Sometimes TV ratings can be a false positive. The viewing audience for USA vs. Ecuador on FOX Sports was 1.878 million, the second most-watched men’s soccer game on FS1. Based on that metric, you would assume that FOX Sports did a fantastic job of covering the Copa America Centenario quarter-final. Being the only English-language provider of the games has its advantages, but for anyone who watched the game, what you saw was a potpourri of hype, a revelation in Landon Donovan and more sophomoric comedy from Fernando Fiore. But most disappointing of all was the cavalcade of mistakes made by the production crew that resulted in poor camera work, poorly timed replays and mass confusion on the red card incidents that left both the announcers and TV viewers at home perplexed about what was happening in the game.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the blame for the amateurish TV production work. Host Broadcast Services (HBS) plays a significant role but ultimately it’s CONCACAF’s responsibility to ensure that the quality standards are met. At the same time, FOX Sports is at the mercy of CONCACAF’s decisions. But whoever was producing the game from Seattle on Thursday night should have the riot act read to him or her. The broadcast, at times, resembled something that you’d expect from a high school football game.
The advancement of the United States to the quarterfinals gave FOX Sports the impetus to take its FS1 studio on the road and increase the length of the pregame show from an hour to 90 minutes. The network also brought a number of its other personalities to Seattle for a complete wraparound coverage of the United States vs. Ecuador game.
Having switched my Copa America viewership to Univision during the Group Stage after becoming disillusioned by the inconsistent coverage, the changes FOX Sports made for the USA quarter-final encouraged viewers like myself to give the network’s coverage a second look. What we found was a mixed bag and a network still unwilling to follow even the most minimal portion of the major tournament template offered by ESPN during its simultaneous coverage of the UEFA Euro 2016 competition.
Here are the highs and lows from the coverage:
Donovan’s role as a co-commentator appeared like it might be the all-time US Men’s National Team (USMNT) goal scorer’s rough baptism by fire. Instead what Donovan provided was real insight into both teams and a degree of tactical and psychological analysis co-commentators on FOX Sports, save Eric Wynalda, don’t often bring. Donovan is a different type of athlete whose world doesn’t revolve around the sport he formerly played, so perhaps it’s too much to hope that he would make this gig a regular thing. But from my vantage point, he’s soared way ahead of Brad Friedel, Stuart Holden and Alexi Lalas in the pecking order of former USMNT players employed by FOX Sports that can provide in-game match analysis. Wynalda would still be at the top of that list but given his frequent criticisms of the US Soccer system and MLS, we must assume he will continue to be kept off most broadcasts (the recent friendly with Puerto Rico a very notable exception).
It’s been mentioned to me by multiple people that at times Rob Stone’s heavy workload makes it appear he is mailing it in for the soccer studio work not involving the US or a top European club. While I do not per se buy the “mailing it in” theory, I do think Stone is overexposed especially for fans who watch soccer and college sports on FOX Sports. Thursday, Stone was very good in his facilitation of discussion and introduction of story features.
Jenny Taft and Aly Wagner covering American Outlaws
It was perhaps sexist of FOX Sports producers to send two women to cover the American Outlaws march to the stadium especially given Wagner can analyze the game as well as any of FOX Sports’ male talent, but both did a great job embracing the assignment and providing scenes that helped shape the occasion. I cannot help but think Wagner is being wasted on the unwatchable Copa Tonight show and assignments like this, when she could be providing good analysis pregame in the studio.
Rah Rah USA USA!
This is a single point but it obscures much of the rest of the broadcast. Unless the US wins the FIFA World Cup, FOX Sports needs to get serious about bringing other perspectives into its studio and reporting coverage. During this entire tournament, FOX Sports has attempted but failed to give the type of insight of other leading nations ESPN has in recent tournament coverage. While ESPN assembles a band of differing nationalities and thoughts for its studio programs and reporting, FOX Sports goes all-in on American or Mexican reporters with the exception of Fernando Fiore who cannot simply be the lone voice for the entire CONMEBOL region.
ESPN learned from its World Cup debacle in 2006 that it needed to acquire talent with different experiences than former American players or US-based reporters provide. FOX Sports still hasn’t learned that. And given the network’s failure to pivot toward that in its second major tournament in two years, one wonders whether World Cup 2018 will be a repeat of ESPN’s 2006 coverage. It should be noted that the sophistication of US-based soccer fans is significantly higher today than in 2006, so any repeat performance is almost certain to offend the core audience.
The Thursday night pregame, halftime and postgame shows were virtual USA pep rallies. FOX Sports is very good at waving the American flag and geeing up patriotic sentiment. Having been fortunate with last summer’s Women’s World Cup and the US Women’s National Team run to the title, the network is lucking out again this summer in the Copa America. But FOX Sports is unlikely to be so lucky in 2018 when covering the World Cup unless by some chance their is a direct correlation between FOX’s USA cheerleading and the performance of the American national sides.
Grant Wahl and Stuart Holden
The contributions of Grant Wahl and Stuart Holden were wholly unneeded and didn’t enhance the coverage at all in the pregame show. Wahl is a good reporter but isn’t a great analyst of the sport. And providing him with on-camera duty to give more than news isn’t really working as it is taking camera and feature time away from other FOX Sports talent. Holden has had an iffy tournament in general but my belief is that has to do more with environment, assignments and roles than anything else. When Holden has appeared on ESPNFC in the past, his analysis has been very strong, but at FOX Sports, it’s far more hit or miss.
FOX Sports is focused on casuals and even if they get other aspects of coverage correct, hard-core soccer fans don’t want to be patronized and subjected to faux nationalism for hours on end. ESPN made that mistake in 2006 and quickly pivoted away and enjoyed much stronger ratings and critical acclaim for its 2010 World Cup coverage. FOX Sports would be wise to see how ESPN pivoted and make the same move before Russia 2018.
While the network has clearly made improvements in how it presents soccer, and that was evidenced on Thursday night by the excellent Donovan and the professionalism of Stone, one still wonders how much more we’d enjoy these sorts of occasions if the rights were held by another English-language network.
FOX’s contractual obligations to the United States Golf Association (USGA) has led to a chain reaction of moving events that lands the Copa America’s final two semifinal matches (both this weekend) on FX. With FOX Sports tight on bandwidth this weekend and focused no doubt on other events, it will be interesting to observe how the network treats the Copa America especially considering the USMNT does not feature again until Tuesday night. In fairness, ESPN will face this same dilemma regarding its EURO 2016 coverage when Wimbledon starts next week.
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