World Cup 2018: Can Fox match ESPN?

Publish date:

The lead of this column is about the future but let’s start by doling out love in the present: ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup has been sensational, a viewer-first production featuring smart hosts and analysts, brilliant game-callers and studio programming geared toward soccer savants that novices can also appreciate. The network has used its cross-platform gigantism for good, and world soccer has grown because of it.

Viewers have rewarded ESPN by watching the World Cup in record numbers. The combined coverage on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC through 60 matches has averaged 4.19 million viewers for the match windows, up from 2,853,000 viewers in 2010 and 1,849,000 in 2006. (Univision said its World Cup coverage had reached nearly 74 million viewers through Saturday).

Why the huge viewership for soccer? I’d argue it’s a combination of factors including the rising interest of Americans in event programming, the success of the U.S. national team in Brazil, the growth of world soccer in the U.S., and terrific productions by ESPN and Univision, but the biggest reason of all might be the time difference. Most of the games have been played one hour ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, giving ESPN great windows for viewers. It has me thinking about the 2018 World Cup and the biggest issue for Fox Sports when they take over the production:

The time difference.

Four years from now the World Cup will be held in 11 cities across Russia. Host cities Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod are eight hours ahead of New York City, while Yekaterinburg is nine. So, for example, a match starting in Moscow at 3 p.m. would air at 4 a.m. in Los Angeles and 7 a.m. in New York. A 6 p.m. local kickoff in Nizhny Novgorod would start at 7 a.m. in L.A. and 10 a.m. in New York. Those are brutal start times for Fox Sports, and there is little chance Fox will average better viewership numbers than ESPN. Viewership will be lower and perhaps significantly so.

But what Fox can do is put on a superb production. I can’t see them topping ESPN’s production given the cost of producing a month-long sporting event in Russia but that’s what they should aim to do. Can Fox earn the praise of viewers and critics? Let’s hope so, and it will be valuable for the network. Eventually, the World Cup will return to the U.S. (perhaps in 2026) and the network that lands that rights deal is going to have a viewership gold mine. The public will make it very clear which network they want to air that, even if they have zero control over who gets it. So will the press.

Soccer-based outlets such as World Soccer Talk have weighed in on Fox handling the 2018 World Cup coverage. (Let’s just say WST is not optimistic.) Other sites have offered suggestions for Fox including Awful Announcing, which smartly highlighted the importance of the 2015 Women’s World Cup broadcast. World soccer fans, and I am a huge one, believe that the television rights-holder for World Cups has a public trust with the audience to put on a quality production.  That’s why you’ve seen such heavy reaction about Gus Johnson calling soccer for the network. With an eye toward the 2018 World Cup coverage in America, here’s 11 thoughts for Fox Sports management as it begins the road to Russia.

Load up on world-class commentators. Soccer coverage is often judged through the prism of the game commentator. On this note, Fox should let Ian Darke know through intermediaries that they are interested in his services when his ESPN contract expires after the 2016 European Championships. I’m sure ESPN will want to keep Darke -- and he’s enjoyed his time in Bristol -- but like most elite broadcasters, he'll also wants to call the pinnacle of his sport. Adding him would immediately quell some of the the anti-Gus crowd. I’d also inquire about the availability of Martin Tyler, Jon Champion, Derek Rae, Adrian Healey, Arlo White, John Strong (who already works part-time for Fox Sports) and Phil Schoen. On-air credibility in soccer starts with the game-caller. If you are sticking with Johnson -- and I believe Fox is committed to him -- putting world-class talent around him on the other games will help immensely. I’d also advise Fox Sports not fall into the trap that U.S. audiences need and want Americans calling the sport: They want the best people doing it. 

Immediately assign on-air reporters to cover the U.S. Women’s National Team and U.S. Men’s National Team. Such assignments helps you multifold. First, it shows your viewers that you are interested in both teams on a longitudinal basis. Next, viewers know that you have staffers who are really expert on the national team as opposed to someone parachuting in with lesser contacts. Third, it gives you a chance to beat ESPN and others on news, something Fox Sports rarely does. Fourth, it provides content on Fox Sports Live, America’s Pregame and other studio shows that also doubles as promoting your soccer properties. I’d argue the dollar costs would be much more valuable than a 12th NFL analyst or a college football personality trolling Southern fan bases. 

