It’s one month until the World Cup kicks off, and Rob Stone is fully immersed in his preparations.
“I might take a picture for you right now of what my kitchen table looks like because it is about 60 to 70 percent consumed with World Cup coverage,” Stone tells Goal.
“It’s laptops, it’s stacking notes, it’s my go-to college notebook binder where I hand write all the pertinent bullet points that jump out to me. I have eight pages of all the groups broken down into the matchdays, I have my day-planner that has various other notepads strewn around.”
It’s all part of the process for Stone who, despite being no stranger to the World Cup, is about to be the lead studio host for a men’s World Cup for the first time.
Stone’s ascendancy to the lead chair is part of a changing of the guard that will take place in 2018, as Fox gets set to broadcast the men’s World Cup for the first time after ESPN/ABC held the English broadcasting rights for every tournament since 1994.
There may be no better figure to lead that transition than Stone, who cut his teeth during multiple stints with ESPN, soaking up knowledge from some of the broadcasting royalty at the network before eventually making his own move to Fox in 2012.
Stone began at ESPN as a production assistant straight out of college in 1992. It didn’t take long for Stone to determine that his future lie not behind the camera but in front of it, and that he was at the perfect place to leverage the resources around him to aid in that transition.
“I spent those two years working incredibly hard but always keeping an eye on what the anchors did,” Stone said.
“That was kind of the golden age of ESPN with Bob Ley and [Mike] Tirico and Chris Myers and Dan Patrick and [Keith] Olbermann, Chris Fowler and Gary Miller – name after name after name, and I leaned on those guys a lot.”
The young P.A. stood out among his peers.
“The one thing that stuck out right away is that Rob started having a good relationship with the people we were working with like me and Fowler and Chris Myers,” Tirico told Goal.
“I know all of us were very fond of Rob in part because of his abilities and his personality and his approach to work,” Tirico said. “It was not a stretch to see that Rob was going to be really successful.”
Fowler quickly realized that the young production assistant helping him cut highlights had a future in front of the camera. Eventually when Stone would bring Fowler the script for a nightly SportsCenter, the anchor would give the P.A. an unusual request: “You read it to me.”
“Here I am in this newsroom with a bunch of other young kids and these living broadcast legends, and I’m barking out the highlights like I would be really doing it on SportsCenter,” Stone recalls.
“That was a big step forward for me.”
Stone took another step forward when he returned to ESPN in 1997 following his first on-air gig at a Fox affiliate in Georgia. He would go on to be part of coverage for four men’s World Cups, where he would get the chance to work alongside the man whose chair he is taking over, Bob Ley.
“Bob has such a great journalistic pedigree that I watch him in action and I try to siphon off his abilities and how he asks questions and how he calmly handles situations,” Stone said. “I stored that knowledge hoping someday I might be able to use it for a greater calling.”
“Some people don’t realize how long and how hard he has worked to get to this point,” Fox analyst Alexi Lalas told Goal of his longtime colleague Stone. “I think this is something that he’s earned, I think it’s long overdue.
“He has powered through and ultimately, this is a soccer guy. This is a guy that grew up playing, this is a guy that has a history in this game and sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for the tireless effort and work and just sense of this sport.”
Stone, who played at Colgate University and finished his career as the school’s all-time assist leader, has become something of a soccer evangelist at Fox.
“Right now [Fox’s World Cup programming] is over 200 hours of linear television and I’ll tell you, if I had my druthers, I’d pump it up another 200 or 300 hours,” Stone said.
“I’m knocking on programming’s doors saying, ‘We can do more, we can do more!’”
Stone’s passion for the sport is part of what landed him one of the most coveted roles in sports television.
“Rob is ideally suited for this for a number of reasons,” David Neal, executive producer of Fox's World Cup coverage told Goal. “Rob’s enthusiasm, his knowledge and his natural curiosity I think make him an absolute ideal lead host for us.”
Having secured the lead hosting role, Stone can look back on his journey through broadcasting and feel gratitude toward those who previously sat in that chair and helped lift him up to the point where he could fill their shoes.
Stone still consults with some of them including Tirico, with whom Stone spoke only last week to pick his brain.
“He always looks to ask questions to try to build his pool of information,” Tirico said. “It’s hard to find somebody who’s better prepared to do this job than Rob.”
That preparation will shift from Stone's kitchen table to Moscow, where Stone is ready to take the place of a few of the broadcasting world's biggest names.
“I’m well aware of the figures that I consider my friends and my colleagues that I respect immensely that have sat in that seat before,” Stone said. “It’s people I look up to, it’s people I reach out to and it’s people that have helped drive me in this career, and that’s a seat that I’ve wanted to sit in for a long long time.
“It’s very difficult to topple and push away legends, and Fox has placed their faith in me to handle this role. They have full confidence that I can handle any situation that comes my way and I am in no mood to let them down.”