NEW YORK — David Neal, the executive producer of Fox’s FIFA World Cup coverage, likes to call the host country of the World Cup “the 33rd character in the tournament.” Neal is a longtime television producer with a résumé that fills up pages, including producing nine Olympics (for NBC), four NBA Finals, two World Series and a Super Bowl pregame show. But the upcoming World Cup presentation in Russia will be among his trickiest assignments. He has soccer stars across the globe to highlight (Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Hazard) but he’ll be airing games from a country that nearly every American has an opinion on—with many of those opinions not suitable for family audiences. Fox Sports will send 450 people to Russia for what is the the largest production in the network’s 24-year history. Along with a tough place for media companies to do business—fixers will be everywhere—it will be a tricky line to thread given the geopolitics. That is something Neal and his bosses know very well.
“It’s a delicate balance, but guided by our belief that World Cup viewers will watch because they want to see the games along with news and analysis related to the tournament,” said Neal.
“Having spent time there and the people we have gotten to know, they want their country to be seen by the world,” added Fox Sports president Eric Shanks. “It’s similar to why they put on the Olympics. We want to respect the feeling that they have being proud of their country and we want to tell those stories. I think we should respect the fact they are going to all this effort and wanting to invite the world into their country. They are proud of their culture and diversity. We do want to shine a light on the positives. Who knows what will be happening next summer [regarding news] but we will address it if need be.”
Last week Fox hosted a 2018 FIFA World Cup celebration in New York City, the nominal start to the marketing campaign for the coverage which begins June 14, 2018. The network will air 350 hours of World Cup programming including half of the games airing on over-the-air FOX. There will be more matches on broadcast television than the last four World Cups combined. Match times are 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. ET every day. Shanks said because of the time zone difference, he believed it would be the most digitally consumed World Cup ever.
Neal and Shanks both said Fox Sports learned a lot of lessons from their coverage of the Women’s World Cup, one of the best productions the network has done. Fox Sports 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. “I think we proved we are more than qualified custodians of this property,” said Neal, after the conclusion of that tournament. “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.”
The viewership of that tournament was a wild success. Fox averaged a remarkable 25.4 million viewers for the title game, making it the most-viewed soccer game ever on English TV in the United States—men’s or women’s—by a giant margin. (The previous most-viewed soccer game in the U.S. came in 2014 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% over the 1,511,000 averaged on ESPN and ESPN2 for the 32 matches played in 2011.
“The bar is already set very high for soccer,” said Shanks. “It has the youngest and most affluent audience of all the sports. In 2015 our coverage of the Women’s World Cup shattered all soccer records. I think right now we have arguably the best soccer team in the world as far as producing and on-air talent. We have broad experience from around the world. There is a bulls-eye in the soccer audience that is the hardcore fan and we are aiming for the bulls-eye. We were rewarded for that in the Women’s World Cup. You aim for that bulls-eye and everybody else can catch fire.”
Assuming (knock on wood) the Americans make the tournament, Fox will obvious center much of its coverage around the draw of the U.S. Men’s National Team. They will also smartly embrace the Mexican national team—the team’s coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, appeared on stage in New York for the Fox presentation. Fox is marketing El Tri as its second team.
Daytime and late-night studio coverage will air from a set in Moscow’s Red Square. There will be three studio shows—World Cup Live (airing at 6 a.m. ET); World Cup Today (prior to matches) and World Cup Tonight (airing after matches). The network said it will air 15 original series on FOX Sports Go and has partnered with National Geographic for a multi-platform visual experience. They have also hired Russian pianist and composer Kirill Richter and musician and DJ Rudenko to capture a musical flavor of the country.
The coverage should increase the visibility of soccer host Kate Abdo, who is a unique talent in sports broadcasting. She is fluent in four languages— German, French, English and Spanish—which makes her an immense asset for a global publication and sport. She will host the morning show daily.
“We are not filled with highlights or action; we can get to talking points of the day which is important in American television because it is so fast moving,” Abdo said. “I really like that extra space. In one way, we want the show to be fun, something you start your day with, something that you tune in over a Good Morning America or whatever it night be. We hope that it doesn’t feel like such a soccer show that you have to be a huge fan to watch it. Anybody should feel welcome. But there is also a balance. You have to cater to the non-soccer fan who perhaps in America isn’t as deeply rooted in the game as you might expect someone in Europe who has grown up with the game in a different way. But you also have to cater to the real soccer nerd who is massively into the game and follows it week to week. We have to find language that appeals to both people.”
One interesting news note to keep in the back of your mind: Neal, who has traveled to Russia 14 times since Fox landed the World Cup, said they will request Russian President Vladimir Putin for an on-camera interview. If they get him, Neal said, it will be a Fox Sports person doing the interview.
“I think we have a reasonable chance of success here,” Neal said.