Soccer analyst Alexi Lalas opens up about decision to leave ESPN for Fox
When describing why he opted to sign a multi-year offer with Fox Sports, Alexi Lalas said the network made him an offer he could not refuse.
“They Godfathered me,” Lalas told SI.com Monday night.
Fox Sports will soon officially announce that it has signed Lalas to be a major part of its soccer programming. Lalas said he will be working on Fox’s World Cup coverage, which includes the 2015 Women’s World Cup and 2018 Men's World Cup, its upcoming MLS package and a number of other soccer properties, including the Champions League, FA Cup and possibly the German Bundesliga [Fox has the U.S. rights starting in 2015-16). Fox Sports management has not yet told Lalas whether he will work in the studio or as a game analyst, but his experience at his previous employer, ESPN, suggests he will mostly be in the studio.
“I am comfortable doing both, but I love the studio -- the discussion and the debate with regard to what is happening on and off the field, whether in a league or a tournament,” Lalas said. “I have done games and I know they will be utilizing me in that capacity, though I don’t know to what extent. But first and foremost, my love has always been the studio.”
Lalas said he had contract offers from both Fox and ESPN, the same proposition that Taylor Twellman, the ESPN soccer commentator and a close friend of Lalas, faced. Twellman was ultimately offered eight-year contracts from both Fox and ESPN and, as SI reported last month, he chose ESPN. Lalas’ Fox deal is not as long as Twellman’s, but you can safely assume it’s within the four- to five-year range. His ESPN contract (he has worked there for six-plus years) officially expires at the end of December. Lalas will start at Fox Sports in January and will debut in the studio on Fox’ FA Cup coverage.
“We all work for money and financially [the Fox offer] was wonderful,” Lalas said. “From a content standpoint, we ran down all the different things they have, including the World Cups, which I’ve loved to do. But I want to be very clear: The World Cup is not the reason I am going to Fox and I don’t think it should be. Is it a wonderful carrot? Absolutely. But if the reason you go somewhere is because of the World Cup, then I think you are setting yourself up for disappointment and maybe disaster.”
Lalas said he met last month with Fox Sports management at their offices, a group including Fox Sports president Eric Shanks, Fox Sports executive producer John Entz, Fox Sports 1 and 2 general manager David Nathanson, Fox Sports FIFA World Cup executive producer David Neal and soccer executive producer Jonty Whitehead.
“I wanted to meet with all the different people involved, and either with or without me it was interesting to hear what their plans were for soccer and what they were all about,” Lalas said. “I wanted to be part of something and at a place I believed in. Just because someone is interested in you does not mean you belong there. Talking to the executives at Fox, there was a real desire to do something big and bold when it comes to soccer on television over the next eight years.”
Something Fox could offer Lalas that ESPN could not was a Los Angeles base of operations. Lalas lives in L.A. and has two young children. He said his commute to work will now be about 20 minutes as opposed to 3,000-plus miles, though he will travel for Fox.
“It’s a much shorter commute and that is important to my family, but that in itself was not the reason I signed,” Lalas said. “It was an accumulation of things that made the move right.”
Lalas said he and his agent, Richard Motzkin, started seriously exploring his broadcast options about a month and a half ago. He went out of his way to praise how good ESPN treated him over the years and the mega-platform the company gave him.
“If I am valuable, it is because of what ESPN has done for me,” Lalas said.
Fox Soccer’s current studio ecosystem includes Rob Stone and a mix-and-match group that include Warren Barton, Brad Friedel and Eric Wynalda. Lalas said it is up to him to fit into the current mix.
“I don’t care about anyone’s resume to be honest with you and I think we rely too often on people’s resumes when it comes to soccer,” Lalas said. “I just want to work with people who have an interesting perspective on the game and are willing to have a take. If it is something I agree with, great. If it is something I disagree with, that’s fine too. I want to be challenged.”
Someone who fits that bill is the polarizing Wynalda, who has long been the designated person on Fox’s soccer set to offer strong opinions. The on-set dynamic between he and Lalas – former U.S. men's national team teammates – will be, well, interesting.
“I am in the business of talking and I recognize and make no bones about it -- I am a performer and an entertainer and that takes nothing away from how passionate and committed I am to the game or the things I say about the game,” Lalas said. “But you have to have substance behind the things you talk about it, whether it is me or Eric or anyone else. So I look forward to it because Eric sees the game in different ways. It’s not fun for me, and quite frankly not good TV, if everyone sees it the same way. I like the fact that there will be unique, diverse and opposing opinions on things.”
Interestingly, when asked whether ESPN could have done anything more to retain him, Lalas said, “absolutely.”
“Look, this was not me saying I don’t want to be at ESPN,” Lalas said. “I love ESPN. This was an opportunity that came along that was so much more than what ESPN could offer -- and when I say more I am not just talking money-wise. Collectively, [Fox] had so much more to offer and when ESPN didn’t [offer that], the choice became easier.
“There is an incredibly sad part of me making this decision as happy and wonderful as it is, to be leaving people like Taylor, Amy Rosenfeld (an ESPN coordinating producer), Chris Alexopoulos (a longtime ESPN soccer producer), Bob Ley and all these great people who helped make me who I am from a television standpoint," Lalas continued. "Within the ESPN universe, our little La Cosa Nostra soccer community constantly was fighting and pushing to do more and more soccer within the incredible ESPN machine. We took incredible ownership of that and I was proud of what we accomplished because I know it helped the sport in the U.S.”