Impress viewers at the 2015 Women’s World Cup. This is a big opportunity for Fox Sports given the favorable time difference (the event will be held throughout Canada) and that the United States will be among the favorites. Let me give you a sense of how seriously ESPN approached this event in 2011. The hosts were Bob Ley and Rebecca Lowe, who now hosts NBC’s Premier League coverage. The lead team announcing team was Darke and Julie Foudy. The second team was Healey and Kate Markgraf. The third team was Beth Mowins and Cat Whitehill. ESPN sent a clear message to viewers that they were serious about the coverage with proven people, and the final between the United States and Japan -- Japan won in penalties -- was seen by 13.458 million viewers, a then-record for the most-watched and highest-rated soccer telecast on an ESPN network. Given the company invested big money in Canadian 30-something heartthrobs Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, why not send the highly paid podcasters to Vancouver to host Fox Sports Live onsite for the semis (which are in Montreal and Edmonton) and the finals (Vancouver)? We’ll learn a lot about Fox on how they broadcast this tournament. They could really earn a ton of goodwill with soccer fans next year. 

Ride out the storm with Gus Johnson. Fox Sports president Eric Shanks has invested a lot in making Johnson a soccer caller and he should stick with his plan. Yes, I know the soccer diehards reading this disagree with me. (Feel free to trash me in the comments section). I believe Johnson will keep improving as he calls big matches and gets more soccer reps. Will he ever reach the level of Darke, Champion et al? No way. But I do think with quality game-callers around him, he’ll be fine for the World Cup when you can dial down on the specific teams you’ll be calling.

On this note, find a permanent partner for Johnson. It’s been a revolving cast with Johnson so far from Ian Wright to Warren Barton to Eric Wynalda. None has been the winning fit, though Barton has been best of the lot. Keep experimenting until you get it right. Can you imagine Gus and Ray Hudson? Okay, that might be too insane. Or just the perfect kind of insane.

Use the resources of Sky Sports. The Murdoch-owned network has a ton of people with soccer experience, especially since Sky will air the Champions League through 2015. (The BBC and ITV will split broadcast rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in the UK). Rent the best ones as ESPN did with Lowe when they brought her over from ESPN UK in 2011. Speaking of resources, Watch ESPN has been an incredible resource for ESPN during the World Cup, especially given the afternoon games. Fox Sports Go must match the capacity and funcitionality in 2018.

•Embrace ESPN’s studio show tonnage. Russia is an expensive country to do business in and Fox Sports isn’t in the same financial shape as ESPN. If you have to air some studio programming back from L.A. during the World Cup, soccer viewers will be fine with it as long as you bring in quality people and have the tonnage. First up: Steal ESPN’s idea and adopt a 90-minute postgame show for Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2. That means finding quality voices who know world soccer. I’d pay big money to swipe Roberto Martinez and Steve McManaman if available. This is also where you can load up on former U.S. National Team members such as Landon Donovan. If Julie Foudy, Kasey Keller, Alexi Lalas or Taylor Twellman are contractually available, these would be no-brainer hires given their experience. If you want an outside the box suggestion for 2018, look into Tim Howard, who did eight games last year for NBC Sports Network and would be a marketing coup for Fox given his knowledge of the team in 2018. 

•Avoid the drug of using pseudo-celebrities. We’re not far removed from Fox using Michael Strahan during a Champions League final to compare football and futbol. Not a good moment. Fox Sports also has the tendency to push what it believes is an edgy ethos compared to ESPN by bringing in someone loud (e.g. Piers Morgan) with a flimsy connection to a sport. If the network goes down this road for 2018, it will get crushed on social media channels and deservedly so. ESPN World Cup executive producer Jed Drake has said ESPN's research has shown that catering to knowledgeable soccer fans is most effective way to broadcast the World Cup. That research is dead on.

•Embrace soccer analytics. We’ve seen the past couple of years soccer make great strides in analytics and motion research, and the soccer sabermetric crowd will only grow over the next four years. Whether as a big digital play (which would be very smart), an on-air person, or incorporating advance stats into the broadcast, Fox Sports should think about how soccer analytics can aid the broadcast of their major soccer properties. 

