Media Circus: Fox delivers on promise of Women's World Cup coverage
Two hours after the conclusion of the Women’s World Cup final Sunday night, as he sat bleary-eyed in an office one floor up from his network’s main set at Jack Poole Plaza in Vancouver, David Neal, the executive producer for Fox’s Women’s World Cup coverage, said he believed Fox Sports had changed the preconceived notions of those viewers who believed the network could not handle the production of a World Cup.
“I think we proved we are more than qualified custodians of this property,” said Neal, who prior to Fox was a longtime executive at NBC Sports. “I think people can look at us with high expectations and that’s what they should have. They should look to our coverage of the 2018 World Cup and think, ‘OK, you did very well the first time out of the gate in 2015 in Canada,’ and then they should expect we will exceed our own performance.”
Indeed when I spoke to Neal prior to the start of the Women’s World Cup, here is what he said: “First of all I would say: Don’t judge us until you see us on the air. I was brought on here three years ago, and brought solely for the purpose to get us ready for the World Cup. Based on my Olympics experience, I will tell you our commitment is at an unprecedented level.”
Fox delivered on the tonnage Neal promised. They aired all 52 games from the tournament–with 16 matches on big FOX, including the third-place match on July 4 and the final on July 5. They aired shoulder programming prior and after matches, and even if you did not like the on-air talent, you could not question the commitment to the tournament. Fox Sports 1 even created an hour-long special to air Monday afternoon (1:00 p.m. ET) featuring coach Jill Ellis and all 23 members of the U.S. women's national team.
The month-long tournament offered Fox an opportunity to brand itself as a legitimate steward of the World Cup and if nothing else, soccer viewers have to feel more optimistic about how Fox will cover the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Obviously, that event will have many more challenges than the Women’s World Cup, starting with time difference between Russia and the United States. There will also be language and travel issues for Fox’s staff.
I’m by no means an expert on Russia, but I’ve visited the country twice, including four weeks in Sochi and a week in Moscow and it is not an easy place to traverse or to do business. Fox Sports will be challenged and even if they do a spectacular job, the ratings for the tournament will likely be down compared to ESPN’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup on time zone issues alone. Prior to this tournament, Fox Sports had never set up camp for a whole month where they had to shuttle so many people and so much data from country to country and venue to venue. The Canada experience will help them immeasurably for Russia.
“I think we come away from it here with great confidence that we are equal to the task, and come away from this knowing that certainly Russia will be a bigger challenge,” Neal said. “It’s 64 games and 32 teams so everything is exponentially larger and more complicated, but as a group we learned important lessons and learned that the Group Stage is trial by fire. So many games, so many cities, and 2018 will be a larger challenge. But this group comes out of this understanding the rhythms and challenges of a World Cup.
Neal has a long-term contract with Fox that runs beyond the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France so he is the executive in charge of your next two World Cup viewing experiences, including Russia. He said on Sunday night that he could easily see some of the studio analysts, game broadcasters and reporters used for the Women’s World Cup repeat as broadcasters for the 2018 men’s World Cup and 2019 Women’s World Cup. “Even though it is three years away I am already starting to make lists of possible candidates to be part of that team,” Neal said. “There is a lot of upside to the people who were here and I think you will see them back with us in future World Cups.”
Neal said he started scouting for locations in Russia last November when he, Fox creative director Gary Hartley, and some other Fox staffers were in Moscow looking at spaces near Red Square. The group will return next month along with designer Jeff Hall to continue the process.
One thing that Neal said will likely change for the 2018 World Cup is the elimination of any three-person announcing teams.
“The speed of the men’s World Cup really almost dictates that it is a two-person booth,” he said. “Three-person commentary teams are always a challenge in any sport. I liked our three-person booth here (JP Dellacamera, Cat Whitehill and Tony DiCicco) but I don’t think there is any question that the men’s World Cup in 2018 lends itself better to two people.”
