Fox Sports, who paid an unprecedented $425 million for the TV rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups—before the U.S. team shockingly failed to qualify—announced today that it is essentially giving up on trying to make its World Cup broadcast as good as it could be. But, don’t worry, it will be a lot cheaper for them.
Fox Sports said that eight of its 12 commentators for the 2018 World Cup matches are American and only four of them—the teams of John Strong and Stu Holden, and JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola—are actually going to physically be in Russia for the tournament. The rest—Aly Wagner and Derek Rae; Glenn Davis and Cobi Jones; Jorge Perez Navarro and Mariano Trujillo; Mark Followill and Warren Barton—will be watching and commentating from the Fox Sports studio in Los Angeles.
Citing an unnamed source, World Soccer Talk wrote that “FOX Sports was in discussions last year to hire more talented commentators. But given FOX’s decision to slash budgets, the American broadcaster decided to hire a mostly American crew instead.” (ESPN has broadcast the past six World Cups, hiring such talent as Ian Darke, Jon Champion, Adrian Healey, Fernando Palomo, and Daniel Mann.)
Fox Sports is valiantly trying to spin this as a positive. From the AP:
“There’s no question that we did this deliberately, and the message is that we have an abundance of outstanding American play-by-play voices and frankly it would make no sense not to avail ourselves of that,” said David Neal, executive producer of Fox’s World Cup coverage. “It’s as solid a group of American voices as have ever been collected for a World Cup.”
Putting aside the fact that Fox Sports skimped on filling out their roster with actual experienced commentators who soccer fans would want to listen to, the fact that they’re only sending four (!!!) people to call the matches live in the stadiums is embarrassing. It’s easy to detect when an announcer is sitting in a studio watching matches on a monitor—they simply lack the urgency and excitement of commentators who are in a stadium—and this is the World Cup for god’s sake. In 2014, ESPN sent five pairs of commentators to Brazil and they called all but 13 games live from the stadiums. The other 13 games were called from the international broadcast center in Rio de Janeiro.
For a current comparison, there’s Telemundo, which outbid Univision (Deadspin’s parent company), which had broadcast the World Cup since 1990, for the Spanish-language rights. Telemundo’s announcers will be calling nearly all of the matches live from Russia, according to the Associated Press. Those that aren’t will be called from an IBC studio in Moscow.
Aly Wagner, the first woman to call a men’s World Cup game on TV, observed that not being in the stadium is a notable detriment for commentators, and thus viewers.
“It’s not an advantage at all. You’re limited in what you get to see,” Wagner told the AP. “I’m hoping that we’ll have maybe an extra cam, like a tactical-view cam. That will help. But sometimes you’re just limited to what the viewers at home see. It just gives you a different perspective when you are able to be at the game.”
Fox Sports’ calculus might be that fewer people will care about the World Cup without the USMNT playing. While that’s undoubtedly true, it’s still the most important tournament in the world, and soccer fans will be watching no matter what. In October, after the U.S. team’s failure to qualify, Fox Sports promised they were still going to do right by the “greatest sporting event on earth.” Their statement said:
Last night’s World Cup qualifying results do not change Fox Sports’ passion for the world’s biggest sporting event. While the U.S. was eliminated, the biggest stars in the world from Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo stamped their tickets to Russia on the same day, and will battle teams ranging from Mexico to England that have massive fan bases in America. The World Cup is the greatest sporting event on earth that changes the world for one month every four years, and Fox Sports remains steadfast in our commitment of bringing the games to America for the first time in 2018 and will continue to support the U.S. Soccer Federation as they look ahead to the 2022 World Cup.
Because 2018 is the first time Fox Sports will be broadcasting the World Cup, you would think they would go out of their way to make it as good as can possibly be, if only to work out the logistics to be successful in 2022. Dellacamera, who called the 2014 World Cup for ESPN radio, is a talented announcer and Stu Holden is decent, but they simply don’t have the experience or the rapport with soccer fans that someone like Ian Darke brought to his broadcasts. Derek Rae is a recognizable voice, but he won’t even be in Russia.
Fox Sports is essentially punting on the World Cup, its entire broadcast plan a limp clusterfuck, and I for one will be watching the tournament on Telemundo.