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Fox's in-game broadcasting shining in World Cup; studio coverage faltering

As the end of the 2015 Women's World Cup's group stage draws near, Fox's in-game broadcasting is shining while studio coverage is falling short

If one was to judge Fox’s Women’s World Cup coverage based on the viewership numbers through the group stage of the tournament, the event has been an unqualified success. Last Friday’s U.S.-Sweden match drew 4.5 million viewers, the most-watched Women’s World Cup group stage game ever and the most-watched soccer match in Fox history (topping the 2011 Champions League Final between Barcelona and Manchester United that drew 2.6 million viewers).

USA vs. Sweden, which peaked from 9:30–9:45 p.m. ET with 6.4 million viewers, now ranks as the fourth most-watched women’s soccer match of all-time behind the 1999 USA-China WWC Final (17.975 million viewers), the 2011 WWC Final between Japan and the U.S. (13.458 million) and the Brazil-USA semifinal in 1999 (4.924 million). Through the first seven days of the 2015 WWC, Fox had averaged 998,000 viewers across its networks, up 47% over what ESPN did in 2011 (678,000 viewers).

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So that part of the story is very good. On the production end, Fox’s game coverage and feature work has been excellent. The various sets Fox has used have the look of something viewers would see at an Olympics. The announcing teams have been strong, with standout work from the announcing team of Jenn Hildreth and Kyndra de St. Aubin.

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“I think we have actually exceeded our collective expectations,” said David Neal, the executive producer for Fox’s Women’s World Cup coverage, by phone on Monday. “We have treated this like the big event that it is and we have even elevated it in perception for the American audience. It has a big-time feel, which is what we committed to doing from the outset."

Neal said one of the specific places where the coverage has exceeded his expectations was inside the stadiums, thanks in large part to the images provided by the Host Broadcast Services (HBS), which produces all matches in HD for the host broadcasters. Pre-match arrivals and post-match images are provided by HBS and those have been a useful commodity for Fox, which like all broadcasters has the option to use or not. (For instance, Fox stayed on-air after Colombia’s win over France for the celebration and dejection shots.)

Where Fox’s game coverage has been excellent, the studio coverage has fallen short from what ESPN gave viewers for the 2014 Men's World Cup and the 2011 Women's World Cup. On that end, I was very critical of the dismissive comments made by studio analysts Leslie Osborne and Eric Wynalda regarding the Outside The Lines report on Hope Solo. The on-camera group for Fox that day came off as little more than auxiliary PR for Solo and U.S. Soccer. How did Neal view that?

“I think it is case of perception versus reality,” Neal said. “The first point I would make is we covered the press conference of [U.S. coach] Jill Ellis and Carli Lloyd live start to finish. Secondly, if you have spent anytime with our analysts, you’d know that we are not going to put words in their mouth. We provided a live forum for our announcers to express their opinions. A lot of the opinions you heard were based on them having player mindsets, and if you look at them through the lens of player getting ready to start the most important event in your sport, that’s how you filter it out. I think that’s what you heard from Leslie and Eric. But on our show that day you also heard Ari [analyst Ariane Hingst] say that if this were the German team, Hope would not have a place on that team. So we offered up a range of opinions and the one consistent thing about them was that they were all genuine.”

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(Note: Monica Gonzalez, Ariane Hingst (Germany) and Kelly Smith (England) have accounted themselves well. So have hosts Kate Abdo (England) and Rob Stone (U.S.), as well as analyst Alexi Lalas (U.S.).

While I have no doubt those opinions were genuine, as I wrote, it speaks to who the analysts are beholden to first and foremost, and I’d contend that Fox could use some more independent American voices on its studio set with zero ties to U.S. Soccer. I asked Neal how he viewed the thesis that his studio group was too aligned with U.S. Soccer as opposed to being more down the middle on issues.

“I could not disagree more,” Neal said. “Putting aside our international players, without exception, every one of our former U.S. players have questioned tactics the [U.S.] coaching staff has used, questioned lineups and selection of player groupings. None of our former U.S. players has done anything but speak their mind and been more than willing to criticize the team when warranted. I reject the notion that we are somehow pro-U.S. Soccer.”

(Note: Give full marks to Neal and Fox Sports PR for answering the questions. I’m still waiting for ESPN to make executive vice president Marie Donoghue available to interested readers on the topic of Bill Simmons and The Undefeated.)

