Choosing whatever metric you wish—from viewer satisfaction to critical praise to high ratings—ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and the 2011 Women’s World Cup was a rousing success. There are few things the network has done better in its history than its presentation of soccer’s World Cup events.
So you can understand why soccer fans are skeptical with the switch from ESPN to Fox Sports, which owns the U.S. media rights to both the men’s and women’s event through the 2026 World Cup. Fox is a first-time broadcaster for this event, has never distinguished itself editorially on hard news regarding the sport and has had a revolving door of lead broadcasters. But this month’s Women’s World Cup, which kicks off on June 6 and concludes July 5 at Vancouver's BC Place, gives Fox Sports a huge opportunity to brand itself as an A-plus steward of the sport.
“First of all I would say: don’t judge us until you see us on the air,” said David Neal, the executive producer for Fox’s Women’s World Cup coverage and a longtime NBC Sports executive. “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.”
On the surface, the coverage is very promising. Here’s the SI.com guide to Fox’s WWC coverage:
What is the television schedule for the tournament?
Fox Sports will televise live all 52 games from the tournament. Sixteen matches are scheduled to air on big FOX, including five in primetime. FOX will air the final weekend of matches, including the first semifinal on June 30 (7 p.m. ET), the third-place match on July 4 (4 p.m. ET) and the final on July 5 (7 p.m. ET). FOX Sports 1 will air 29 matches, including all Round of 16 matches, two quarterfinal matches and one semifinal (July 1). FOX Sports 2 will air seven games.
What kind of pre- and post-match coverage will exist?
Following in the footsteps of ESPN’s World Cup coverage, FOX will air a 60-minute version of Women’s World Cup Today prior to most matches. Some of those episodes will be shorter or longer depending on the time of the tournament. The network will also have a Women’s World Cup Tonight studio show airing after matches and late nights on FOX Sports 1. Most of the late-night shows will be an hour in duration, airing as early as 11 p.m. and as late as 2 a.m.
Fox has some live events on certain nights that will switch up the times.
“I won’t lie: I really liked (ESPN’s late-night show from the 2014 World Cup) a lot,” said Fox Sports president Eric Shanks. “It definitely was the impetus for this show, which will be laid back and conversational in nature. It’s not people sitting at a desk presenting. This will have a Canadian ski lodge feel. Whoever is in town doing games that day will come by and be on and have a beverage or two.”
Which announcers will be calling U.S. games?
JP Dellacamera, Cat Whitehill and Tony DiCicco will announce all of the USWNT's group games.
“They called a non-US game last November—an England-Germany friendly from Wembley Stadium that had a ton of energy to it—and it felt like a world-class event,” Neal said. “JP, Cat and Tony were equal to the moment. It’s a capricious business in terms of making talent judgments but this threesome that we have, they are equal to the task.”
Who are the rest of the broadcast teams?
John Strong and Danielle Slaton; Glenn Davis and Christine Latham; Jenn Hildreth and Kyndra de St. Aubin; Justin Kutcher and Aly Wagner.
What about the studio analysts?
The group includes Alexi Lalas, Heather Mitts, Eric Wynalda, Leslie Osborne, Angela Hucles, Kelly Smith, Ariane Hingst, Monica Gonzalez, Christine Latham and Dr. Joe Machnik. The hosts are Kate Abdo and Rob Stone.
“This is the most significant women’s sporting event on the planet and you need significant women’s voices and women’s opinions,” Neal said.
“This was by design. We wanted informed opinions from women who are contemporary to the sport. We want women like Heather Mitts, who can speak to what it is like to be a teammate of Abby Wambach and play against Marta. So can Kelli, Monica and Ari.” Neal said that Abdo is an on-air person “who has that intangible ‘It’ and I think our audience will take to her very quickly.”
How many broadcasters in total does Fox have on air?
Fox has 28 on-air people with a combined 1,300 international caps and 78 World Cup games played.
Does Fox have any outside-the-box analysts?
Yes, the network added Dr. John Gallucci to serve as a medical analyst for the coverage. The network said Gallucci is available by satellite from New York to discuss key injuries during the tournament as they happen. Gallucci, the medical coordinator for Major League Soccer, is scheduled to appear as needed during pregame, halftime and postgame shows as well as other World Cup programming.