The viewership of the tournament was a wild success. Fox averaged a remarkable 25.4 million viewers for the game, making it the most-viewed soccer game ever in the United States – men’s or women’s – by a giant margin. The previous most-viewed soccer game in the U.S. came last June 22 when 18.2 million watched ESPN’s World Cup telecast of the U.S.-Portugal men’s game.The 2015 tournament averaged 1.824 million viewers for each of the tournament’s 52 matches across all networks (FOX, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2), up 21 percent over the 1,511,000 averaged on ESPN and ESPN2 for the 32 matches played in 2011. The top-rated markets for all 52 matches: St. Louis (1.94), Washington D.C. (1.85), Richmond (1.72), Kansas City (1.65), Sacramento (1.64), Baltimore (1.60), Orlando (1.56), Los Angeles (1.54), San Diego (1.51) and Las Vegas (1.50)
Neal said he woke up at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time on Sunday, amped up to get the day going. “Honestly, this has been the most satisfying experience of my professional life,” Neal said. “This event has been breathtaking to me and I have been around a lot of big global events. But there was something about this group of people, their dedication to the job and their support of one another that made this rarefied air for a month.”
Talent is always subjective but a couple of thoughts:
•Fox would be wise to retain British host Kate Abdo for its 2018 World Cup coverage. As a facilitator of conversation on FS1’s late-night Women’s World Cup coverage, she was terrific, always prepared and ego-free. There was no difference between Abdo and Rob Stone, and that’s a compliment to both of them. “I thought Rob Stone and Kate Abdo were standouts,” Neal said.
•Stone proved he could handle the all-important role as the top studio host for a mega-event. He logged a ton of hours during this tournament and like Abdo, he facilitated his panel time and time again with thoughtful questions. I’ve always thought Stone was a little too rah-rah with the U.S. going back to his days as an ESPN reporter covering soccer, but he tempered that as well. Just very impressive, professional work.
•Kelly Smith and Ariane Hingst were the best studio analysts for me and would be excellent additions for future soccer coverage on Fox whether a men’s or women’s tournament. Wish we saw more of Monica Gonzalez as well.
•The three-person booth in soccer is too crowded but Dellacamera-Whitehill-DiCicco made it work, with DiCicco standing out in most games. One example from the final: When Dellacamera mentioned that defender Meghan Klingenberg’s play had been underrated throughout the tournament, DiCicco immediately referenced Klingenberg clearing a Swedish goal attempt with a header that ricocheted off the crossbar during the second half of the U.S.’s second match, preserving a 0–0 draw. Dellacamera getting the No. 1 spot was a nice nod to his long devotion to the sport.
•Studio host Eric Wynalda never feels accessible to me as a viewer (rightly or wrongly, there’s always an air of self-satisfaction in his commentary for me). But Fox Sports brass holds Wynalda in high regard and they did find a better spot for him (the postgame) rather than assign him for the pregame.
•As noted in earlier pieces, the team of Jenn Hildreth and Kyndra de St. Aubin had a terrific tournament and good on Fox brass to give them high-profile assignments at the back end of the event.
•It was good to see studio analyst Leslie Osborne give some run for Ali Krieger and Klingenberg in the FS1 postgame following the final. The U.S. back line was remarkable throughout the tournament.
•Liked seeing Alexi Lalas thank his colleagues for helping educate him in his first Women’s World Cup.
Some production thoughts:
•The Olympic–style feature unit led by Jennifer Pransky and Mark Teitleman (he produced most of Fox's teases) produced close to 70 player, team and feature profiles and consistently did excellent work. Bring them back for the 2018 and 2019 World Cups.
•I think Fox’s production would be far better off dialing back all the “we’s” from its analysts. This is often the case with soccer pundits globally–even at the BBC–and rarely does it serve viewers.
•One thing that needed to be more seamless: the transition from Fox to Fox Sports 1 after the final. FS1 missed a huge opportunity to have live soccer talk on the postgame as the coverage on Fox was wrapping up. If you flipped over from Fox following coverage of the postgame ceremony, you immediately saw Fox Sports Live talking about Jason Pierre-Paul.
•Lot of long hours logged by the producers and directors for Women’s World Cup Today and Women’s World Cup Tonight. That group included Spandan Daftary, Maleek Ndile, Joel Santos, Bardia Shah-Rais, and Geordie Wimmer. Well done.
