The Confederations Cup was a dress rehearsal for next summer’s World Cup – not just for organizers in Russia, but also for broadcasters in the United States.
While Fox did get its feet wet by carrying last summer’s Copa America Centenario, the network’s broadcast of the 2017 Confederations Cup is a closer representation of what we can expect from next summer’s World Cup.
With teams represented from all over the globe, Fox on-air talent on location in Russia and a nightly highlights show, Fox was able to participate in a real-world simulation of the network’s first World Cup next summer.
Let’s take a look at how Fox did.
Fox took a “more is more” approach with its group of analysts, relying on a robust group of in-studio talking heads including Alexi Lalas, Fernando Fiore, Arne Friedrich, Dr. Joe Machnik, Mariano Trujillo, Aly Wagner and Ian Wright, with Rob Stone as the host.
If that wasn’t enough, there were further opinions being offered by Guus Hiddink, Eric Wynalda, and Lothar Matthaus on site in Russia, with Kate Abdo hosting.
For any given game, there could be as many as six people on set in Los Angeles, with another three on location in Russia.
The studio analysts typically tried to facilitate a jovial atmosphere filled with plenty of jokes – Fiore in particular led the way in that department – which, combined with the sheer number of people on set, was more than a little reminiscent of the way Fox (and other networks) broadcast NFL games.
Lalas, as usual, was the designated pot-stirrer, and played well off Fiore, Trujillo and Wright, creating some lively discussions. Stone, one of the best in the business, kept things moving along briskly.
The on-site team of Hiddink, Wynalda, Matthaus and Abdo at times felt superfluous, and almost seemed to be Fox’s way of simply reminding viewers that they care enough about the tournament to have a team of analysts in Russia. Of the trio of analysts, Wynalda probably provided the most, while Hiddink at least brought some perspective on the host nation as Russia’s former manager.
Much of the studio discussion was focused less on tactical analysis and more on certain broad themes that were returned to often: Germany is an experimental squad, Juan Carlos Osorio is a tinkerer who is unpopular with a large segment of the Mexico fan base, Chile is a veteran squad with plenty of continuity, Portugal is heavily reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo. And so on.
There were occasional moments of tactical analysis which sometimes could prove to be valuable – for example a brief demonstration prior to the final of how Germany broke Chile’s press in their group-stage encounter. Oftentimes, though, the tactical segments felt shoehorned into the broadcast, and their brief nature lacked enough depth to make them worthwhile.
Lead play-by-play man John Strong and analyst Stuart Holden are developing into one of the better duos in the game, but for this section let’s focus on the play-by-play/analyst combination that seemed to generate the most discussion online: Jorge Perez-Navarro and Cobi Jones, who were assigned to every Mexico game.
There is a school of thought that I’ve encountered several times when speaking to representatives of networks recently.
Diluting it down to its essence, it goes something like this: Soccer commentary in English is informative but boring and vigorless. In Spanish, viewers are able to experience the true passion of the sport – perhaps even if said viewer doesn’t even speak Spanish.
With this in mind, one can better understand Fox’s decision to appoint Perez-Navarro to take lead play-by-play duties on Mexico matches, with former U.S. national teamer Jones alongside him providing analysis.
Put simply, Perez-Navarro is the closest English-language viewers can possibly come to watching a game in Spanish. Whether this is a positive or negative can be a matter of perspective.
Perez-Navarro certainly injects passion into his commentary, punctuating each near miss with an extended yell, and of course, stamping each goal with the classic elongated “GOOOAALLL” call that Spanish-language viewers have become so accustomed to hearing.
Though Perez-Navarro has a knack for keeping viewers engaged, his signature calls can be a bit over-the-top, particularly his christening of each new game with a howl of “IT’S SOCCER TIME!!” and building up to each free kick with the child-like wonder of “READY, SET, FIRE!”
Spanish-language announcers have a habit of referring to players by their entire name, or even their first and middle names, and Perez-Navarro is no different. Ultimately this can be distracting or confusing for viewers, who, when Javier Aquino has the ball, hear him called “Javier Ignacio Aquino Carmona,” or even just “Javier Ignacio.” (In one other amusing example, Perez-Navarro kept calling New Zealand’s Tommy Smith by his full name: Thomas Jefferson Smith). Viewers not paying close attention may lose track of players on the field when 22 names result in hundreds of different possible monikers.
Jones tries his best to match Perez-Navarro’s gusto, but it can oftentimes feel like an awkward pairing. Though Fox is trying to create a best-of-both-worlds situation with Perez-Navarro and Jones, many of the Mexico die-hards the network was trying to reach were already watching Andres Cantor in Spanish on Telemundo, while more casual English viewers may have been put off by the sheer fervor emanating from their screens.
-The Confederations Cup was the first major international tournament to feature video assistant referees. With VAR an ever-present during matches, Fox was smart to have Dr. Joe Machnik in studio ready to walk viewers through the various permutations of VAR during matches (as well as any other controversial calls not involving VAR), playing a similar role to the one Mike Pereira fills on the network’s NFL broadcasts.
-Having Francisco X. Rivera embedded with Mexico for the tournament was also a good move by Fox. El Tri weren't the strongest side in the tournament but as our country’s most popular soccer team, they are always the main draw for a U.S.-based broadcast. Rivera scored a number of one-on-one interviews to feature during broadcasts, and his hustle to secure post-game interviews and translate in real time was also impressive.
-National Geographic correspondent Sergey Gordeev provided some brief cultural pieces for Fox’s pre-game shows. Some, like a cooking segment or a tour of Joseph Stalin’s summer home, were mildly enlightening but others, particularly a look at life in the city of Sochi, came perilously close to feeling like Kremlin propaganda (did you know the Sochi Olympics were actually great for the city? It’s true!).
-There were multiple games where the audio was about a half-second ahead of the video feed for a large portion of the match. This led to instances where the play-by-play man acted as a spoiler, raising his voice just an instant before the video showed a good chance developing. The gap between the audio and video was brief enough that it didn’t acutely affect most of the game, but it should have been fixed quicker regardless.
-Fox also deserves some kudos for extending its coverage to include nightly highlight shows on matchdays. Any viewers who missed games, or wanted to revisit them, were able to do so. It’s always a positive development to see a network spread their investment over more than just match windows.