SBJ/July 21-27, 2014/Media

World Cup 2018: Fox Sports and Gus Johnson get their turn

With a successful Brazil event in the rearview mirror, here are a few thoughts on the next World Cup, which Fox Sports will produce from Russia in 2018:

Looking for an American voice

Soccer fans hate the idea of Gus Johnson as Fox’s main play-by-play voice for the next World Cup, judging by my Twitter feed and conversations.

Fox Sports looks to Gus Johnson as its World Cup voice.
Photo by: FOX SPORTS

Despite the criticism, Fox seems determined to move forward with Johnson and develop an American voice that stands in contrast to the much praised British voices that led ESPN’s coverage this year.

This bears watching.

Typically, TV network decisions are made with the casual fan in mind. Avid fans may not like a specific announcer, but they’ll still watch.

This strategy doesn’t work for the World Cup. If avid fans don’t like ESPN’s announcer, they could have turned to Univision. If they really can’t listen to Johnson in 2018, they’ll watch Telemundo.

An ESPN executive said the network found out that the most successful soccer telecasts have to get buy-in from the sport’s hard-core fan base.

That’s not the case in other sports.

The situation reminds me of 2006, when ESPN made Dave O’Brien its top soccer voice, a move that was heavily criticized by U.S. soccer fans.

I reached out to ESPN to see whether O’Brien was willing to give a perspective about what Fox and Johnson could expect over the next four years.

O’Brien declined my interview request, but emailed the following comment, where he said the development of an American soccer voice is necessary for the sport to continue to grow in the U.S.

“Fox is giving Gus a five-year run up to the World Cup, and that’s crucial. (I’m envious because, looking back, mine was six months!) Five years of matches, qualifying, immersion. Their broadcasters will require that time, given how sophisticated the viewers are. And ESPN’s coverage in Brazil raises the bar incredibly high for Fox in Russia. I look forward to an American voice when the U.S. plays in ’18. Now, I love Ian Darke. He’s sensational — a stroke of genius — and he’ll be terribly missed in that role. But a U.S. raised voice will provide an American perspective. Not cheerleading, but context. Maybe that’s the next step in binding this magical game to our country.”

The DVR effect

The safest bet to make for the 2018 World Cup is that TV ratings will drop significantly. Unlike Brazil, which is close to U.S. time zones, the games from Russia will be played at odd hours in the United States. 

But some TV ratings numbers from Brazil suggest that Fox may not be hit as hard as some believe.

About 12 percent of World Cup viewing from Brazil happened via a DVR, which is an absurdly high number for a live sports event. In general, DVR viewing for live sports in the United States is 2 or 3 percent. 

That means that a significant number of people made the effort to record and come back to watch the games later in the day. This bodes well for some of the early morning games in Russia.

The clean screen

I love FIFA’s requirement that ESPN and Univision have a clean screen during its World Cup games, with only a bug in the upper left corner with the score and an unobtrusive network logo in the bottom right corner. ABC, ESPN and Univision had no bottom line, no promos, no statistics — just a big, beautiful picture.

Among U.S. sports properties, only the Masters demands that its network partners keep their screens so clean. I wish more would follow that lead.

American consumers bought big-screen high-definition televisions based on the quality of the video. I hate the fact that so many networks have shrunk the picture to give unnecessary scores, stats and graphics.

With more people using a second screen for that kind of information, sports networks should make a move to declutter the TV screen during live games.

Soccer for all

The event got coverage on morning shows, even on networks that didn’t have broadcast rights.

I was struck by the amount of World Cup coverage on networks that didn’t have World Cup rights. It was an ESPN and Univision event, but all the network morning shows and nightly news telecasts seemed to have easy access to highlights and World Cup athletes. 

ESPN said it was a conscious decision to allow competitive channels to show highlights as soon as its postgame show ended — a move that stands in contrast to how NBC treats the Olympics. ESPN has long been irked by restrictions that don’t allow it to show Olympic highlights until after NBC has ended Olympic programming for the day.

“We believe the Olympics are leaving some viewers aside by restricting news coverage,” ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said.

It will be interesting to see how Fox Sports treats this in 2018. Will Fox want “SportsCenter” to show highlights to an overnight game that ends before most Americans are awake? My bet is that Fox will take more of an Olympic approach in four years.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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