•If you watch enough Fox features–especially for the NFL–you’ll notice how often there’s a shot (or multiple shots) of the interviewer, or the interviewer and the subject (the two shot). It’s ego of the highest order–likely catering to the talent–and that’s why the Abby Wambach straight-to-the-camera feature that Fox aired in the final pregame show was so refreshing. I’d encourage you to watch.
•The Fox Sports 1 postgame show produced a ton of players after the game including Tobin Heath, Kelley O’Hara, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach. Good hustle.
•Really appreciated Fox’s closing montage, especially the harmony between the footage of the tournament and the credits for all of the Fox staffers who worked on the coverage for the month. Nice work by the person who produced it, Mark Teitelman.
•The Fox sets were Olympic-level quality, the result of plenty of prep work prior to arriving in Vancouver.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories
1. Last week, amid the flurry of press releases that originate out of Bristol, CT, each week, I was struck by a quote from an ESPN executive that came in the middle of a release celebrating the 25th anniversary of Outside The Lines.
The executive was John Skipper, the Capo di tutti of the company, the boss of bosses, and he was talking about Bob Ley, the longtime host of Outside The Lines:
“He has established himself as nothing less than the Walter Cronkite of sports journalism, clearly the leading sports news host of the past quarter century. The range and quickness of his intellect, his ever-present curiosity and his persistent search for truth distinguish his work for ESPN and makes OTL a must watch.”
When you inject Cronkite into the conversation (and we’ll save the discussion for another time whether Bob Costas is getting undersold here as the Cronkite of sports journalism over the last 25 years), you are playing in the deep part of the journalism swimming pool. While the nod to Ley and his show’s exceptional work is deserved and appreciated in this space, one needs to ask how much of this is press release platitudes? Because once again we have arrived at the point on ESPN’s calendar where ESPN’s programming execs are deciding whether to keep OTL on ESPN or move it to ESPN2 for the fall. The decision is expected any day.
Now, you might think there's no difference between a show airing on ESPN versus ESPN2, but it matters greatly on multiple levels. Moving from ESPN to ESPN2 decreases the television audience by nearly 50 percent. For example, Outside The Lines averaged 160,000 viewers on the first day the daily program had moved from the flagship to ESPN2 in Sept. 2013. Prior to the move, the show had averaged 336,000 viewers when it appeared on ESPN. Those paid to push ESPN externally will hawk all the avenues OTL can be accessed (podcasts, digital, re-airs) but it’s Ron Ziegler-style obfuscation. The shows ESPN care most about do not move from the top network to ESPN2, and a product that represents the best of ESPN deserves better than being buried every fall. If you don’t think it has a demoralizing impact on OTL’s staff and ESPN staff beyond the show, guess again.
On this note Outside The Lines has had another sensational year, from its report on high-profile college athletes and law enforcement to new information on Hope Solo’s domestic violence case to Floyd Mayweather’s history of domestic violence. Furthermore, Ley was at the forefront of ESPN’s coverage of Sepp Blatter, endlessly carrying the coverage on ESPN’s SportsCenter with the help of ESPN staffers. (This Sunday’s show on former Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice–a reexamination of Rice two years after he physically and verbally demeaning his players–was superb.)
Finally, one of the things that continues to separate ESPN from Fox Sports and other cable sports networks is its genuine commitment to broadcast journalism and its ability to perform such journalism when breaking news occurs. (On this note: Fox Sports recently made serious cuts to its news operation.) There is little skill in bloviating to the masses daily despite what the professional bloviators and contrarians who permeate ESPN and ESPN Radio tell themselves in the mirror. Honestly, it’s the easiest thing to do in the business outside of PR kissing talent’s ass. Same with dudes who get stroked by producers for bantering on topics they don’t cover first hand. Your CAA and WME agent may give you a backrub while telling you how great you are, but deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, most thoughtful people working in the sports media know the real game here.
What Ley and the OTL staff do daily is hard, costly, time-consuming, non-glamorous, but in the end, it actually stands for something, and it stands for something more than yet another hot talker getting an ESPN slot that doesn’t produce better ratings than OTL.
