Confidence in FOX Sports’ expected level of coverage for the 2015 Women’s World Cup and men’s World Cup 2018/2022 is already at a low.
I won’t rehash the reasons why (although there is extensive coverage of it on World Soccer Talk and other sites such as Awful Announcing) but there has been little shown so far from the network to indicate that it can reach the heights set by ESPN over the last two tournaments. Even the biggest Gus Johnson defender (yours truly) dreads what the network will do to him and the other talent, or how they will approach the delicate balance between long-time fans and those new to the sport.
Their test case is next year’s 2015 Women’s World Cup, which will be a stiff test for the network, but was made even more difficult this week when a FOX Sports executive said it would be better than any previous Women’s World Cup that ESPN has televised. It’s a tall order for FOX Sports to even match ESPN’s Women’s World Cup coverage, so to consider that FOX could surpass that seems far-fetched to say the least.
Here’s what FOX Sports 1’s GM and COO David Nathanson said:
“Our coverage of the Women’s World Cup is going to be bigger than anything that’s been before for this event.
“ESPN did a fantastic job around the men’s, and it really raised the bar. I think we’re very excited to carry on that mantle. You will see that around the year on FOX Sports 1, starting with the qualifiers in October that will be on FOX Sports 1. We’ll cover it through a combination of original programming, studio shows, special features and more that you will see on our schedule.”
To prove that they can do better than ESPN for the 2018 tournament, they plan on blowing away ESPN’s coverage of the women’s event. Since it may be near impossible for FOX Sports to accomplish this, the network may be setting themselves up for failure before a ball is even kicked — especially if they do not heed the lessons of 2011.
If you think back three years, ESPN put on quite an event. Despite the tournament taking place in Germany, ESPN sent its studio and crew there to do the event onsite. The coverage was hosted by the legendary Bob Ley – who always did the men’s tournaments – and a new face to U.S. viewers, one Rebecca Lowe who was widely praised for her work on ESPN U.K. The broadcast teams were a mix of male play-by-play broadcasters and women’s soccer stars, but what was noticeable was the star factor of the play-by-play teams. The first team was Ian Darke, who the previous year had made himself legendary calling the U.S.’s win over Algeria, and USWNT legend Julie Foudy.
But it was not just that ESPN didn’t differentiate between the men’s and women’s tournament with its talent, but that it used its entire empire to promote and cover the event. FIFA’s 18 cameras that were used during the match had HD filters for the first time, but ESPN added more cameras for 22 total to cover the final match. The mainstream ESPN shows like First Take and Around the Horn discussed the tournament. Not only were matches not relegated to far-off networks like ESPN Classic, they were almost entirely shown on ESPN and ESPN2 as well as streaming on ESPN 3. ESPN in essence took what it had learned the previous year and rather than treat this World Cup like a lesser event, the network replicated their formula and even took it a step further.
Their labor of love bore fruit for the network. Through the semifinals, the World Cup averaged a 0.6 U.S. rating which was a 200% increase over the previous tournament. The final, which was an emotional victory for a natural-storm ravaged Japan over the favorite U.S., blew those numbers out of the water: a 7.4 rating, with an average of 13 million plus viewers and the highest rated soccer match regardless of gender for ESPN to that point.
This week, FOX announced that every game of the tournament will be shown live on FOX or FOX Sports 1, which is a positive step considering that none of the games will be relegated to coverage on FOX Sports 2. It’s a good start, but FOX needs to be sure that the quality of coverage it presents is World Cup quality.
Perhaps the saving grace for FOX will be the hiring of former NBC Sports executive David Neal, who will be responsible for producing the 2015 Women’s World Cup, as well as World Cup 2018 and 2022. It’s still early days and FOX hasn’t released any details yet, but perhaps a NBC alumni will be able to make FOX’s coverage watchable? Whether it’ll be “bigger than anything that’s been before for this event,” we’ll have to wait and see.