials are having right now.
A lot of reds.
A lot of reds, a lot of missed penalty kicks. Maybe there should have been more reds out there, as well. And I think it kind of goes to show you that parity is out there.
I also feel like, and we’ve been talking about this improved talent level, a younger generation of talent being infused into the league, and I think it came into play on the opening weekend. I also think you saw some more investment from the fan bases. I think it’s paying off, and for the most part crowds were there and were entertained, and enjoyed it.
I know I was in L.A., and it’s been a while since I’d seen the StubHub Center in that type of frenzy around the L.A. Galaxy, coming off their worst season in MLS last year and being challenged by a [Portland] team that won the West [during the regular season], and that place was electric for the opening 45 minutes, getting the 2-0 lead, it felt like the Galaxy of old was back, and I think that’s a good thing for MLS.
LAFC going to Seattle to get a result versus the team that finished as the runner up. LAFC, I thought that they would be good, but still needed to see it in front of our eyes. Columbus, with all that is going on with that franchise off the field, goes into Toronto, and [wins] 2-0 against the defending champs. I thought it was a fantastic opening weekend for MLS, and a lot to talk about and a lot to market and sell.
It does feel that all of a sudden, that this league is more wide open than maybe it’s been in years past, and that includes the minnows of MLS that maybe haven’t spent as much as the Atlanta’s or the two L.A. clubs, or Seattle and Portland and the New Yorks. San Jose gets a good result, Columbus. I love to see the little guy do well, and I think in the end it’s good for Major League Soccer, but my big takeaway was it just felt and looked a little bit bigger and better than it has in a while.
Featured pic via NASDAQ