Should viewers look at Fox’s WWC coverage as a trial run for the 2018 World Cup?
Said Shanks: “In some respects, yes. In some respects, no. The one thing we have never done before is pick up and move somewhere for a whole month and figure out how to technically shuttle so many people and so much data from country to country and venue to venue, and be on the air every day for so long. So in that respect, it is sort of a dry run and we have great people doing it. Getting David Neal on board was a huge stroke of luck and he has done a great job organizing everything. Now, in the other respect, we definitely believe there is interest in the Women’s World Cup in and of itself. So this is not just getting ready for the men. This tournament is going to be fantastic. It’s in the right time zone and we are one of the favorites to win. The women’s team has its own unique attraction and fanbase and I feel like there is real traction to make this a cultural event outside of a sporting event.”
How will Fox cover FIFA’s myriad issues, including arrests and allegations of corruption?
Neal said Sports lllustrated writer and Fox soccer commentator Grant Wahl is the on-air point person for FIFA coverage.
“We will not shy away from the story but at the same time we don’t want it to detract for the event,” Neal said. “One thing that you cannot have happen is for the athletes to be negatively affected by any situation, and I think that carries over to the coverage of the event. Abby Wambach, for example, the only reason she is still playing is because she has not won a World Cup yet. So we are not going to detract from that, but at the same time, we are going to aggressively cover the news.”
What’s something outside the box you like?
Fox has licensed music from Florence + The Machine as the backdrop for the coverage. The network gained the rights to all 11 songs featured on Florence + The Machine’s new album, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” along with nine additional cuts from the group's catalog, including hit songs “Shake It Out” and “Dog Days Are Over.”
How will Fox handle feature profiles?
There are potentially 45 other games not involving the U.S. team, which is one of the reasons Fox created an Olympic–style feature unit for the WWC. The network said that it has produced more than 60 player and team profiles that will air during the tournament. The features will air throughout the event on FOX, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2.
Every feature, including extended “director’s cut” versions for many, is available on www.FOXSports.com and distributed across FOX Sports Digital social media accounts. Subjects include Americans Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Christie Rampone and Abby Wambach, German midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan and Norway’s Maren Mjelde. Here’s a piece I wrote that covers one of the productions the features unit has already released on American Megan Rapinoe.
What will Fox’s main set look like?
Fox’s on-air media headquarters is at the Vancouver Convention Centre in Jack Poole Plaza, a 7,500-square foot compound. The network said the set features different looks for television, including a main stage, a day lounge with a water backdrop, an evening lounge with a cityscape and a soccer demonstration field. “You have to create a destination in the viewers' mind,” Neal said. “Not only must you present the action, but you have to assemble a cast they enjoy spending time with and create a place they would like to go.”
How much will Fox discuss FIFA’s shameful decision to play this tournament on turf rather than grass?
“We have been supportive of the athletes from the very beginning of this controversy, and I believe we have been the most consistent platform for the players to speak,” Neal said. Fox says there is a feature piece on the issue that will air early in the coverage, and the network pledged to follow and report on the storyline during the tournament.
How will Fox balance between wanting the U.S. to advance and being objective to the opposition?
“You don’t want to be cheerleaders, but at the same time you want your commentators to be authentic,” Neal said. “If Kelly [Smith] or Ari [Ariane Hingst] or Monica [Gonzalez] or Heather [Mitts] refer to their former team as ‘We’ on occasion, not only do we not think this is the end of the world, but we think it’s authentic to the viewer.”
Any notable pre-tournament comments by an analyst?
Yes, here’s Gonzalez on the relationship between FIFA and women’s soccer: “In many ways, the women’s game is separate from FIFA. We know they’re looking over us and they’re supposed to take care of us, but there’s only a small amount of money that’s required to go from FIFA to the women’s game. Most of the female teams we’ve seen that have been built up—the big burst that we’ve seen on the fringe lately—that’s their own doing. That comes from within that federation. In many ways the women’s game has grown because of the work that’s been done on home soil and with the women themselves.”
Will there be same-day highlights and replays?
