FOX Sports’ second cycle as the US English-language FIFA rights holder has begun this summer with coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup as well as the FIFA Under-20 World Cup. Following last summer’s coverage of Russia 2018, FOX seems to have returned to a “back-to-basics” approach with Women’s World Cup.
Rob Stone, as a host, continues to be styled more for American sports. He began FOX’s month of live Women’s World Cup coverage with stand up at Eiffel Tower and interjected stand-up spots throughout the weekend. But Stone, for all his drawbacks, is smooth and an advocate for soccer among mainstream sporting personalities. His presence as host elevates the possibility of FOX hooking casuals.
Heather O’Reilly, one of the great versatile players of recent years in the women’s game (sort of a James Milner-type), has provided analysis in the outdoor Parisian studio with an Eiffel Tower backdrop alongside a rotating case of Ariane Hingst, Kelly Smith, Kate Gill, Alexi Lalas and Karina LeBlanc. O’Reilly has been very good, though FOX’s decision to keep only Americans in the studio to discuss the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) on Friday was patronizing. However, FOX’s USA! USA! first approach we saw in 2015 for this tournament has been toned down. Having been burnt on the men’s side by building coverage around the USA, FOX seems to be taking a more cosmopolitan and balanced tone this time around.
The general tone in the studio setup is simple. Alexi Lalas, from time to time, brings tactics and style into the discussions but the analysts are generally very basic giving stats and thoughts like “she’s very experienced,” or “she has been at X number of World Cups.” One of the more annoying features of the “back to basics” approach is the narrated features with music that air during every studio show. This is classic FOX and represents a far different approach to international events than other US networks.
Eni Aluko’s appearance on Sunday was very welcome. Aluko, the former England and Chelsea star, brings an intellectual approach to her analysis, something often on display in her excellent newspaper columns. Aluko, who now plays for Juventus but no longer is part of the England set-up, had more in-depth understanding of how the players on both England and Scotland are currently performing versus what we had seen in the build-up to other matches.
US Women’s coverage over the weekend generally emanated from Alex Curry’s “USWNT Report,” which aired during every studio show. The US playing its first match on the fifth day of the tournament has allowed FOX Sports to gradually introduce every US player properly.
FOX has surprisingly not shied away from the Ada Hegerberg absence at this World Cup. As a FIFA rights-holder, it has felt in the past that FOX pulled its punches on some of the critical issues facing the game. But when it came to equal pay and Hegerberg, they had a vibrant conversation though both O’Reilly and Lalas claimed the Norwegian superstar had not provided enough clarity about her grievances. Lalas summed up his frustration in the lack of clear messaging from the reigning Ballon d’or winner by asking “Ada tell us what exactly you want!”
Grant Wahl’s role as a reporter-at-large has been minimal. This is likely to change as other stories emerge during the tournament or if FOX decides to push MLS/USMNT news into the broadcasts.
Saturday’s Spain-South Africa match was shrouded in VAR-induced controversy, and the FOX studio pulled apart both the penalty decision for Spain with a great deal of enthusiasm. It was the most lively discussion of the weekend to that point but was quickly followed up by the conversation about Hegerberg, which was equally passionate.
Jenny Taft, who has helped Stone with early morning hosting duties, has been solid if unspectacular.
One takeaway though on the FOX studio is if Lalas doesn’t stimulate argumentative conversation, it generally doesn’t happen. Lalas isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I admit I myself blow hot and cold on him but this past weekend he has been dialed in, offering some very insightful commentary while pushing buttons to elicit reactions out of the rest of the studio team. During the course of the tournament, this should be an interesting dynamic to keep an eye on.
My initial concern entering the tournament was about Lisa Byington who is not a soccer announcer, but someone known for calling American sports. But she’s been very good and helped by a smart pairing with Cat Whitehill. Byington is a professional, and she clearly has become more comfortable with calling soccer. Byington has learned the art of letting matches breathe a quality male American sports-oriented announcers would do well to emulate.
The broadcast duo of Jenn Hildreth and Kyndra de St Aubin, who called the controversial Spain-South Africa match, were fantastic. They didn’t miss a single critical match event. Hildreth’s timing on when to interject stories about the players or teams was perfect. Her improvement since she first began calling WPS games in 2009 for FOX has been exponential. In those days, Hildreth was raw, coming off time doing ACC basketball and football. In those days, she’d over call a match but in the years since she’s become one of the best American commentators on the sport.
Pairing Hildreth with de St Aubin, who has become one of the best MLS co-commentators in her work for Minnesota United, has given FOX an elite, all-female broadcast pairing. De St Aubin is a rising star in the field of American soccer co-commentary, and one with the potential to break all sorts of glass ceilings in the future.
Derek Rae and Danielle Slaton were unsparingly solid as were JP Dellacamera and Aly Wagner. Glenn Davis and Angela Hucles called what might be one of the matches of the tournament between Australia and Italy. Both did well on that match.
FOX’s decision to leave lead soccer commentator John Strong behind in the United States to call CONCACAF Gold Cup and MLS action this month wasn’t something I felt was wise given the brand of FOX Soccer has become so tied to Strong. But through the first weekend, Strong hasn’t been missed. However, during knockout stages of the tournament, I sense this concentration might be revisited. The reality is that despite FOX’s efforts to promote the US Men’s National Team, interest is waning in that product and Strong is in my opinion more tied to the FOX brand than to the US men’s brand. Not having him at FOX’s big showcase remains a decision worth critiquing.
In general, I have to conclude that female commentators in the United States are not only better for women’s soccer, they are generally better for high-level men’s soccer as well. Most don’t over talk or over call a match. The female co-commentators tend to be very analytical as well. Something has to be said for the fact that American women have played the sport at a much higher level relative to most of the men – so while most American men can do alright on MLS matches when it comes to higher level internationals even women tend to have a better perspective – this is something I noticed with Julie Foudy years ago when ESPN would use her on men’s international tournaments. She tended to have more useful perspectives in the later stages of the tournament because she had experienced that level of pressure and competition. Exceptions exist to this general feeling but it’s something I’ve come to believe over a number of years of soccer viewing.
Christina Unkel is a major upgrade over Dr. Joe Machnik. She’s more media savvy and far more direct in making her point. Unkel has been spot on in her contributions regarding VAR calls. As an active official, Unkel seems to be more practical in her analysis than Machnik was. Not that he wasn’t usually right, but his explanations were often more academic in how they were delivered.
FOX’s studio is classic FOX, i.e. a back-to-basics approach that has left some fans I talk to searching for BBC coverage behind a VPN or watching Telemundo. However, with the larger audience expected of casual sports fans as well as the toned down USA rhetoric, FOX’s coverage of the first weekend of the World Cup was an improvement over previous efforts. Standing out were the match commentary teams who excelled all weekend long.
The broadcast tenor of FOX isn’t appealing to core soccer fans but with crisper production and well-prepared talent, this tournament could be the network’s best yet.