It was a risk, make no doubt about it, but it was a risk worth taking. In January 2012 Rob Stone left ESPN — his employer for nearly two decades — and took the plunge, leaving the Worldwide Leader for the relative unknown of Fox Sports to anchor its soccer coverage on the now defunct Fox Soccer Channel.
Nearly two years later, the move appears to have paid off for Stone in spades. In that time Fox launched its own 24-hour network, Fox Sports 1, and Stone’s versatility has him in the middle of the coverage, hosting soccer, college football and now college basketball programming on the network.
“It was a slight gamble, but a calculated one,” Stone said earlier this month by phone from the Fox studios in Hollywood. “I needed to change things for my family, work-wise. Fox came in at the right time and said the right things and I knew they were growing and that soccer would be a priority no matter what they did in the grand scheme of things. To enter Fox when I did, the timing was perfect as they entered their mammoth growth, they needed people to fill in massive holes and these are holes I love to play in.”
That latest hole is college basketball. Fox’s college basketball slate is anchored by the reconfigured Big East and Stone will host the network’s studio coverage alongside former Providence standout Austin Croshere.
“The Big East was a big part of my college hoops upbringing, so to be associated with it now is great,” said Stone, a Connecticut native. “It’s interesting how things come full circle.”
Nearly 30 years earlier, ESPN helped build its empire around the Big East in the early 1980s. The now-legendary rough-and-tumble Big East matchups on Monday night featuring Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown and Chris Mullin’s St. John’s squads quickly became destination television. Will the Big East have the same sort of payoff for Fox? Time will tell. The cable sports landscape in 2013 is much more crowded than it was in 1983 and there’s certainly no shortage of college hoops on television. A Butler/Creighton matchup doesn’t exactly hold the same cache that Syracuse/Georgetown once did.
One ace Fox does have up its sleeve is venerable broadcaster Bill Raftery, who’ll team with Gus Johnson calling the Big East action.
“Meeting Raft was on my bucket list,” Stone said. “I was a fan of his since I was a little punk dribbling the ball in my driveway in Connecticut. I just wanted to hug him and yell ‘Onions!’ … He might go down as one of the best, if not the best hire Fox has made. He brings immediate credibility and conversation to our network.”
Credibility is something Fox is aiming to build since it went on the air in mid-August. On Saturday mornings it has tried to go head-to-head with ESPN’s College GameDay juggernaut. Stone, who hosts college football studio programming on Thursday and Saturday nights, worked on GameDay in its early stages, thinks it will take some time to carve out its own niche as GameDay draws close to 2 million viewers compared to 60,000 for Fox College Saturday, hosted by Erin Andrews.
“I know what power they’ve built,” said Stone, who was part of the first GameDay broadcast from a remote location. “You can’t just make a carbon copy, you’ll look bad.”
The place Stone’s presence in the studio has been seen the most on Fox is during it’s soccer coverage. Although Fox lost its rights to the Premier League to NBC earlier this year, it still has Champions League rights and acquired the German Bundesliga starting in 2015 — the same year it will broadcast the Women’s World Cup from Canada. Fox also snared the rights to the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cups away from ESPN.
It might be five years on the horizon, but Stone says Fox is already in World Cup mode.
“We talk about it all the time,” he said. “I’m not kidding. I’m looking forward to Canada. That’s barely a year away in 2015. There are a ton of plans going on behind the scenes. We’re certainly gearing up for that. We’re proud and honored to take the baton from ESPN.”
Losing the Premier League rights did put a slight damper on one of Stone’s trademark catchphrases, screaming “The American!” whenever Clint Dempsey did something positive while he was playing at Fulham. As it stands, Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan are the only Americans in the Champions League who get significant playing time. The catchphrase was rife for parody in the Twitter grist mill.
“I think the majority (of viewers) like it. It’s the ones that don’t who keep yelling at you over and over,” he said. “It was something that morphed. It was an organic phrase. I’m very much a patriot. I love to see Americans do well overseas. Somehow saying the American turned into yelling THE AMERICAN on Saturday mornings.”
It might sound a little bit like pom-pom waving, but Stone doesn’t mind. He’s an unabashed homer for U.S. Soccer, and will keep using the phrase when he can, up to and including pep rallies for the American Outlaws supporter’s group ahead of World Cup qualifiers.
Stone, like many American soccer observers, is shocked to see the strides the sport has taken in the last decade.
“I used to have NFL sheets. It was the best. For my son’s eighth birthday I bought him an MLS blanket with every logo and he loved it,” he said. “Halloween at my son’s parade around his school, it was 20-30s kids dressing up as soccer players. A Beckham. A Ronaldo. My son went as Pele. There were more soccer players dressed up for Halloween than football players.”
One sport associated with Stone that he’s unable to call while at Fox is bowling. At ESPN he became known for his call of “Hambone” on the lanes. He says he misses bowling and the opportunity it allowed him to stretch is wings.
“I like the change of pace,” Stone said. “You don’t grow stagnant covering one league. You keep your eyes on so many factors in so many sporting landscapes.”
With Fox Sports 1 still well within its infant stages, don’t expect Stone or his colleagues to grow stagnant any time soon.
“Where I am right now at Fox, if I could have scripted what I would be doing since making the move to FOX, this would be it,” he said. “Selfishly I’m laughing right now. I get to watch college football on Thursday, the best soccer, college hoops. Don’t tell my bosses how good I have it now. … Give me some variety, give me some spices and maybe I’ll cook up something good.”