So Skipper calling Ley the “Water Cronkite” of his organization is dandy. What would be far more substantial is finally ending the programming merry-go-round and locking in OTL on ESPN for good.
1a. On Tuesday ESPN will air a primetime special (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET, Tuesday) highlighting Outside The Lines’s 25th anniversary. The July 7 show will include John Barr’s interview with Mike Rice, a look back at OTL’s historical coverage of football concussions with Mark Fainaru-Wada and a piece about race in sports and an in-studio interview with ESPN commentator and PTI co-host Michael Wilbon.
1b. I asked a group of core OTL staffers why their show is important in today's sports media landscape. Here is how they answered:
Dwayne Bray, Senior Coordinating Producer/ Enterprise Reporting Unit:
“From Day One 25 years ago, Outside the Lines has been about accountability journalism. We don’t seek to do negative or positive reporting, but we seek to report on stories that the sports industry, left to its own devices, would prefer to cover up in some cases. If we hadn’t exposed the Mike Rice videotape in 2013, he may very well still be coaching at Rutgers because the school and its athletic director had chosen to slap him on the wrist for bullying his players. Recently, our reporting on Floyd Mayweather, Greg Hardy, Ray Rice, Hope Solo and Pete Rose were stories that we are uniquely suited to tell because ESPN has afforded the OTL investigative unit the resources to go after these stories.
We try to select stories that will end up on air or on our digital or print platforms. But it’s always a calculated risk. Some stories don’t pan out and we have to pull the plug on them. That’s expensive, so it takes a company that is committed to this type of reporting because sometimes we have to kill stories that we’ve spent weeks or months reporting. Overall, there could be so much more investigative reporting given how the sports world has grown in the past 15-20 years. We’re just happy that John Skipper and the rest of ESPN’s leaders have made this commitment to our unit and to our audience.”
David Brofsky, senior coordinating producer:
“I think the biggest reason that OTL is important in today’s sports media landscape is that it is really the only daily sports journalism show on TV right now, Monday-Friday and on Sunday morning. It’s a show that is never afraid to tackle a topic, whether it be sexual assault, sexual abuse, concussions, youth sports, gay athletes, performance enhancing drugs, racial issues, hurtful nicknames of pro football teams, etc. OTL has been a leader in many of these areas for the past 25 years and I expect the show to continue to be a leader going forward. If there is an important topic in the sports world, you can almost be guaranteed that OTL will cover it in some way.”
Robbin Dunn, producer:
“OTL is important because it is one of the few sports programs still doing investigative reporting and digging into issues both on and off the field. The daily show gives an informed and balanced look at topics without having guests scream at each other. We aren't afraid to address controversial issues that need to be discussed, like our "N-Word" show and we can spend 20 minutes on a topic rather than just a cursory few minutes.”
Bob Ley, host:
“It’s actually not that complicated. Even in a media landscape with an unparalleled variety and volume of outlets–an explosion of digital possibilities–Outside the Lines is a singular destination for timely facts, analysis and storytelling on the issues and stories in sports that matter beyond the scoreline. Civil discussion, nuance, independent thought–commodities on the endangered species list throughout so much of the national bandwidth–are what we try to incorporate in our programs six times a week. I’d like to think we’ve established our brand through that, and we’re fortunate to have a mandate and level of support internally which allow us to pursue any topic, any time, from last year’s primetime special on “The N-Word” to a Sunday morning program on our own company’s controversy involving Rush Limbaugh, days after the fact (12 years ago). For the past 15 years we’ve aggressively taken a leadership position in reporting on the scientific, medical and political implications of concussions in sport–specifically, the NFL. I hope our history of aggressive and fair reporting, compelling storytelling, and editorial independence will continue into Year 26 and beyond.”
Paul Palmer, producer:
“OTL is important in today's sports landscape because it keeps leagues and individuals honest. Fans are largely concerned with wins, losses and titles and that's it. But OTL helps keep things in perspective–what are the real costs beyond dollars and cents, why do we (fans) accept certain behaviors in our athletes, owners and coaches? It is not a holier-than-though-thing and it forces all of us to turn the camera on our own company or on our own favorite team and players. But that is what we signed up to do, to try and make sure the games are fair. There really aren't a lot of other programs doing what we do on the national level that we do it at.”
