US viewers have a new broadcaster in charge for Russia 2018, and it looks like Fox is not afraid of a gimmick or eight
No one likes to be condescended to unless youre talking about the American soccer public. That, it appears, is the core of the strategy Fox Sports is applying to its World Cup coverage. This is, of course, virgin territory for Fox, the six previous World Cups having been beamed out to American households by ESPN. In 2011, when Fox won the bidding war to show the two tainted tournaments to come Russia and Qatar, the blood money Cups network executives committed to doing things differently. With the outline of Foxs broadcast plans now clear, we can say theyve succeeded just not for the better. The new era is here, and if the early signs are accurate, it will mostly suck.
Fox and Telemundo together paid $1bn for the rights to show the 2018 and 2022 tournaments more than double the amount forked out by the ESPN/Univision ticket for South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. Failure by the US mens team to qualify for Russia immediately made the networks decision to put in such an aggressive bid look flawed. Its perhaps to their credit that, even with interest in this tournament likely to be lower in the absence of the USMNT, the Fox execs havent retreated into a shell of self-pity. On the contrary, theyve gone harder, deeper, further than anyone could have expected in the search for hooks to get the US public excited about a tournament from which the US itself will be absent. Sadly for them, the hooks are no good. If ESPN, in its slightly soft, Michael Ballack-friendly coverage of previous World Cups, tried to embody The Quiet European, Fox is going all out to be The Dumb American.
The networks big promo, released in May, is a shouty, silly, horribly Foxified affair that manages to get most of the small things it tries to say wrong. When promoting a global sporting tournament, it usually helps to feature the sports biggest names somewhere along the way. Fox has gone in the other direction and invited us to get enthusiastic about this years World Cup by referring to players who wont even be there. Hence, we are offered a cameo by David Beckham (because hes always in these things, get it guys?) and a shoutout for Wayne Rooney, while many of the sports true stars of the moment Mo Salah, Kevin de Bruyne, Luka Modric, whoever you care to name get only fleeting appearances. Promoting the promo, Fox has described the World Cup as a fist fight for the championship of the planet, and its poetic in a sad way that the network has seen fit to use a boxing analogy to advertise its coverage of a sport in which players cant use their hands.
Cycle over to the host broadcasters website and youll find more evidence that for all the money spent, Fox still doesnt get soccer much less understand basic things like which professionals play it, are going to be at the tournament, and so on. What are Alexi Lalas and Rob Stone looking forward to the most in Russia this summer? asks one video segment. For Lalas, who helpfully if strangely notes that he grew up in the 1900s, its the junket (the one place Ive never been is Russia), while Stone, Foxs resident gummy bear of an anchor, is really interested to know whats going to be the vuvuzela of Russia, whats going to be the Icelandic clap of Russia. Forget about the football all the Fox guys want to know is which annoying gimmick this tournament will be hate-remembered for!
But what about the players, you might ask, and dont worry: Fox has you covered on that front, with a comprehensive rundown on the sports up-and-coming phenoms. The guide includes genuine rising stars, such as German midfielder Julian Weigl and Paulo Dybala of Juventus and Argentina, as well as Senegals Alhassane Sylla, currently taking the world by storm from the bench of Portuguese second division club Unio Madeira, and Kellyn Acosta, the US national team defender whose World Cup prospects are so bright hell be watching the tournament from his couch at home in Texas. Sylla is so good hes not in Senegals squad for Russia. Phenomenal indeed.
But look, its not all bad. The announcement of the broadcasters Fox will be sending to Russia accompanied by a lavish, Annie Leibovitz-style photo shoot in which all the subjects appeared in cocktail attire contained a few nuggets to get excited about. Historically theres been an acute sense of linguistic self-hatred about soccer coverage in the US, a bizarre cultural cringe that holds that a British accent in the commentary box is always superior to an American one. Just because a commentator has an American accent doesnt automatically mean the commentary must devolve into a series of embarrassing Bob Bradleyisms: its possible to be smart and American at the same time. Fox has rightly jettisoned ESPNs old phonological cultism and will put American voices at the center of the action: where ESPN included five British commentators in its coverage of the 2014 tournament, Fox has brought on just two, Warren Barton and Derek Rae. Those two aside, its America all the way, baby.
Thats about the only good news, though; run your eye down the list of in-studio and match-day talent and the pickings are slim indeed. Talent is, of course, a cruel expectation with which to burden these poor souls. Lead anchor Rob Stone always looks like hes lost or about to get punched; and Lalas is, well, Lalas, the ram-jawed doofus American soccer just cant do without. These two will likely be balanced out, to some degree at least, by gruff master manager Guus Hiddink and former Inter and Chelsea striker Hernan Crespo decent pundit selections for which we can offer grudging praise. In addition, well be treated to the pedantic droning of Dr Joe Machnik, and the manic clowning of Fernando Fiore, the fun uncle from Foxs 2016 Copa America coverage whos probably stayed at the party just a little too long.
To say Fox is sending its team to Russia, however, is not quite right and this is perhaps the biggest problem of all with how the network plans to cover the World Cup. Only four of the match-day commentators John Strong, Stu Holden, JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola, seeing as no one asked will actually be in situ for the matches they cover; the rest of the games, the vast bulk of them, will be called off regular camera feeds from a studio in Los Angeles. This is, of course, ludicrous. Theres no comparison between what you experience at the stadium the sweep of the ground, the noise of the crowd, the minor plotlines and movements off the ball playing out away from the camera, the mad thumping drama of it all and the restricted, antiseptic view offered by TV. Its not hard to see why Fox has gone down this road viewership of the World Cup is likely to be lower than if the US had qualified, mandating a slimmer spend on tournament coverage but understanding the decision does not make it any better.
Fox recently released a press release-cum-story via the AP to head off criticism of this LA strategy. Instead, the story bizarrely gives that criticism an additional, Fox-approved airing. Its not an advantage at all [to be at a game live], Aly Wagner is quoted as saying of the decision. Youre limited in what you get to see. It just gives you a different perspective when you are able to be at the game. Wagner will team up with Derek Rae to call nine group-stage matches; she will become, in the process, the first woman to call the mens World Cup on US television. But that historic achievement an achievement we should all applaud has already been tarnished by Foxs baffling decision to make her, in its own press release, the counterpiece to discontent over the networks World Cup strategy and budgeting priorities.
Its important, of course, to give Fox a go. But whats even more important is to pre-judge their World Cup coverage on the unpromising crumbs offered up to date. With NBC holding a lock on English Premier League coverage and ESPN for now on the sidelines, Russia offered Fox a great opportunity to cement its place in a crowded American soccer broadcasting landscape as an intelligent and innovative presenter of the sport. Instead it looks like well be given a World Cup package built on misplaced enthusiasm, maximum volume, and condescension and one which puts most of the commentators 11 time zones away from the action.