Fox Sports bought the World Cup rights away from ESPN. The two networks held simultaneous international soccer tournaments. The juxtaposition offered a chance to check in on the transition process.
There’s work to be done.
ESPN had advantages. The WWL had the better tournament. The Euros are a well-organized World Cup-lite. There’s history. There’s star power. It has been on mainstream American TV before. Copa America Centenario was a hastily organized cash grab. English language coverage of last summer’s tournament was buried on BeIN Sport. For us at least, it was late night and not in HD.
Fox earned solid reviews for its 2015 Women’s World Cup coverage. It did not feel like quite the same effort (perhaps justifiably) was put in here. ESPN has had a plum setup on the Seine, with detailed coverage, and a rotating panel of experts. Fox, for the most part, relied on the same crew in studio.
There were complaints about the Fox audio synching. There were multiple graphic flubs where women’s names were inserted for mens. USWNT backup goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was yellow carded. Priscilla Chinchilla scored a goal for Costa Rica.
ESPN’s extra expenditure, attention to detail – even little things like changing up the intro and outro music once in a while – have had a discernible effect on production quality. To be fair, ESPN has more money and resources to throw at live events and far more experience doing it. If we take the Women’s World Cup as the dry run, Fox won’t cut corners in Russia.
Many criticized Fox’s tone with USMNT coverage. Fox went full-on jingoistic in the two-hour pregame show before the USA vs. Argentina semifinal. Discussion was almost all about the USMNT. There was little analysis of Argentina, beyond describing who Lionel Messi is. Despite Argentina being clear favorites, every American analyst picked the U.S. to win (they did not).
The jingoism is a fine line with international soccer. Americans are American. People have rooting interests. Puritanical journalistic objectivity can come off as stilted. The challenge is not letting rooting interests disrupt insightful and realistic match coverage. Fox struggled there. So, to be fair, did ESPN with Englishmen Ian Darke and Steve McManaman having a meltdown during the Iceland match.
Match commentary was another issue, probably the most important one. Ending the Gus Johnson experiment was best for all involved. While ESPN has the stellar Darke-Twellman combo, Fox still needs to work on finding the right pairings. We often see a binary discussion about whether commentators should be American or English. What matters is whether they are good.
Landon Donovan as a match commentator was the surprise standout. Live TV isn’t easy. Donovan, with little experience, was for the most part insightful, fluid, and concise. He was a clear upgrade during matches over an oft-maligned colleague who has been doing TV a lot longer.
Soccer coverage at FOX has come a long way. Fears of Michael Strahan Football vs. Futball segments, Piers Morgan being thrown on the TV panel to troll people, and an insufferable robotic mascot ruining a World Cup are in the rearview mirror (though not distantly). Soccer fans can be finnicky and overly sensitive. That stems from decades of not being taken seriously.
FOX Sports, much like its parent company, is an upstart. It is going to inject its personality into its coverage. Sometimes, such as with Fernando Fiore, that’s not such a bad thing. The hope is FOX tries to build on the high bar of professionalism ESPN set with its World Cup coverage, not “disrupt” or reinvent it.