Neal said there will likely be same-day highlights of goals and action on FOXSports.com. There will also be overnight airings of games on Fox Sports Go.
What will the on-air graphics be like?
Here's a look at Fox's opening animation and several other graphics developed by Fox graphics producer Eboni Freeman for the WWC coverage.
Staffers like Freeman, who managed the graphic project through concept, design, production and delivery, work long hours behind the scenes to amplify what you'll be watching this month.
What kind of access will Fox have to the U.S. team?
Reporter Jenny Taft has embedded with the team since the CONCACAF qualifiers. Taft stays at the same hotels and has been a frequent part of camp. Look for Fox to take advantage of team videos and Instagram pictures.
. “We will try to get as much from them as we can, with this team being their own reporters in a sense,” Shanks said.
Julie Stewart-Binks will serve as a reporter, including working 11 of the 36 group-stage games from four different cities. Wahl serves as correspondent-at-large.
How will Fox Sports executives define success?
“I hope we have millions of American viewers going into withdrawal because they don’t have Fox soccer to watch anymore,” Neal said. “Certainly there is the empirical measure of ratings. But I want people to judge us on the merits of what we do in the World Cup. I want people to go in with an open mind saying, Let’s see how Fox covers the World Cup. I’m not trying to be naive about this. I think if people give us a clear-minded look at what we are doing and listen to what we are saying and how we are representing it, I think people will be very pleased. We see this as a powerful moment for female athletes and you will see that reflected in our storytelling and our coverage.”
Three questions with Kate Abdo
The Sky Sports News (UK) journalist and veteran European soccer host will join Stone as Fox’s lead studio host during the tournament.
SI.com: How would you define your role for Fox at the WWC?
Abdo: I'm here predominantly to host “Women’s World Cup Tonight,” which is a show we'll do every evening on Fox, rounding up the day's action. But it won't just be your usual highlights show. It'll be a relaxed, fun show, where we tackle the big talking points of each day, and also roll on to look ahead at the matches and issues of the following day. This is the show where you'll get more of a feel for the personalities of our analysts, as they enjoy breaking down whatever really stood out to them that day. We want it to be as we would chat backstage—but on air. We also hope to have some big-name guests who have a passion and interest in the women's game. On the days that there are numerous kick-off times, I'll also share the hosting with Rob Stone and do some of the around-the-game coverage.
SI.com: How much did you personally advocate for this role versus Fox Sports execs reaching out to you for this tournament?
SI's World Cup Covers
One of 25 covers honoring the USWNT's 2015 World Cup triumph
SI's five Women's World Cup Preview covers
Argentina's Daniel Passarella, 1978
Argentina's Diego Maradona, 1986
USA's Ernie Stewart, 1994
Brazil's Marcio Santos, 1994
USA's Brandi Chastain, 1999
US Women's National Soccer Team, 1999
USA's Clint Mathis, 2002
USA Landon Donovan, 2002
USA's Mia Hamm, 2003
2006 USA team
2010 USA team
USA's Hope Solo, 2011
SI's four World Cup Preview covers
The three best soccer players in the world (Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez) and the captain of the U.S. national team (Clint Dempsey) on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine in 2014.
Abdo: I was really fortunate that this opportunity was presented to me. I was hosting an event in Austria that some of Fox's top execs happened to be at, and on the back of that Fox got in touch to ask if I'd be interested in working with them on the Women's World Cup. It wasn't something I personally pushed for, but I am really grateful for the opportunity, and over the last months I've already had the chance to cover a number of the USWNT's friendlies, hosting out of L.A.
It's a great team to work with, and I feel privileged to be part of Fox's incredible coverage plans.
SI.com: In your brief time working for a U.S. broadcaster, what are some of the differences you have witnessed regarding production and broadcasting styles here in the States versus Sky Sports and German TV?
Abdo: I love U.S. sports broadcasts. I think in Europe we can tend to overcomplicate it. In the U.S., you watch a sports program, and you enjoy it. It's energetic, pacy, analysts and hosts show their personalities—it's fun to be a viewer just as much as it's fun to be a host. I think in Europe the coverage tends to be slightly more reserved, and can therefore feel less dynamic. I'm excited to be part of the Fox team these next weeks. I know it will be a fun ride.