In what began as a promising start for FOX Sports during the opening weekend of their TV coverage of Copa America Centenario, the leading soccer rights holder in the United States returned to some of its old ways Tuesday night during its broadcast of the USA vs. Argentina semi-final.
Let me start by saying that watching FOX Sports’ coverage of soccer continues to be a frustrating experience. After years of watching the Beautiful Game on the network, the majority of soccer fans in the US have been “trained” to ignore FOX’s pre-match, half-time and post-match coverage and to tune in to just the game itself. If you’re in this category, congratulations, you made a wise choice. I thought JP Dellacamera and Landon Donovan, especially, did a superb job of covering the game (which has been one of FOX Sports’ greatest weaknesses in the past that they’ve finally fixed). But for the rest of us who sat through the pre-game show, we’re still probably feeling the after effects of sitting through two hours (yes, TWO hours) of coverage that resembled a hyped-up pep rally full of dumbed-down soccer analysis.
On Tuesday night, FOX Sports made the decision to dumb down its coverage of USA vs Argentina in order to target the casual sports fan who tuned in to watch the USMNT for the first time since the team lost to Belgium at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. By doing so, it lost its core audience and tried to appeal to the casual fan who probably won’t tune in again until World Cup 2018.
Examples of the condescending, dumbed-down coverage include a video segment on Lionel Messi narrated by Fernando Fiore that explained who Messi was and how he joined Barcelona and became arguably the best footballer in the world. Then there was Rob Stone explaining to viewers why Tim Howard, after such a great 2014 World Cup, wasn’t going to be in goal for the USA.
Let’s not forget the segment narrated by Colin Cowherd that looked like a PowerPoint presentation assembled by a middle-schooler (see screengrab below).
The segment, which Stone guaranteed we would enjoy, looked like something that had been cobbled together at the last minute. The topic was how the US soccer culture has grown so much. Yet the ploy felt like a deliberate attempt to promote Cowherd’s show at the same time as trying to tell the casual sports fan that soccer is actually bigger than most people think.
In addition to the dumbed down soccer analysis, FOX Sports went over the top with their rah-rah analysis of the USA in the pre-game show. Even though the majority of viewers, myself included, wanted the USA to win, the pre-match coverage was so focused on the United States and one player in particular from Argentina (Messi) that during the entire 2-hour pre-match broadcast, the FOX Sports analysts spent more time talking about Messi’s beard than they did about any other player on the Argentina team.
By watching the pre-match analysis and listening to the predictions from the analysts, Fiore was chastised for daring to predict that Argentina would win the match. The prevailing opinion from all of the analysts was that the United States would win this match.
It’s one thing to predict with your heart instead of your head, but it would have been refreshing to hear some analysis that was more thought provoking instead of just being about heart, desire and conviction.
On the positive side, the only pre-match coverage of note was the inclusion of Jermaine Jones for a segment where he gave some good insight from a player’s perspective. Other than that, it was two hours of time that we’ll never get back.
In major competitions like this and the Women’s World Cup, FOX Sports’ brash style only works when the United States team is successful. That’s the risk FOX Sports takes when they put all of their eggs into one basket. When the USA does well, so do their ratings. Luckily for FOX Sports, the USA women’s team helped frame a successful Women’s World Cup coverage for FOX last summer. And while the USA’s loss to Argentina is disappointing, the success of the team up until now was FOX Sports’ saving grace.
The problem is that there isn’t much left with FOX Sports when the USA exits a tournament. Messi, by himself, will carry the TV ratings for Sunday’s final. But outside of that, FOX’s all-American talent has very little depth — both in personnel and in knowledge. Imagine this FOX Sports talent carrying World Cup 2018. It’s a sobering thought.
While FOX Sports chose to target the casual sports fan for the USA-Argentina game, at least the game coverage was enjoyable (except for some audio/video sync issues). Perhaps that should be our expectations from now on? Skip the pre-match, half-time and post-match analysis, and just focus on the game instead. It seems to be what FOX Sports does too.