If you think the U.S. team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup was devastating for the players, consider Rob Stone’s disappointment.
The Fox Sports broadcaster has been covering soccer for two decades and had been selected to host the network’s wall-to-wall coverage of this summer’s tournament when its biggest attraction came up a goal short in the final qualifier in Trinidad, missing the event for the first time since 1986.
“Initially the blow was absolutely staggering,” Stone said. “I was aimlessly walking around Manhattan Beach looking for answers to life and not getting them.
“But the mourning period passed and the opportunity to finally be in the big chair for the World Cup was always out there and was always going to be this great motivation to succeed this summer.”
The question now becomes how to measure that success. Fox Sports paid more than $400 million for the English-language broadcast rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Without a U.S. team, the network will struggle to lure a jingoistic American viewing public to games that will, in many cases, kick off during the morning commute on the East Coast and before sunrise on the West Coast.
As a result, ratings will suffer. Four years ago in Brazil, with much friendlier start times, ESPN averaged 4.6 million viewers per game with the four games featuring the U.S. accounting for almost 20% of the total audience. Given that history and the U.S. qualifying failure, it could cost Fox Sports as much as $20 million in advertising revenue during the month-long tournament, according to some reports. Other estimates put the losses at twice that.
Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research Group, doesn’t dispute those figures but cautions that the losses hardly will be devastating to the network.
“It’s not the end of the world,” said Wieser, who believes the early kickoffs will hurt viewership more than the national team’s absence. “It would be better to have the U.S. in it than not. But I think there’s less of a negative impact.”
There is good news, though. Freed from the obligation to center its coverage on a U.S. team that has made it as far as the quarterfinals just once in the modern era, Fox Sports can go all in on the biggest stories of the day, whether it’s Lionel Messi’s bid for a first world championship, Mexico’s push for that elusive fifth game or tiny Iceland’s quixotic World Cup debut.
“Now there are 32 teams to concentrate on, 32 stories,” said David Neal, the executive producer of Fox Sports’ World Cup coverage. “If you add in the host country, putting aside the Russian team, it’s 33 different protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains that you get to tell the story of.”
Fox Sports certainly hasn’t gutted its coverage plans, although it has scaled back. Originally it planned to send 450 people to Russia; the number now is 200, including just two broadcast teams.
ESPN used five broadcast teams in Brazil and Telemundo will have four teams in Russia working the tournament in Spanish.
But Fox Sports has gone ahead with plans to build a studio in Moscow’s Red Square, from where it will produce more than 300 hours of content for Fox and FS1 — 1,100 hours if you count digital. And it will cover at least 34 of the tournament’s 64 games live from the stadium.
The rest will be narrated by four broadcast pairs — Aly Wagner and Derek Rae; Glenn Davis and Cobi Jones; Jorge Perez-Navarro and Mariano Trujillo; Mark Followill and Warren Barton — who will be among the 200 Fox staffers working on World Cup coverage out of the Fox studios in West L.A.
Thirty-eight games will be shown on the main Fox network. That’s more games on broadcast TV than were aired during the last four World Cups combined, Neal said.
Looming over it all, though, is the absence of the U.S. team. Neal said he and many coworkers were as depressed as Stone at the national team’s qualifying failure. So the next morning Eric Shanks, the president of Fox Sports, gathered some of the major players in a conference room for a much-needed pep talk.
“Look,” Shanks told them, “anybody can go and produce an event where you’re got the United States. This is where we prove ourselves as producers.”
“And it’s really kind of been the rallying cry for everyone from that day forward,” Neal said. “It kind of gave us a mandate to say ‘Go out and show what you can do.’ And it also said we’re not taking our foot off the gas pedal. It’s full on.”
Stone calls the World Cup “the greatest sporting event on our planet,” one that was watched by an estimated 3.2 billion people worldwide in 2014. He’s banking on that World Cup enthusiasm to help Fox overcome another hurdle: the fact many of the group-stage games will begin at 5 a.m. Pacific time.
“I don’t think we approach anything differently,” he said. “We’re going to be at the World Cup. We’re going to be in Russia, we’re going to be living the excitement of it. So it’s impossible for us to dial anything back.”
Stone got his professional introduction to the World Cup in 1998, when he worked the tournament as a reporter for ESPN. Analyst Stu Holden, who will join play-by-play man John Strong on the lead broadcast team in Russia, got his World Cup start as a player in 2010. JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola comprise the other duo.
“There were two times when my phone has blown up,” Holden said. “One was when I stepped on the field in the World Cup. I got back to about 6,000 texts.”
The other was when he appeared in a commercial for Fox Sports’ World Cup coverage during the Super Bowl. He, too, says his job in Russia won’t change despite the fact that the World Cup is now an American-free tournament being played before dawn half a world away.
“My job, ultimately, is to provide insight into what it’s like being on the field, experiencing different game situations,” said Holden, who considers his brief World Cup appearance a highlight of his playing career.
“The viewers need to know what went into that moment and how big that is in terms of someone’s life. Your life could be changed from the World Cup, from one great moment.”