•Pay attention to Telemundo. While Fox was outbidding ESPN and NBC for the U.S. English-speaking rights -- Sports Business Journal reported the total rights fee to be between $400 to $500 million -- NBCUniversal’s Telemundo paid $600 million for the U.S. Spanish TV rights. That’s a big check and you know Telemundo is going to go all-out with its coverage. The U.S.’s demographics are also changing --  Hispanic TV audiences in the States grow yearly -- so Fox Sports management should recognize Telemundo is a serious threat to siphon audience. I’ve been impressed during this tournament how aggressive Univision has been to push out when they beat ESPN in local markets. There will be other options for viewers.

•Steal Bob Ley from ESPN -- even if it’s a rental. Rob Stone and Curt Menefee are near-locks for two of the World Cup host spots. Stone has legit soccer credentials and while he was sometimes a little too rah-rah for my tastes when he covered the U.S. National Team for ESPN’s TV arms, he absolutely knows and loves the sport and has improved as a studio show pilot. Menefee has anchored Fox’s Champions League coverage and Fox Sports management is high on him. Julie Stewart-Binks and Georgie Thompson, both with soccer bona fides, should be used in some form here as well. But getting Ley would be a coup for multiple reasons and here’s the biggest: Given Fox has no front-facing talent with the journalistic bona fides of Ley, he’s the perfect person to handle things when the Big Boy journalism stuff (corruption, protests, match-fixing, injuries) comes out of Russia. No one else on sports television has more experience hosting World Cup coverage. Don’t assume he’s locked into ESPN, especially if they keep playing games with Outside The Lines’s programming slots. 

THE NOISE REPORT examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:

1. There’s plenty to like about ESPN’s tennis coverage. The tonnage is terrific, commentators such as Darren Cahill, Chris Fowler, Chris Evert, Chris McKendry, John and Patrick McEnroe, and Pam Shriver are generally excellent, and the sport is marketed externally by the network with respect. Broadcasts are rife with conflicts of interest, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Amid strong work for most of the fortnight, ESPN’s tennis coverage had some very bad moments last week involving the withdrawal of Serena Williams from her second-round doubles match. The nadir were borderline reckless statements from Evert bringing up the specter of drugs (“Is it something unintentional or intentional in her system that they may drug test for?”) and Shriver following up that “they have drug testing at all the majors.” Those statements came with zero reporting and were, to be mild, overreaching significantly.

Also unfair to Williams, ESPN convened a staff panel the following day without mentioning ESPN’s major role in pushing out Williams speculation (and getting easy cover with Martina Navratilova’s comments). Host Hannah Storm said there was “a lot of speculation by the press here which certainly loves to run with anything dramatic” without acknowledging her own network running with Usain Bolt-like speed on the topic the day before. That’s the kind of stuff I expect from First Take, and not a smarter production.

Shriver and Evert were well within reason (and I’d argue quite thoughtful) in saying Williams should not have been on the court that day, and all of us who cover tennis have experienced Serena’s camp being heavy-handed and short with information. Serena has since said she has a viral illness and Fox Sports 1 analyst Andy Roddick said Williams texted him saying “I’m not well” after the match. The truth on what ails Serena remains a mystery but, as a news subject, I thought she deserved better than what she received from ESPN. 

Some Twitter reaction when I asked readers if they thought the coverage was fair or unfair:

1a.  ESPN’s programming decisions are usually on-point for tennis but they missed badly on Saturday by not airing the Wimbledon doubles final live on ESPN, a match that featured three American players (Bob and Mike Bryan and Jack Sock). The issue wasn’t starting with the doubles match -- Petra Kvitova’s blowout win in the women’s final prompted the need for ESPN to fill the window with something -- but continuing to replay the Novak Djokovic- Grigor Dimitrov semifinal after the men’s doubles match (which followed the ladies’ doubles final on Centre Court) started. The majority of ESPN’s tennis audience would have clearly preferred a live doubles final over the conclusion of a result they already knew. Not everyone gets nor uses ESPN3, which is where the match aired, despite the company pushing how many millions of homes it is available in. As one ATP person told me, “I couldn’t believe it.”

