In a revealing interview with Alexi Lalas on The Mutant Gene Podcast this week, FOX Sports Executive Producer Jonty Whitehead — the person in charge of FOX’s soccer production — highlighted everything that’s wrong with FOX’s soccer coverage including his own assertion that Americans are “not versed in the game as I or people in the UK are.”
The interview with Whitehead, an Englishman who has worked for FOX Sports in the United States since 2012, helped peel back the curtain to reveal how out of touch FOX Sports is with the soccer fans in the United States. In the discussion, Whitehead defended FOX’s dumbing down of soccer coverage, how he prefers manufactured debates to real opinions as well as why he champions rehearsed discussions instead of more authentic analysis before games. By doing so, he confirmed our worst fears and gave us a clearer picture why most of FOX Sports’ soccer coverage is unwatchable (except for what really matters, the games themselves).
To illustrate our points, here are Whitehead’s own assertions from the podcast (which we definitely recommend listening to):
“There’s a hardcore niche group of Anglophiles and Europhiles [in America] who want the sport to be covered in an English style and an English way with English voices,” said Whitehead. “But speaking with Eric [Shanks] and David [Nathanson], I’m not so sure that’s the best way that FOX should take.
“If you think a top Premier League game here will get 1.5 million viewers or something like that, but last summer’s Women’s World Cup… over 30 million people watched it. So there’s this huge potential sports fan who are prepared to watch soccer. And surely, our job is to appease the vocal echo chamber of these established soccer fans who have had their forums and their websites running for a long time, but to also appeal to this huge section of potential audience that’s out there.
“They’re used to sports television in a certain way. They’re used to American-style sports television. I know it’s the way that FOX feels, that’s the way that we should cover [soccer]. It should be in a more discernible American way with American voices. That’s a really important philosophy for ourself and FOX Sports.”
In saying that, Whitehead confirms why FOX Sports’ coverage is inferior and continues to be the laughing stock of soccer coverage in the United States. Despite ESPN and NBC Sports providing the blueprint of how to successfully cover soccer (a blueprint that is now 8 years old from ESPN), FOX Sports stubbornly holds on to the belief that the way to win over new fans to its coverage of soccer is by playing to the masses instead of speaking intelligently to viewers. Both ESPN and NBC Sports have continued to score critically-acclaimed reviews and record TV ratings with its thought provoking soccer coverage. Meanwhile, FOX Sports plods along with below average analysis, insufferable pre-match coverage and a long list of amateurish scheduling mistakes that make you wonder whether the executives at FOX truly understand the sport.
Reading between the lines, Whitehead uses the success of the Women’s World Cup Final with its record-breaking 25.4 million viewers as “proof” that FOX Sports has cracked the code on how to reach the US sports audience. He ignores the fact that the vast majority of viewers were tuning in to watch the Women’s World Cup and not FOX Sports’ coverage. Just because the final produced an impressive viewing number doesn’t mean that’s FOX’s philosophy when it comes to covering soccer is the best way. After all, it was the US Women’s National Team in the final, a fact that would have produced massive viewing numbers no matter what channel aired the game.
“We have chosen to try a different way of doing things with the hope that it brings in the less than ardent fan, so it appeals to the American sports fan,” said Whitehead.
In a glaring example of how inane FOX Sports’ philosophy is about covering soccer, Whitehead gave this example in the podcast.
“Manchester City, say. Pep’s come in,” said Whitehead. “He’s playing the full backs inside. That releases De Bruyne further up the pitch. He can go in between the full backs. That’s a natural debate in the UK because everyone is up to speed on that. I think if you begin a conversation with that in the US, you’re immediately alienating a huge portion of the fans.
“[Americans] are not versed in the game as I or people in the UK are. So, you would of course appease those diehard soccer fans who lap it up and love it. But are you doing justice to your biggest potential viewing audience? I don’t think you are.”
Ironically, the example Whitehead shared about Manchester City’s tactical changes under Guardiola is something that NBC Sports went into length about recently, and it’s a perfect example of how NBC’s coverage is light years ahead of FOX Sports. NBC Sports elevates the discussion, shares valuable insight and, most importantly, does it in a way that isn’t condescending. With FOX Sports’ soccer coverage, you’re continually being talked down to.
In the remainder of the podcast, Whitehead and Lalas tackled several other topics including FOX’s modus operandi of creating manufactured debates instead of authentic discussions in order to try to create more entertaining broadcasts. Whitehead also shared FOX’s motto of wanting to add more fun to its coverage (the talent may be having fun, but the viewers at home certainly aren’t when watching their banal coverage). Plus, Whitehead defended FOX’s use of rehearsed analysis in pre-match as a preference to authentic opinions. Frankly, for anyone who has watched FOX’s soccer coverage, none of this should come as a major surprise (although it was informative to have Whitehead confirm it on tape).
FOX Sports is working in a bubble where they’re not only out of touch with soccer fans in the United States, but they’re also living in the past. Many soccer fans enjoy watching a range of leagues and competitions from around the world including the US. Counter to what Whitehead believes, the vast majority of soccer fans are far more informed about the sport than what he gives Americans credit for. His assertion that Americans are “not versed in the game as [he] or people in the UK” is a perfect example of how condescending FOX Sports is. In fact, given the sheer volume of soccer coverage available in the US as well as the expert analysis from NBC Sports, I would argue that many soccer fans in the United States are far more knowledge about the world’s game than sports fans in the United Kingdom who have limited TV coverage and far less of a worldly knowledge of the major soccer leagues.
Regarding Whitehead’s comment that many soccer fans just want to hear English commentators, I would like to say that, for the record, I believe that it shouldn’t matter what nationality or accent a person has. Sports networks should employ the best talent available within their means. I’m a big fan of many American soccer talent such as John Strong, JP Dellacamera, Taylor Twellman, Landon Donovan, Stu Holden, Brian McBride, Kyle Martino, Ian Joy and Phil Schoen, as well as many others. At the same time, there are many English talent in the game who are extremely poor in their analysis (FOX Sports’ Warren Barton and talkSPORT’s Bobby Gould are just two of many examples). And for the record, too, there are several FOX Sports talent members who are authentic and are shining lights at the network. Unfortunately, many of them aren’t featured more prominently.
The only thing that’s holding back the growth of soccer in the United States is FOX Sports itself. Knowing that Whitehead is in charge of soccer production at FOX Sports is a worrying sign. Whether he’s drinking the FOX Sports Kool Aid or simply regurgitating what his bosses David Nathanson or Eric Shanks want him to say, I don’t know. But Lalas’ interview with his boss Jonty Whitehead is just another example of how FOX Sports doesn’t ‘get it’ when it comes to covering soccer in the United States.
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