The World Cup on Fox

When it was revealed that Fox got the TV rights to show the FIFA World Cup, the dread among soccer fans was palpable. After ESPN received glowing reviews of how they covered the World Cup, there was apprehension that Fox’s style of soccer coverage would come anywhere close to matching the quality.

In the past, there have been times where I praised Fox’s soccer coverage and there have been times where I criticized their coverage. Despite my previous feelings, I really wanted to enter Fox’s World Cup coverage with an open mind. I knew this would be a different type of broadcast than ESPN’s and when possible, wanted to look at Fox’s coverage on its own and not compare it to ESPN.

After one week of watching Fox’s World Cup coverage, I discovered that it was a broadcast that had much more bad going for it than good, as well as some things where Fox is unfairly criticized.

In terms of what Fox has done well, they have done their best to make each game available to as many people as possible. While it would be an easy decision for Fox to put some World Cup games on FS2 in order to create more demand for the channel, Fox put games on their main cable sports network and broadcast channel, putting a total of 38 of 64 games on regular Fox.

Having each game available to as many people as possible is certainly great for Fox. Yes, a rogue Fox affiliate or two has decided not to show certain games or not air a pregame show, but it would be unfair to blame Fox Sports for that. While they may be Fox affiliates, they aren’t necessarily owned by Fox and each individual affiliate chooses what to program. Given how much Fox paid for the rights, I’m sure if Fox Sports had their way, they would make every Fox affiliate across the country show the World Cup. But that’s not the case and some affiliates just haven’t gotten the message about how great the World Cup is.

In terms of broadcasting teams, I very much love the team of Derek Rae and Aly Wagner. Even though they, along with three other broadcast teams, are calling games off of monitors in Los Angeles, Rae and Wagner have shown great enthusiasm, have lots of knowledge and have the kind of chemistry that make you believe the two of them have been working together for years.

Admittedly, I wasn’t the biggest Aly Wagner fan when she was with Fox at the Women’s World Cup and Copa America. But after a couple years since those two tournaments, Wagner has shone as a color commentator this time around.

Sadly, the majority of Fox’s coverage has been poor and it’s apparent to me that Fox still doesn’t quite get it. Their two biggest issues are that their coverage lacks any substance and they still give off the perception that the average viewer barely knows anything about soccer. The extent of the coverage is focused on big stars and has the kind of analysis that even a casual soccer fan could come up with.

This past Friday and Saturday, the discussion in Red Square was almost entirely devoted to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Yes, they are the two best players in the world and deserve the conversation to be mostly about them, but it looked like Fox was trying way too hard to create a rivalry between the two of them. It completely overshadowed any tactical discussion about either game they were about to play in.

Their studio setup almost seems too rigid and scripted. When Morocco vs. Iran ended, the Fox crew barely discussed the last-minute own goal that won the game for Iran and couldn’t wait to tell viewers that Ronaldo was about to play next against Spain. I get that Morocco vs. Iran isn’t the sexiest matchup at the World Cup and it probably wasn’t worth much discussion in initial planning but the finish warranted more of a discussion rather than how it seemed to be which was, “Well that was nice but Portugal/Spain is next! RONALDO is playing!”

The Ronaldo discussion even somewhat dominated the day after when Argentina faced Iceland. After a 1-1 draw, the first thing the studio did was show footage of Ronaldo’s hat trick from the day before. And for what? To show that Ronaldo scored on a penalty and Messi didn’t? That’s not meaningful analysis. The only connection between the two is that they are two of the best players in the world. Neither have played against each other during a World Cup. Neither are, at the moment, playing each other in this World Cup. In fact, the only time the two can meet this year is either in the quarterfinal (if both teams finish in first or second and win in the Round of 16) or in the final, so let’s not try to make it that Ronaldo is only worried about Messi and Messi is only worried about Ronaldo.

Speaking of Messi, his Argentina team’s match against Iceland ended with a rather unique game-ending call by John Strong. Strong utilized a classic newspaper headline, “Harvard beats Yale 29-29” based on a college football game where Harvard once came back from near impossible odds to tie Yale. Because Iceland were seen as huge underdogs against Argentina, Strong tweaked the line to say “Iceland beats Argentina 1-1.”

Originally, I flat-out hated the line and thought it was incredibly stupid, but I’ve been more okay with it on further reflection. Richard Deitsch of The Athletic talked to Strong about that game and the call.

“It freaked Stu (Holden) out when I said it because he thought I genuinely forgot the score — kind of a reverse JR Smith?”

“It popped into my head for some reason in the final ten minutes, a reference to ‘Harvard Beats Yale 29-29,’ which is something I’ve read about and I believe there was a documentary about recently as well. So just trying to think of a unique way to convey the idea of a ‘winning tie’ from an Icelandic perspective, rather than just say ‘a tie that feels like a win’ or something like that which has been said a million times. I said just before it something to the effect of ‘to borrow a line from American sporting history…’ but that might have been lost, the ref blew his whistle right after the free kick so I had to rush it a bit. Ha, ha. Also, I’ve found a nice Zen Place with regards to people reacting to things I say during a telecast, so I rather enjoy the idea that it’s twisted a few people up in knots! I don’t plan on making a habit of saying things that do that, but it seemed a funny way to sum up the day.”

