For immediate analysis on TV after the FIFA World Cup Draw wrapped up on December 1, soccer fans in the United States had several choices to choose from. For most of them, the easiest way was to continue watching the coverage on FOX Sports 1. However, the viewers “voted” by watching the analysis on a completely different network — one that doesn’t even have the rights to the FIFA 2018 World Cup.
The World Cup Draw wrap-up show on ESPN2 was watched by more viewers than the Draw itself on FS1. And importantly, ESPN2’s broadcast doubled the viewership from FS1’s post draw analysis show. On FOX, besides the commentary regarding “under-the radar” players by Landon Donovan and Alexi Lalas (both of whom ironically picked guys from Liverpool who are nowhere near under the radar for the average Premier League viewer), nothing of real cutting-edge insight was discussed. In contrast, the ESPNFC program airing on ESPN2 hosted by Dan Thomas featured hard-hitting analysis and even an argumentative segment on former colleague (and now Belgium Coach) Roberto Martinez when the Belgian’s prospects for winning the World Cup were discussed.
ESPN has a plethora of soccer talent still on staff despite losing the rights to FIFA events and several other properties. Thomas was joined on the set by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop, Gab Marcotti, Stewart Robson, Herculez Gomez, Alejandro Moreno, Steve Nicol and (via satellite) Taylor Twellman (in Seattle) and Ian Darke (in London). All contributed to this special. The discussion points were reminiscent of the type of detailed on-air analysis the network gave during the draw four and eight years ago.
Based on the final numbers (Telemundo & Universo’s broadcast of the World Cup Draw averaged 370,000 total viewers, outperforming FS1’s broadcast by 6X), many soccer fans chose to either not watch the draw at all or watch it in Spanish on Telemundo, then flip over to ESPN2 rather than FS1 for analysis. ESPN’s team of analysts is tried-and-tested, and particularly in Marcotti and Robson have two highly-respected professionals on both sides of the Atlantic with an in-depth of knowledge of the sport globally that is difficult to equal on English language television anywhere in the world. ESPN has always been conscious of bringing expertise and varied perspectives to the coverage of international soccer. While some have argued ESPN’s coverage is “eurocentric,” it has essentially reflected the best talent you can gather in the English language. French, German, Italian, Brazilian and Spanish-based or centric journalists fluent in English often join the ESPN coverage to lend their expertise on the game and their nations.
Amid a whole bunch of news Friday morning, and without U.S. Soccer going to Russia, FS1 drew 65,000 viewers for the 2018 World Cup Draw. Four years ago on ESPN2, the draw got 489,000 viewers. After this year’s draw, ESPN2 got 86,000 for post-draw special compared to 43,000 on FS1.
In comparison, FOX Sports coverage of international soccer is distinctly American and often conducted with red, white and blue tinted glasses. That’s an unmistakable reality that has led the broadcaster to appear as on-air cheerleaders for the US Men’s and Women’s National Team and offer very little critical analysis of the teams. Running parallel to this is FOX’s talent: All are based in the United States, and the ones that are trotted out in front of the cameras have little experience covering domestic leagues in Europe or South America on a regular basis.
As the English language rights-holder for FIFA events in United States in its first of three cycles that came at a cost of $500 million, FOX Sports has tried to create its own feel to the events which for two decades were broadcast on the ESPN family of networks. The consequence of this has been general skepticism among core soccer fans, an audience FOX Sports has often offended though FOX has historically carried more soccer than any other US broadcaster. The attachment to the US teams which has been sprinkled with a lack of critical analysis and a seeming lack of interest or even respect for the opposition has now bitten FOX Sports badly. The United States has missed the FIFA World Cup in 2018, and the broadcaster seems to have lost its footing as to how to move forward. While it’s obvious to some of us that cover the industry closely that FOX’s coverage has actually improved in the past few years, most core-soccer fans whose perspectives of the game are not dictated by the US Men’s National Team or MLS probably disagree with this premise.
For ESPN, despite losing FIFA World Cup rights, an opportunity still exists to have nightly review and wrap-up shows on site from Russia that can poach some of the FS1 or FOX audience. Granted, having the lead-in of a match rather than a draw benefits FOX, but viewers have now demonstrated, perhaps unsurprisingly, a willingness to flip the channel and watch ESPN to get the analysis they crave about the biggest sporting event on the planet.