1c. The timeline: OTL debuted on May 7, 1990. Ten years later, on the morning of April 2, 2000, it debuted on Sunday as a live, 30-minute weekly edition. Outside the Lines First Report, a daily Monday-Friday show, debuted on July 24, 2003.
2. The ninth episode of the SI Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features Wright Thompson, a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. In the podcast Thompson discusses how and why he chooses his stories, how to report a profile subject, the process of interviewing Michael Jordan and Johnny Manziel, why he opted to close his Twitter account, the competition that exists among ESPN writers and whether a sports writer has a finite amount of words within him or her. You can listen to the podcast on iTunes here.
On how Thompson chooses what to write:
It’s a weird mix of things I’m interested in and I try to accept assignments that are something I would never normally do–or is sort of frightening–because it’s a good way to keep from falling into a trap of only writing stories that perfectly fit your eye. For profiles, it’s both people I am interested in and people I imagine might be dealing with things in their lives, or something they are struggling with that I might identify with. Your very own Gary Smith said one time and I wish I had thought of this and I have totally stolen it: All a profile is, is figuring out the central complication of someone’s life, and how on a daily basis they go about solving it.”
2a. This year’s college football semifinals (the Cotton, Orange bowls) will be played on Dec. 31, a date that does not benefit sports television viewers. The first semifinal is set for 4 p.m. ET; the later game will kick around 8 p.m. (The winners will compete for the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.) Here’s a piece I did last week on the college football semis being played on New Year's Eve.
3. On Friday Turner Sports confirmed it was bringing back Greg Anthony to work NBA Summer League games for NBA TV this month. The network would not elaborate on whether this meant Anthony is back in the fold for the long-term, but it is clearly an entrée to getting reps again as an NBA studio or game analyst. Spokespeople for CBS Sports and Turner Sports said that they would decide together if Anthony would work the NCAA tournament again. As of this writing, no such decision has been reached. Anthony declined to comment beyond a statement he released to Sports Illustrated via Turner Sports.
“I’d like to thank my family for their continued support,” Anthony said. “I’m looking forward to returning to my role as a basketball analyst and I’m grateful to Turner Sports and the NBA for this opportunity.”
The backdrop: On. Jan. 16, Anthony was arrested at a Washington D.C. hotel on suspicion of trying to hire a prostitute who was an undercover D.C. police officer. The Washington Post reported in February that Anthony reached a plea agreement in which he was required to perform 32 hours of community service and not get arrested for any other violations. If he adhered to those stipulations, prosecutors would then agree to dismiss the misdemeanor case. TMZ Sports reported the case was dismissed June 11, and a Turner Sports rep also said that all the aspects of Anthony’s deferred prosecution agreement had been fulfilled.
3a. Last week was an eventful one for Keith Olbermann-ologists. First, The Hollywood Reporter’s Marisa Guthrie reported that ESPN management told Olbermann to stop doing "commentary" on his ESPN2 show as a condition of extending Olbermann's contract, which comes up later this year. ESPN PR responded immediately, saying “Olbermann has never been told any topic is off limits for his commentary nor has continuation of it been part of any conversation about his future at the company."
What to make of all this? First, Guthrie, an excellent reporter, is strongly sourced inside the Olbermann camp and has written stories on him before. Second, there’s no doubt that someone favorable to Olbermann wants information out in the marketplace as a way to control the narrative (something ESPN did with Bill Simmons upon going to the New York Times to announce they would not renew him). Lastly, it’s clear that the days of big money renewals in Bristol are currently on hold (for most) with spending on talent being reigned in from the top. I hope Olbermann stays at ESPN but the winds suggest the two are parting.
4. Sports pieces of note:
•Harley Haggarty, writing for The Players’ Tribune, on being a junior hockey enforcer.
•Writes Helene Elliott of the L.A. Times: The Kings should never let Slava Voynov play for them again.