2. ESPN said it drew 6.349 million viewers for its coverage of Brazil’s win over Colombia Friday while Univision averaged 5.5 million viewers. That’s a big number for a non-U.S. quarterfinal and set a quarterfinal record for the World Cup viewership on ESPN/ABC, topping the 5.71 million viewers who watched ABC’s coverage of Argentina-Germany on July 3, 2010 in South Africa. The France-Germany quarterfinal drew 4.9 million viewers on ESPN and 4.7 million on Univision, another big number.

2a. The Netherlands win over Costa Rica in a shootout on Saturday was watched by 5.791 million viewers on ESPN. Argentina’s win over Belgium drew 5.183 million viewers on ABC.

2b. Through Sunday the highest-rated markets for World Cup matches on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC were: 1. Washington DC; 2. New York; 3. San Francisco; T4. Los Angeles and San Diego; 6. Hartford/New Haven; T7. Orlando and Miami/Ft. Lauderdale 9. Richmond and 10. West Palm Beach

2c. Sports Business Daily reporter Ryan Baucom reported that the average Twitter gain per U.S. National Team player was over 169,000 while the average Instagram gain was over 29,600 during the World Cup.

2d. Twitter Sports said there were 12.4 million tweets sent during the Brazil vs. Colombia match, second most during the World Cup

2e. Univision’s Round of 16 coverage averaged 4.4 million total viewers, up 22 percent from 2010. The coverage across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC averaged 5.582 million for the quarterfinals, up 29 percent since 2010.

2f. NBC Sports, taking advantage of the massive Tim Howard love across America, produced a spot featuring Howard for its upcoming Premier League coverage:

2g.  ESPN said through 59 matches WatchESPN had an average of 835,000 unique viewers watching each match. 

3. “Lead Off,” the CBS Sports Network late-night show co-hosted by Doug Gottlieb and Allie LaForce has been canceled. (Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand was first on the news). The network said it was due to LaForce moving to a new role as a sideline reporter on CBS’ Saturday SEC game and Gottlieb’s radio show being simulcast daily on CBSSN, beginning August 25. Gottlieb’s radio show will originate from the CBS Sports Radio studios in New York City.

4. Sports pieces of note:

•Via Deadspin: How the UFC's biggest show of the year turned into a ridiculous fiasco.  

•Excellent roundtable from Grantland on the World Cup tournament for the United States. 

•SI’s Michael McCann and Robert Raiola analyze the different tax implications of possible LeBron James landing spots

•SB Nation’s David Roth profiles the teenagers who tricked NBA Twitter with a fake Adrian Wojnarowski account.

•Fox’s Flinder Boyd had a long examination of  how Javaris Crittenton went from an NBA first-round pick to standing trial on a murder charge.

Non sports pieces of the week:

•This Anna Clark opinion piece on Detroit shutting off the water of its residents is worth your time. 

What it means to be Russian – a photo essay by Misha Friedman.

•The children of Richard Dreyfuss offer their modern take on Jaws

•This was a great first-person piece on working in the celebrity food industry

•The secret of effective motivation

•More brilliant prose from The Economist obit writers.  

•How outrage is rewarded on social media.

5. Thanks to the Sochi Games and big numbers for Premier League and the NHL postseason, NBC Sports Network set records for viewing in the first half of 2014. The network said it averaged 203,000 total day viewers (6 a.m.-6 a.m.), the most-watched January-June in for NBCSN. If you exclude the Winter Olympics, NBCSN averaged 150,000 viewers -- up 38 percent from 2013. Small numbers compared to ESPN, but big for this network.

5a. Inside the numbers: NBCSN televised 62 Stanley Cup playoff games and averaged 1.227 million viewers, the most-watched NHL playoffs on cable since 1997.

5b. For its Premier League coverage: NBCSN averaged 476,000 viewers in February, 442,000 viewers in March, and 414,000 viewers in January.

 5c. ESPN announced a 10-year extension with Major League Eating, the company behind the Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. The agreement runs through 2024. ESPN has televised the event for the past 12 years.

5d. Podcaster Ken Fang interviewed Bob Ley and Ian Eagle

5e. Good work by ESPN Pravda to highlight the work of ESPN news editor Sandy Rosenbush.

5f. Barney Hall, the longtime voice of Motor Racing Network’s NASCAR coverage, is moving out of play-by-play after calling races for 56 years.