By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 22, 2018) US Soccer Players - With over a week of action now in the books, the 2018 World Cup is approaching its halfway point in terms of matches played. It’s not a bad time to take stock of the way broadcasters show the event on television in the United States.
Most viewers’ reactions to coverage of a big occasion like this tend to revolve around the on-camera personalities. If you’re interacting with fellow World Cup fans in any sense, whether in-person or online, you’ve seen plenty of these reactions and may have a few strong ones of your own. For me that’s low-hanging fruit, and I’m less interested in adding to that din of opinion in this space.
I’m most intrigued by the task – in this case, the job falls to Fox – of delivering this massive tournament to the general US audience in a way that works for everyone. Or, at the very least, hopefully, a majority. With each passing day of this World Cup, I’m adjusting my expectations downward, even as my respect for the magnitude of Fox’s assignment grows.
Broadcasts of Russia 2018 are available to many millions of viewers in both English (on Fox and its cable sports channel FS1) and Spanish (on Telemundo). That’s an interesting choice, and thus opportunity, for soccer watchers, and something of a challenge for the TV networks, particularly Fox.
Some people simply cannot get used to watching sports in a language they don’t speak. After decades of hunting for live soccer on any channel or medium they can get their hands on, that applies to fewer fans here than ever. Even if your Spanish is nonexistent, Univision and Telemundo offer a wealth of compelling options, from Liga MX to the Portuguese and English leagues to select MLS games and now, with wall-to-wall World Cup coverage on Telemundo.
This year marks Fox’s first airing of the men’s World Cup. They also hold the rights to the next two editions of the tournament, an overall eight-year package that reportedly cost them nearly $900 million. NBC-owned Telemundo spent even more, supposedly north of a cool billion.
Of note: Even those striking numbers are a bargain of sorts. FIFA offered the 2026 rights to only them, via a closed auction meant as an olive branch for the decision to move Qatar 2022 to the busier fall period. That kept ESPN and others from driving prices up with competing bids.
That said, those are enormous investments, and Fox is hardly a newcomer to this sport. It operated arguably the first prominent 24/7 soccer-first cable option to US audiences with the Fox Soccer Channel, which eventually became FS1, the home to nearly half of their Russia 2018 programming. The outlet’s particular weak spots long ago became infamous to hard-core viewers, though, leading to fretting about their World Cup presentation practically from the moment they won the rights in 2010.
Occasionally odd play-by-play calls, over-the-top graphics, a fondness for scorching “hot takes” from pundits, a recurring tendency to dumb things down for non-soccer-savvy audiences – a general sense of valuing flash more than substance. There was rarely any doubt that Fox was trying hard. The issue was more one of a lack of feel for what audiences wanted, in presentation terms, at that particular point.
Many of those doubters probably feel they're already right about this summer's World Cup. There’s plenty of pivotal action left, and thus ample opportunities to win over viewers. Yet, the broadcasts have for many been strangely inconsistent, caught in the no-man’s-land as the network labors to be all things to all people.
Reportedly eager to have American voices lead the way, Fox put familiar names and faces like Alexi Lalas, Stu Holden, and Aly Wagner in the spotlight alongside big regional and global names like Fernando Fiore, Clarence Seedorf, and Guus Hiddink. They’ve worked hard to seduce casual fans who might’ve drifted away from this event without their home team to support, leaning on tentpole attractions like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi perhaps to a fault. Simultaneously they’ve tried to connect with the more knowledgeable “soccer first” demographic, as well as the younger, more elusive, “extremely online” generations with social-media-centric offerings.
The network went big with their Red Square headquarters in Moscow. They packed its studio shows with familiar names and added new personalities in mid-stream as Lothar Matthaus was, strangely, replaced with Martin O’Neill earlier this week. Then there's the announce teams.
Only a third of their game commentators are actually at the matches they are covering in Russia. Holden, his partner John Strong and the team of JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola. The rest are calling the games off monitors in a Southern California studio. They’re all pros and have generally made the best of that challenge. Wagner and her partner Derek Rae are earning particular praise for their work. Still, it remains hard to understand why Fox decided that those costs, of all the many they’ve taken on for their World Cup ventures, were worth cutting.
There’s a subtle but unmistakable difference when a broadcaster is on site, and anyone who tunes in to Telemundo can feel it. Despite paying FIFA even more for the rights than Fox did, the Spanish network has committed to a fully immersive experience. Every single World Cup game is on their mothership network, available free over the air to much of the United States. Their shoulder programming is sunny, compelling, and has even roped in non-sports properties like their morning and news shows. The overall tone, the feel, is beguilingly vibrant.
I’ve made a point to watch both the Fox and Telemundo broadcasts, both the games themselves and the shoulder programming. Even with my kindergarten-level Spanish skills preventing me from absorbing the full nuances of the latter, I’ve found the differences to be striking, and tend to gravitate in Telemundo’s direction. I’m not alone. Early numbers show Telemundo raking in bigger audience numbers than Fox despite a smaller overall reach in terms of carriage.
This is not meant to slight Fox’s talent or their staff, or their viewership numbers, which according to their press releases are setting records for their channels and are comparable to the previous three World Cups. I see deeper factors at work, that may even be impossible for them to overcome when compared to their Spanish-language counterpart.
Fox seems to approach the World Cup as a product in need of selling, while Telemundo just basks in the joy of the world's biggest party. To some extent this is inevitable. The audiences approach the sport from different places. Spanish speakers in the US tend to hail from soccer-mad backgrounds, where the game commands a dominant place in cultural and family life compared to the broad sporting buffet that the typical “mainstream” Anglo encounters.
Speaking in general terms, Telemundo doesn’t have to convince a gridiron football lover or curious baseball or basketball fan to give the World Cup a try. They can hark back to multigenerational memories and intrinsic interest. Of course, there are places in this country where the same is true of non-Spanish-speakers, but perhaps not in the numbers or density that TV outlets need.
Even if the Mexican and Colombian diasporas in the US are rooting for different teams in Russia, for example, both share a foundation of devotion and understanding that Fox can’t or won’t count on when appealing to English-speaking viewers. For those of us who speak soccer fluently, that can be intoxicating, even if we don’t speak Spanish so well. Even as an avowed hater of any and all commercials, I’ve found myself enjoying the ads on Telemundo, which tend to transmit that passion just like their broadcasters do.
So spare some sympathy for Fox. A bigger potential audience is not always a blessing. Their challenge is not so different from that facing U.S. Soccer, MLS, and the rest of the American soccer infrastructure charged with improving our player development pathways and overall level of play as a whole. How can a coherent style of play, or types of players, be consistently concocted from this enormous, sprawling, messy, wildly diverse, and often highly contentious soccer nation of ours?
Fox appears to be trying to provide a little something for everyone. It’s probably inevitable that whatever aspects of their product you like are simultaneously turning a different viewer off, and vice versa. It’s a devilishly tricky task, and one that generations of decision makers have grappled with, to mixed results.
How would you build the most universally appealing American soccer… well, anything? Please, tweet or email your elegantly simple solutions in my direction.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Victory for the United 2026 bid, but a new game awaits
- France friendly a reminder of what’s possible, and what’s failed, for US Soccer
- A “respectfully rebellious” view from abroad: Todd Beane on the state of American coaching
- No more coach/GMs: Complexity and specialization in MLS technical staffs
Logo courtesy of FIFA.