• Via the Associated Press’s Tim Dahlberg: Time for golf powers to stand up to Donald Trump.
•From Karen Crouse of the New York Times: Tiger Woods Sees How the Other Half Plays, if Not How It Lives.
• Former NFL running back Rashard Mendenhall is a staff writer on the HBO show Ballers.
•Via Jason Quick of The Oregonian: LaMarcus Aldridge is gone, and now the Trail Blazers can exhale their relief.
•The BBC’s Newsbeat's Tina Daheley interviewed Laura Bassett, the England defender who scored a last-minute own goal against Japan in the semifinals. Well handled on both ends.
Non Sports pieces of note:
•Reading this from Brandon Huffman about his daughter Avery was gutting. Prayers for the family.
•Call Bunk and McNulty because this Newark-Star Ledger columnist murdered Chris Christie.
•Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil on Wamariya spending seven years as a refugee.
•Should this 19-year-old be registered as a sex offender?
5. For The Win’s Luke Kerr-Dineen made an organizational chart of the Players’ Tribune using actual titles. Genius.
5a. Via USA Today’s Jeff Gluck: Will NASCAR's return to NBC live up to the hype?
5b. The Big Lead's Ryan Glasspiegel taped a podcast with longtime Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford.
5c. Within this New York Magazine profile of Katie Nolan, Fox Sports said a second season of Garbage Time is "in the works." I emailed Fox Sports PR on Friday to get some further clarification: “FOX Sports is working on plans for Garbage Time to continue beyond this first season.”
5d Do yourself a favor and listen to this Andres Cantor call of the Carli Lloyd goal from midfield.
5e Here’s a solid feature on one of the longest-running and most successful acts in Canadian broadcasting: Bob McCown. I’m on this show every other week or so and it’s one of the most enjoyable sports shows I’ve been part of given the thoughtful conversation.
5f. Fox Sports named John Strong to be its play by play announcer for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The tournament begins Tuesday and runs through the final on July 26, which airs in primetime (8:00 PM ET) on FOX Sports 1. Here’s more info on the tournament coverage.
5g. I’d urge you to check out this ambitious feature video from Fox Sports on the impact of soccer for Syrian girls (refugees) living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Full marks to producers Sarah Cordial and David Brand, editor Jason Sanchez, and executive producers Mike Hughes and Yaron Deskalo–and check out this photo from Cordial’s Instagram feed.
5h. On Friday we suffered a gutting loss at Sports Illustrated when SINow producer Robby Santiago passed away unexpectedly. He was just 27 years old. I asked Maggie Gray the host of SINow, to offer some words of remembrance for Robby. RIP.
Any live show production requires the talented work of many to get every second on the air. In many ways for us, Robby Santiago was the heart and soul of our show. He was a guiding force for passion, creativity and a constant drive to be better than the day before.
If I were to describe Robby to anyone in the production world, they would think I was talking about a seasoned veteran. Robby was only 27, which makes his talent even that much more impressive.
Earlier this year we were without a showrunner and Robby stepped up to fill that role despite never having done it before. In the following weeks, I got to know just how special Robby really was. He worked hard–and then he worked harder. He was a constant. He was creative. He was our moral compass. He was our safety net.
Robby had a laugh that was unforgettable. A high pitch chuckle with a dash of Krusty the Clown mixed in. Robby's laugh was so powerful I could hear it through the sound proof glass in our studio. It was the most encouraging sound ever because he couldn't fake it. If you got one of Robby's laughs, it was like a green light. You knew it was a good show.
Robby was as dedicated to his work as he was to his family and fiancée. Robby was never about himself. His priorities were always in the right place. How many 27 year olds can claim that to be true?
Robby loved great food, and food shows like Hell’s Kitchen. He loved music, baseball, the NBA, and the Rangers. Robby loved his alma mater, UConn, and MMA. He loved to watch movies and TV, and play video games. Robby was patient, he was smart, and he was always present.
As a producer, Robby made the show and those around him better. As a friend, he always found a way to make you appreciate the pure joy in life.
I will miss him so much. I am heartbroken, I still can't believe that he is gone.