After having a few days to reflect, it’s not the worst call in the world. And I very much like John Strong’s MLS commentary so I know that even if I thought his call was really bad, it’s just a one-time thing. The issue, in a broadcasting sense, is that in a Fox broadcast where the strategy seems to have always been that the average viewer doesn’t know much about soccer, Strong introduced an inside reference that isn’t well-known in mainstream circles and not many people were aware of the reference. So while maybe 10 percent of viewers knew he was referencing Harvard/Yale, that left 90 percent thinking along with Holden that Strong screwed up and forgot the score.

It was a decent attempt at trying something different and it didn’t land. Sometimes those calls become iconic and sometimes they are just forgotten. This will fall into the latter.

Last, but not least, the person who writes Rob Stone’s teases needs to stop. I love Rob, but before most commercial breaks, he sounds like a clickbait article and the only thing missing is him saying something like “number three will make you say OMG!”

Not to mention, most of the things Stone teases can be easily researched online or on social media, way before they actually get to what they mentioned. So most of the audience probably already know what it is he’s teasing. Such teases have included how Mohamed Salah did against Uruguay (he was on the bench and didn’t play), what feat Ronaldo accomplished against Spain (score in four straight World Cups) and revealing who got injured on the England National team (manager Gareth Southgate).

The worst example of these teases had to do with the Saudi Arabia plane emergency where one of their engines caught fire and was forced to land. Right after the Tunisia vs. England game, Stone mentioned some “frightening late-breaking news” about the Saudi Arabia team. I knew that the team had to make an emergency landing and that everyone was okay, but I wanted to see if Fox knew any more details about what happened. After a commercial and then analysis on Tunisia/England, I thought it was taking a long time to get back to Saudi Arabia.

So I counted, and it took 17 minutes for Stone to go from his original tease to revealing what had happened and when he finally did, he had as much information as everyone else had. From 3:56 pm to 4:13 pm Eastern, we got the first tease, a commercial, a pitchside interview with Harry Kane, TUN/ENG analysis, TUN/ENG highlights, more analysis, an interview with Jordan Henderson, another tease, another commercial and then the “frightening late-breaking news” report.

I can somewhat tolerate these teases when the news isn’t that serious, but when it comes to a team being forced to make an emergency landing, let’s spare the analysis for 30 seconds and share what happened. Taking 17 minutes to report breaking news would have been horrible for a network the size of Fox 20 years ago, much less taking that long now when we can go on our smartphones and find out within a minute. Not to mention, using an emergency landing to tease multiple commercial breaks in order to keep people tuning in is rather insensitive to the viewer. And considering many people can just go on their smartphones, the only benefit that has was it reinforced the belief that Fox doesn’t really think that highly of their soccer viewers.

After one week, Fox has made some changes. Citing “scheduling conflicts,” Lothar Matthäus was replaced by Clarence Seedorf and Martin O’Neill. And to their credit, Fox has eased on the Ronaldo talk a bit to the point where he isn’t being inserted into any available segment and instead being discussed as the current Golden Boot leader. But replacing anyone and changing up the format isn’t going to remove the belief that most viewers are being talked down to. And that has been Fox’s issue ever since they started showing soccer. They may no longer be using Michael Strahan to teach us the difference between football and fútbol or having Gus Johnson call games, but Fox’s progress to make a suitable soccer broadcast has progressed at a slower pace than what the American soccer fan deserves.

Because of that, a lot of criticism is going to be placed on the on-air crew, even though I feel that’s somewhat unwarranted. I have watched many of these people work different sports on Fox or work soccer on other networks and they seem more knowledgeable elsewhere. Whether it’s due to their producers or people even higher than them, someone or a group of people feel like they know more about how to broadcast a soccer game than their soccer staff and those watching at home. And it’s those people who don’t get enough blame, like executive producer Jonty Whitehead believing that Americans “are not versed in the game” as English people are. Whitehead left Fox Sports in September 2017 but that mentality remains.

This falls back on the people on TV, and they have to hear it all over social media and in similar reviews like mine. At some point, we have to look at a larger scale and realize that the hosts, the analysts and the broadcasters are merely following the gameplan they were given, and this ongoing problem with Fox and their soccer audience might be higher than the names we know.

We can tolerate Fox wanting mostly American voices on the broadcast. We can tolerate Fox having some broadcast crews operate out of LA. What we won’t tolerate is being talked down to with basic analysis by smart soccer people who honestly know way more than they’re able to talk about. And until that happens, we’ll just roll our eyes like Kate Abdo while we brush up on our Spanish and watch the World Cup on Telemundo.

About Phillip Bupp

Producer/editor of the Awful Announcing Podcast and Short and to the Point. News editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. Highlight consultant for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @phillipbupp