Review of FOX’s Women’s World Cup coverage

FOX’s first major tournament of its 12-year TV deal with FIFA has ended with a bang for the network. In its month-long coverage of the Women’s World Cup, FOX broke TV records and put on first-class coverage that will go a long way to giving soccer fans confidence that FOX knows soccer. There’s still room for improvement, but overall FOX surprised many, myself included, by how well they did.

First and foremost, FOX’s coverage went a long way to giving women’s soccer the status level it deserves as a sport — on an equal playing field to coverage of the men’s game. The wall-to-wall coverage throughout the tournament on FOX and other FOX networks was superb. The competition was incredibly accessible for TV viewers. Plus, the network treated the coverage of the competition with the respect it deserved — from the incredible graphics to announcers and cast of well-known analysts.

Having said all that, the biggest complaint I have of FOX’s coverage of the tournament is that the talent didn’t give me enough reasons to want to tune in to hear what they had to say. By watching the games themselves, soccer fans will have witnessed everything they needed from this tournament, but there weren’t enough compelling reasons to listen to what talent such as Alexi Lalas, Heather Mitts, Kelly Smith, Rob Stone or Ariane Hingst had to say. Their opinions and insight were better than what we’re used to hearing on FOX’s coverage of the Champions League and MLS, but it wasn’t world-class or thought provoking like ESPN’s Women’s World Cup coverage in the past featuring Bob Ley, Julie Foudy, Rebecca Lowe, Monica Gonzalez and others.

In fact, FOX’s most insightful and opinionated women’s soccer expert — Monica Gonzalez — was relegated to cameo appearances when she should have been front and center throughout the tournament, even if she was being borrowed from ESPN.

The good news for FOX is that the network isn’t going to require a lot of work in order to improve its overall production of future World Cup tournaments. The missing ingredient is opinionated, informative and intelligent analysts. There are plenty of those that are available (American or from other countries), so FOX’s problem is fixable if they make better hiring decisions and correct some of the other issues (more on that later).

Back to the talent, the opinions expressed by Heather Mitts and Leslie Osborne, in particular, were particularly weak. It made them sound more like cheerleaders for the US team than analysts.

With Lalas, meanwhile, it’d be nice if he was able to focus less on histrionics and more on quality insight over the course of the tournament, particularly in the latter stages of the competition for the US where he was banging on the desk.

The lack of critical thinking was apparent throughout the majority of the tournament. While the set, wardrobes and accompanying graphics looked idyllic, the analysis was far from it. Think back through the entire tournament and try to remember one memorable insight or analysis. You’ll be hard pressed to do it.

The other two main issues with FOX’s coverage involved sideline reporters and the rules analyst Dr Joe Machnik.

While there’s no doubt that sideline reporters Jenny Taft and Julie Stewart-Binks worked hard over the course of the tournament, the whole role of a sideline reporter in soccer has to be questioned. First, their title is a misnomer. Throughout the entire tournament, we didn’t see one clip of them on the field during a game (presumably because they’re not allowed there due to FIFA rules). Second, soccer doesn’t have a need for a sideline reporter. During a game, they’re disruptive — adding little to no insight during a game, interrupting the flow of the commentary and sometimes even getting in the way of a goal call (as Stewart-Binks did during this beautiful goal by France’s Le Sommer).

Their role as a post-match TV reporter is far more rewarding. Taft, in particular, did extremely well in her post-match interviews with USWNT players.

Another unnecessary disruption during games throughout the course of the tournament was rules analyst Dr. Joe Machnik. Not only was he disruptive while viewers were watching games, but I have zero confidence or trust that Dr. Joe’s insight was correct. Yes, he used to be a match commissioner, but many of his judgements on referee rulings during the tournament seemed to be incorrect.

Putting Dr. Joe in such a position to be judge and jury was poor, in my opinion. Oftentimes, his opinions on rulings were taken as the gospel truth by the analysts on FOX Soccer and regurgitated over and over again.

Dr. Joe and the sideline reporters were distractions that we didn’t need.

While FOX, overall, hit a home run with its coverage of the Women’s World Cup, there’s a danger that the network will look at the incredible viewing figures for the 2015 Women’s World Cup and say to themselves, “We did it. Everything we orchestrated was perfect because the numbers say they were.” The reality is, however, that FOX had no real competition for its coverage of the Women’s World Cup, so the vast majority of soccer fans tuned into the coverage to watch the games on FOX. It wasn’t like last year where Univision Deportes put on world-class coverage of the World Cup that gave viewers a credible alternative to ESPN’s broadcast of the tournament. FOX’s only competitor was Telemundo/NBC Universo, and most people didn’t even realize they were showing the games on television too.

Still, FOX deserves a huge pat on the back for a job well done. They’ve come a long way in such a short time. One year ago, Gus Johnson was being touted by FOX as the announcer that would be commentating most of the US Women’s World Cup games for FOX. Thankfully, FOX and Johnson came to their senses and put JP Dellacamera in the position, who did a spectacular job over the course of the tournament.

Prior to the tournament kicking off, Lalas made a prediction on a journalists’ call that “We’re going to blow by [ESPN] with the World Cup coverage we’ll have on FOX.” While that didn’t happen, FOX has undoubtedly taken a big step in the right direction.

Here are some of my other highs and lows of FOX’s coverage of the Women’s World Cup:

Highs

1. Kate Abdo

The former Sky Deutschland presenter was a natural in front of the camera.  It’s just a shame that she wasn’t taking a more prominent role. I would have much preferred her to switch roles with Rob Stone and have “The American” do the late-night shift.

2. No Warren Barton

How liberating was it not to hear Mr. Cliche during the entire Women’s World Cup tournament?!

3. The trio

Despite criticism from some viewers, the trio of JP Dellacamera, Tony DiCicco and Cat Whitehill worked extremely well. It was a 3-person booth that balanced DiCicco’s more abrasive analysis with Whitehill’s positive remarks, with Dellacamera in the middle. It worked really well in my opinion.

Lows

1. Post-match highlights

After the final whistle was blown and the US had won the Women’s World Cup, you would expect a post-match show to include some of the highlights of the goals particularly given how amazing Carli Lloyd’s third goal was. However, the 30-minute post-match show on FOX included zero highlights of the goals. Viewers were told to switch to FOX Sports 1 for more coverage, which we did. But it wasn’t until 9:42pm ET that FOX Sports 1 showed highlights of the goals (and then they only showed the first 3, not all 7).

2. Rob Stone

Part of the issue with Rob Stone is that he isn’t the type of presenter that Bob Ley or Rebecca Lowe were, who both hosted ESPN’s World Cup 2011 coverage. Stone doesn’t play hardball, and seems far more comfortable asking the softball questions. FOX needs someone who is more of a hard-hitting presenter, like Ley, who won’t dodge the questions that need to be asked.

3. Lalas needs an antagonist

Lalas loves to debate topics. But unfortunately, most of the analysts during the Women’s World Cup coverage all agreed with each other. The only one who was the contrarian was Ariane Hingst, but the format of the five-person desk wasn’t conducive to Lalas and Hingst getting into some on-air disagreements like Lalas and Michael Ballack did during World Cup 2014 and Euro 2012.

To get the best out of Lalas, FOX needs to find an antagonist.