On Sunday night, ESPN wrapped up its World Cup coverage — it’s eighth World Cup since 1982 — with a beautiful closing montage before presenter Mike Tirico said that ESPN was handing off future World Cup coverage to a network further down the dial.
That network is, of course, FOX Sports, who after paying $425 million have the FIFA TV rights from 2015 to 2022, which will include the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cups, and 2017 and 2021 Confederations Cups.
As illustrated in the image above, the level of confidence among soccer fans and critics regarding FOX’s soccer coverage is at an all-time low. FOX Sports continues to ignore soccer fans, treats viewers with a lack of respect and employs talent who are not qualified to be on the airwaves.
At the same time, both ESPN and NBC Sports have raised the bar for soccer coverage in the United States, focusing on a proven formula of hiring world-class talent, and most importantly of all, speaking intelligently to soccer fans. In both cases, ESPN and NBC have record TV ratings to show for their hard work.
To date, FOX’s methodology has focused on trying to appeal to the masses (and, as a result, talking down to hardcore soccer fans), placing a higher priority on “fun” instead of quality analysis, and hiring talent that are talking heads who share no insight at all — to the point that most soccer viewers feel they’re better informed about what’s going on than the pundits themselves, which results in fans tuning in to the game coverage but skipping the pre-match, half-time and post-match analysis.
You would think that there would be accountability at FOX when pundits continue to “mail in” analysis in front of the TV camera or continue to make the same mistakes over and over. But there has been none to date. Either the executives at FOX Sports don’t realize that their so-called soccer pundits are making mistakes, or they don’t care.
Now that the World Cup is over, FOX Sports has an opportunity to hire a new team of talent that will help repair the network’s credibility among soccer fans.
So far, FOX has released no information regarding its plans for World Cup 2015, which will be the network’s first major tournament under the FIFA rights. The summer of 2015 also marks the start of FOX’s coverage of the Bundesliga, so the decisions that FOX makes in the coming days to weeks will be enormous.
Trying to second guess FOX is difficult since they’ve been known to make decisions out of left field, so I’ve listed below what my predictions are, as well as a few recommendations.
I can envision FOX Sports focusing much of its attention in the build-up to the 2015 Women’s World Cup on the US Women’s National Team, and paying lip service to the other 23 teams competing. Expect countless interviews and segments focused on Team USA, as FOX will play a key role in building up the hype for the USWNT for the next 11 months.
I predict FOX Sports will keep presenter Rob Stone along with pundits Eric Wynalda, Warren Barton and Brian McBride. Expect FOX to give Julie Stewart-Binks a prominent role, since she can add a Canadian perspective to the broadcast (the Women’s World Cup will be hosted across Canada). Expect Mark Rogondino to be featured too either as a commentator or sideline reporter.
FOX will need to hire several experts on women’s soccer. FOX will probably try to hire Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Kate Markgraf — to name a few.
I expect FOX will try to hire John Strong on a permanent basis, so he’ll be one of the commentators along with JP Dellacamera.
Expect FOX to find a way to keep Grant Wahl on its books, too.
The biggest issue that FOX Sports has is that it’s a very male-oriented network that doesn’t lend itself well to women’s soccer. FOX needs to change that next summer. The network has already stated that Gus Johnson will be commentating many of the Women’s World Cup games, so you’ve now got a very macho (shouting, deep voice, etc) lead commentator trying to appeal to an audience that is expecting what we saw from ESPN during the 2011 and 2007 Women’s World Cup tournaments.
FOX has a lot of work cut out for them to make 2015 a success. My prediction is that FOX will stubbornly stick to its current formula (to hell with hardcore soccer fans) and make small changes to get through World Cup 2015, so it won’t have to be worry about the tough decisions for 2018 until 2017 at the earliest.
Now that the World Cup is over, it’s time to clear house at FOX Sports. We’ve seen that the trio of Rob Stone, Warren Barton and Eric Wynalda are not cut out for the job, so if the network is going to make changes, now is the time to do it in order to bring in a new crew that can debut for the UEFA Champions League coverage and lead soccer fans through the European club season and national team qualifiers, into MLS starting in the spring, building them up for the Women’s World Cup next summer and kicking off the coverage of the Bundesliga in August 2015.
FOX has invested heavily in the past 1-2 years on future rights to the World Cups (for 2015-2022), Bundesliga (2015-2020), MLS & USMNT (2015-2022) and European qualifiers (2014-2018). Now that they’ve spent all those millions of dollars on rights, it’s time for FOX (who are notorious for paying low salaries to its employees; Gus Johnson excepted) to spend money on hiring the best talent available to round out its coverage. There’s no point having the rights to all of these tournaments and leagues from around the world if the talent is going to be below average.
Beginning September, 2014, FOX has enough regular, ongoing soccer coverage through at least 2018 (and beyond) to make it worthwhile to bring in a team of quality talent that can wow viewers. The challenge will be finding the talent that is available, knowledgable and has the right chemistry. Plus the other challenge is trying to find talent that can be well versed in the Champions League, Europa League, MLS, Women’s World Cup and Bundesliga. FOX may have to increase the number of talent at their disposal in order to be able to cover the leagues.
FOX needs to keep some of the talent it already has such as JP Dellacamera, Brian Dunseth and Mark Rogondino. All three are hard-working professionals who deserve more air-time.
Meanwhile, while these pundits were excellent footballers during their time, the sooner FOX gets rid of Mario Melchiot and Mikael Silvestre, the better. Neither man offers any valuable insight other than stating the obvious.
So, who should FOX try to sign for its coverage? The list is endless (including commentators, analysts, presenters and co-commentators), but some recommendations include Derek Rae, Phil Schoen, Paul Dempsey, Mark Donaldson, Glenn Davis, Janusz Michallik, Jon Champion, Daniel Mann, Stewart Robson, Steve Cangialosi, Craig Burley, Taylor Twellman, Kyle Martino, Bob Ley, Martin Tyler, Graeme Le Saux, etc.
Bigger talent acquisitions can be expected closer to World Cup 2018, but it’s important that FOX begins to bed in their soccer talent in 2014 in order to build a rapport with the audience.
What can we expect from FOX Sports? It’s really up to FOX. In a newspaper interview in the Tampa Bay Times, a FOX exec said:
“If you look at the money that we here at Fox and NBC and ESPN have dedicated to soccer rights, it’s a testament to our belief in the sport and our belief of soccer on television in the United States,” said David Nathanson, general manager and chief operating officer of Fox Sports 1.
Obviously FOX understands the amount of investment they’ve made in the sport in terms of rights. The production value of its programming is fine in terms of how everything looks very flashy and modern. But now it’s time for FOX to invest some serious money in talent so it can be a “testament to [their] belief in the sport and [their] belief of soccer on television in the United States.” Otherwise, those are just empty words.