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Like myself, Neal viewed the 0–0 draw with Sweden as creating more interest in the U.S. team heading forward. “The audience for that game not only stayed with us, but it built every quarter-hour,” Neal said. Normally, this would result in bigger numbers for the U.S.-Nigeria game on Tuesday night (Fox, 8 p.m. ET) but that match will be hurt by the NBA Finals game starting one hour later on ABC.

“There’s not a thing you can do about it anyway and what you have to do in a long-running event like this is focus on what you can control, and we are focusing on making sure that we have absolute complete coverage of all aspects of U.S.-Nigeria,” Neal said. “Whatever the NBA Finals impacts on it, so be it. Who knows? Maybe we will impact our friends at the NBA and take some audience from them. I don’t think that is an unreasonable thought.”

If the U.S. wins Group D, it’ll play a Round of 16 match against a third-place team in Edmonton on June 22. Finishing second in the group likely means a trip to Moncton on June 21. Neal said broadcaster performance in the opening round and geography would have a role in choosing the knockout-round assignments, which he hopes to conclude by Wednesday night. One thing is for certain: The team of JP Dellacamera-Cat Whitehill-Tony DiCicco will do all U.S. games and likely get the World Cup Final as well.

NOISE REPORT examines some of the biggest sports media stories of the week.

1. The top-rated markets for the U.S. WWC matches, according to Fox:

1. Washington D.C.

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2. Richmond

3. St. Louis

4. Baltimore

5. Hartford

6. Milwaukee

7. Providence

8. Kansas City

9. Dayton

T10. Las Vegas

10. Los Angeles

10. Norfolk

10. Philadelphia

1a. Neal said he viewed ESPN’s Outside The Lines dropping its story about Solo on the eve of Fox’s coverage as “their editorial decision.” He said outlets had to pay attention to it and react given “OTL’s credible history of reporting.”

2. Fox had 60 player features for the World Cup in the bag prior to the start of the WWC, and Neal said that the network is continuing to add more during the tournament. The final number of features will be around 75, and given Fox has a partnership with TSN, look for this terrific TSN piece on women’s soccer inside Brazil’s favelas to air on Fox during its coverage.

3. Fox WWC analyst Alexi Lalas offered strong comments about Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal issuing a letter to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati last week, urging the organization to conduct a thorough investigation into allegations made against USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo: “I don’t doubt that the senator takes the issue of domestic violence seriously, as we all do,” Lalas said. “In this case, this is a politician grandstanding and using the platform and the opportunity for a big media story at a time when the World Cup is on everybody’s mind to inject himself into the situation.”

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3a. And here’s Lalas on Abby Wambach’s comments that the U.S. team would have more goals in the Women's World Cup if it were being played on grass: “It’s weak. It’s completely weak and irritating to be quite honest … To blame the turf for her not scoring goals is ridiculous ... If she is pulling punches, that is a problem. That is a problem for the United States. And if the United States does not win the World Cup, I hate to break it to you, Abby, but it’s not going to be because of artificial surface.”

4. SiriusXM hired soccer Hall of Famer Michelle Akers as an analyst for its coverage of the Women’s World Cup on SiriusXM’s 24/7 soccer channel, SiriusXM FC (channel 94). Akers and former Rutgers University women’s head coach Glenn Crooks are hosting World Cup Now, a pre- and postgame show that airs before and after every U.S. women’s national team game. SiriusXM is simulcasting Fox Sports’s live play-by-play of every Women’s World Cup match from the group stage through the final on July 5 in Vancouver.

5. For those who want a quick primer of Fox’s coverage of the U.S. Open golf championships, the first golf major ever aired by Fox, I compiled some notes after talking to announcers and executives and sitting in on a Fox Sports golf conference call last week.

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5a. The Patriot League and CBSSports signed an extension in which the network will air Patriot League men’s and women’s basketball and men’s lacrosse as well as a variety of other sports. The deal provides for a minimum of 24 total live events in each year of the agreement.

5b.The Boston Globe sports columnist Kevin Paul Dupont agrees with the suggestion by NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus that hockey players should shave their beards during the Stanley Cup postseason.

5c.The latest SI Media Podcast features Joe Buck, the lead broadcaster for Fox Sports’s coverage of Major League Baseball, the NFL and the U.S. Open golf championship, and ESPN baseball writer and editor Christina Kahrl.

5d. Next week ESPN Radio’s SVP & Russillo show will formally change its name to The Russillo Show.