Media Microscope: Previewing Fox's World Cup debut

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From a focus on American voices to a controversial decision to leave many of them at home, there will be plenty to dissect in the network's debut

Seven years after it won the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups with a bid near $500 million, Fox is ready to take on the challenge of broadcasting its first men’s World Cup.

Ahead of the tournament’s kickoff on Thursday, Goal spoke with three key members of the Fox team about some of the biggest talking points in the network’s coverage: analyst Alexi Lalas, lead studio host Rob Stone and executive producer David Neal.

Here are a selection of some of the most noteworthy aspects of Fox’s men’s World Cup debut.

The basics

Fox Sports will carry all 64 games of the World Cup live, 38 of which will be on the over-the-air Fox network. The other 26 games will be on FS1.

Game times will usually be 8 a.m. ET, 11 a.m. ET and 2 p.m. ET. Fox will broadcast a pre-game show one hour before kickoff of the first game and a post-game show following completion of the last game. There will also be a nightly highlights show, “FIFA World Cup Tonight,” that will be shown on either Fox or FS1.

Games will also be streaming online and and on-demand via Fox Sports GO and the Fox Sports App, but authentication is required for both.

Full broadcast team:

Play-by-play/analyst teams: John Strong and Stuart Holden, JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola, Derek Rae and Aly Wagner, Glenn Davis and Cobi Jones, Jorge Perez-Navarro and Mariano Trujillo, Mark Followill and Warren Barton

Studio hosts: Rob Stone, Kate Abdo, Fernando Fiore, Ian Joy

Studio analysts: Hernan Crespo, Guus Hiddink, Alexi Lalas, Dr. Joe Machnik (rules analyst), Lothar Matthaus, Moises Munoz, Kelly Smith, Ian Wright

Reporters: Rachel Bonnetta (Digital), Sergey Gordeev (National Geographic), Maria Komandnaya, Rodolfo Landeros (Mexico reporter), Geoff Shreeves (England reporter), Jenny Taft

Correspondent-at-large: Grant Wahl

Fox takes the reins 

For the first time since 1990, ESPN/ABC will not carry the World Cup in English in the United States.

“ESPN did a fabulous job with the World Cup,” Neal said. “They were largely responsible for the growth of soccer in the United States over the past decade-plus, so really for us they set such a high bar.

“We want to begin by just equaling that bar and in our own way we hope to exceed it.”

There will be many similarities between ESPN and Fox’s broadcasts, but Fox will attempt to differentiate itself by elevating American voices, and emphasizing opinion and personalities.

“With Fox I want to be a part of a group that is committed to surpassing [ESPN], but also doing it in a Fox way,” Lalas said.

“We are proud disrupters, which means that at times people are going to like what we do and at times they’re going to not like what we do.

“We take what we do very seriously but we don’t take ourselves very seriously so I think an element of humor and an element of performance and theater and characters, but always being genuine and authentic and truthful in the way we go about presenting that.”

An emphasis on American voices

Fox has made no secret of its desire to promote American voices, with eight of its 12 match commentators hailing from the United States, including lead duo John Strong and Stu Holden.

It’s in stark contrast to ESPN, which has gone Brit-centric with its selection of match commentators in previous World Cups.  

Gone are legendary voices like Ian Darke and Martin Tyler. 

“I think the fact that four of our six play-by-play voices are American is something that should be celebrated,” Neal said.

“It really reflects the fact that the game is growing exponentially in the U.S. and that we don’t have to go offshore to find qualified voices. That was certainly by design and something that I’m extremely proud of and excited about.”

Will calling off monitor be off-putting?

Fox has been taking plenty of heat over its decision to only send four of its 12 commentators – the pairings of John Strong and Stu Holden along with JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola – to Russia while having the remaining eight call the games off monitors in Los Angeles.

Contrast that to the 2014 World Cup, when ESPN sent 10 commentators to Brazil.

Lalas is realistic in his assessment of Fox’s decision.

“It’s disingenuous for me to say that it’s ideal – it’s not ideal and we recognize that,” Lalas said. “These are decisions that other people make and they make them for a reason.

“The ideal is that you’re at the stadium and you’re calling it, but life doesn't always work out like that and you have to make some very tough decisions. Ultimately this is a business.”

Many believe that had the U.S. qualified for Russia, Fox would be investing more into the tournament and sending more announcers to the host nation. For Neal, though, the controversy over the issue has been overblown.

“Really it’s much ado about nothing,” Neal said. “If you look at the global standard of the way soccer is covered day in and day out, at least half, if not more than half of the matches that are watched on any given day in any country involve commentators who are doing them off tube [from a monitor].

“There are European rights-holders for the World Cup who are not sending any on-air talent to Russia so it’s a little puzzling to me that this has become such a point of interest because really, for anyone that knows anything about how soccer is televised around the world, this is standard procedure.”

Will the U.S. be conspicuous by its absence?

