In a telling appearance on Alexi Lalas’s The Mutant Gene podcast, FOX Sports executive producer Jonty Whitehead made a few revealing statements about FOX’s attitudes toward broadcasting soccer in the United States.
They perhaps aren’t that surprising; complaints about FOX dumbing down the sport have been going on for years, and things have only mildly improved since. Of course, it’s sad that “Don’t have Michael Strahan appear before the Champions League final to tell us the differences between football (soccer) and football (American) represents an improvement, but then that’s the bar FOX set for itself.
Whitehead, who is British, is the executive producer of soccer at FOX Sports, and therefore is a leading guide to the direction of the network’s coverage. So when he says things like this, via World Soccer Talk’s transcription, it’s both telling and alarming:
“There’s a hardcore niche group of Anglophiles and Europhiles [in America] who want the sport to be covered in an English style and an English way with English voices,” said Whitehead. “But speaking with Eric [Shanks] and David [Nathanson], I’m not so sure that’s the best way that FOX should take.“If you think a top Premier League game here will get 1.5 million viewers or something like that, but last summer’s Women’s World Cup… over 30 million people watched it. So there’s this huge potential sports fan who are prepared to watch soccer. And surely, our job is to appease the vocal echo chamber of these established soccer fans who have had their forums and their websites running for a long time, but to also appeal to this huge section of potential audience that’s out there.
“They’re used to sports television in a certain way. They’re used to American-style sports television. I know it’s the way that FOX feels, that’s the way that we should cover [soccer]. It should be in a more discernible American way with American voices. That’s a really important philosophy for ourself and FOX Sports.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, but most disappointing is the false dichotomy Whitehead creates when talking about an “English way with English voices” vs. an “American way with American voices.” He’s seemingly of the mind that one is more sophisticated than the other, and that Americans aren’t interested in a sophisticated concept.
This is obviously insulting on multiple levels. The idea that any English broadcast or broadcaster is going to be inherently more sophisticated or insightful about the sport is frankly untrue. And the idea that the American viewing audience isn’t willing or interested in being treated like adults is also untrue; look at the interest in the incredibly smart coverage provided by ESPN at both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and the EURO championships as well. Or look at NBC’s EPL coverage, which manages to be both accessible and in-depth in its analysis week in and week out.
The Women’s World Cup might have done exponentially bigger numbers than NBC’s weekly EPL broadcasts, but that has little to nothing to do with the production style and everything to do with the fact that it’s a World Cup final! And one featuring the vaunted USWNT at that. The Super Bowl does much bigger numbers than a regular NFL weekend, and draws in a much wider audience with varied levels of interest in the sport itself, but whichever network has the Super Bowl doesn’t simplify their coverage or change their broadcasting style to appeal to this new group of fans.
His point of view stems from this assertion, transcribed in the same piece:
“Manchester City, say. Pep’s come in,” said Whitehead. “He’s playing the full backs inside. That releases De Bruyne further up the pitch. He can go in between the full backs. That’s a natural debate in the UK because everyone is up to speed on that. I think if you begin a conversation with that in the US, you’re immediately alienating a huge portion of the fans.
“[Americans] are not versed in the game as I or people in the UK are. So, you would of course appease those diehard soccer fans who lap it up and love it. But are you doing justice to your biggest potential viewing audience? I don’t think you are.”
That’s such a wrongheaded view. To bring back the Super Bowl analogy, Cris Collinsworth or Troy Aikman (or even Phil Simms, bless his heart) still make an effort to break down the action. There’s no reason not to. Why would you cater your biggest broadcasts to appeal to a subset of fans that are likely never tuning back in?
They’re certainly never tuning back to a random EPL or MLS game if they’re not learning anything about the sport, or picking up bits of knowledge that make them want to learn more. And in the process of not attracting new fans, this strategy angers the existing soccer base in the United States.
When ESPN turned around their coverage after the 2006 World Cup, they did so by hiring smart, talented broadcasters who got out of the way of the action. And they didn’t have to be British! Some were, and that’s fine, but hosts like Mike Tirico and analysts like Taylor Twellman were fantastic additions. FOX seems as though they’re stuck in the mindset of ESPN circa 2006, despite nearly a decade of high-quality examples from their competition.
If you’re looking for a reason why, Whitehead’s attitude about what the American fan needs is a telling place to start.