Suffice it to say, Fox wasn’t expecting the U.S. to not be at the 2018 World Cup when it paid nearly $500 million to acquire the English-language rights to the tournament, along with the 2022 edition in Qatar.

But that’s the reality facing the network as it embarks on the first World Cup since 1986 without the United States. Will viewers still be hearing about the U.S. national team on a American network that is making a concerted effort to emphasize homegrown talent?

“I would talk to Vegas right now and say, ‘What is the over/under on times that we mention the United States in our World Cup broadcast?" Stone said.

“My guess in all honesty is going to be four or less. And that might be on the high side.”

Stone believes the American audience is now at a point where they will tune in to the World Cup whether their home country is involved or not.

“I think our country is in a place that’s OK with [the U.S. not qualifying]. They’re clearly upset that the U.S. isn’t there but it doesn’t mean we’re going to turn this tournament off. The intelligence level and sophistication of the American fan around this sport right now has grown immensely.”

Should the U.S. become a subject of conversation during Fox’s 350 hours of World Cup programming, Stone predicts it will likely stem from any developing stories on the team’s head coaching search.

Wagner makes history

Former U.S. women’s national team midfielder Aly Wagner will become the first female game analyst for the men's World Cup on American television, alongside Telemundo’s Viviana Vila.

“She works incredibly hard and that’s just what jumps out at you immediately,” Lalas said of Wagner.

“The way that she is able to distill that work into providing interesting and insightful comments during a game, that’s what you want. She’s also not afraid to have an opinion.”

Wagner was capped 131 times by the USWNT, and has served as a match analyst for Fox at the 2015 Women’s World Cup and last summer’s Confederations Cup.

“She earned this role at the World Cup by doing terrific work last summer during the Confederations Cup,” Neal said.

“She’s just someone who understands how to explain a sport that can sometimes be complex and mysterious. She sees it, she breaks it down into its absolute basics and makes it easily understood.”

Wagner will be partnered with veteran Scottish play-by-play man Derek Rae.

Russia serves up its share of controversy

The World Cup’s host country is always a big part of a broadcast’s storyline, bringing an added focus to the team’s performance on the field and the nation’s culture off of it. This year’s host nation will present some unique challenges.

Russia has made its share of unseemly headlines in recent years, with doping scandals, election hacking and political assassinations underscoring the country's general proclivity to cause geopolitical chaos. How will Fox balance its on-field duties with some of the more elephant-in-the-room aspects of the host nation’s profile?

“We don’t go in with any presumption that we’re news journalists – we’re not,” Neal said.

“I don't think viewers are watching the World Cup to watch a discussion of Russia-U.S. relations. I think there are plenty of networks out there who will provide that for them. Viewers are coming to us to watch the World Cup ... If we start to get into anything outside of that area, I think we’re doing a disservice to our viewers.”

Stone mostly agrees, though he concedes that off-field matters could briefly come up on the air.

“My guess is most of the political talk is going to happen before kickoff and the opening [match]. My feeling is that once the sport takes over the politics are going to step away.”

Like it did during last summer's Confederations Cup, Fox is partnering with National Geographic to bring a focus to the people and culture of Russia.

“I think there is the majority of people in the United States who see Russia as Ivan Drago from 'Rocky IV',” Stone said.

“Everybody knows about Moscow and St. Petersburg but all the other host cities outside of maybe Sochi, people are probably for now at least scratching their head and have no idea where they are and why they were selected. It’s part of our job to educate everybody about that element.”

A unique set in Red Square

Fox is the only broadcaster at the World Cup that will have its own standalone studio in Moscow's Red Square.

While many other broadcasters will be in a shared structure nearby, Fox will have a state-of-the-art studio all to itself.

How did Fox become the only broadcaster to have its own studio in Red Square? It likely has something to do with the fact Neal has visited Russia 16 times before the World Cup has even started.

“It’s about building relationships,” Neal said. “You need to be vested, you need to be partners with the organizing committees, you need to share your vision early and then continue to pursue it. That’s been our relationship with FIFA.

“Early on we laid out what we wanted to do and we stuck with it. We had to go through various iterations of it but it’s relationship building.”

El Tri takes center stage

The U.S. may not be at the World Cup but luckily for Fox, the most popular team in the U.S. will be.

Fox will unsurprisingly go big on its Mexico coverage, hoping to draw English-speaking El Tri fans and at least siphon off some bilingual Mexico followers who otherwise would be watching on Telemundo.

Rodolfo Landeros will be embedded with the team in Mexico, while El Tri goalkeeper Moises Munoz, who is still an active Liga MX player and played for Mexico as recently as last summer, will provide studio analysis. The all-Mexican team of Jorge Perez Navarro and Mariano Trujillo will handle play-by-play and color commentating duties.

“Viewers will get the best, most informed reporting on Mexico that’s available anywhere on television – certainly in the United States,” Neal said.

One potential pitfall: Perez Navarro and Trujillo will be back in Los Angeles calling off monitors rather than with the team in Russia.