Fox kicked off its coverage of the FIFA World Cup today with the opening match between Saudi Arabia and host country Russia, and early reaction on Twitter leaned negative. MSNBC's Ayman Mohyeldin: "I can tell already it’s gonna be a long month watching Fox’s commentary and coverage of the @FIFAWorldCup." SEC Country's Matthew Speakman: "Fox Sports‘ trash announcers always make the champions league painful and now they’re gonna make the World Cup painful." Quartz editor Mike Murphy: "It’s 2018 and the Fox website to watch the #WorldCup is trying to force me to enable Flash to watch the games." Rochester-based WHEC-NBC's Brennan Somers: "I'd rather spend the next month watching the #WorldCup on Telemundo versus listening to Alexi Lalas on FOX." The Athletic's Richard Deitsch: "When Cantor is on the call, I am going more with Telemundo. And that's no disrespect to John Strong, who I think is terrific." But some observers struck a more positive tone. NBC Sports' Men In Blazers: "Godspeed to @RobStoneONFOX and @AlexiLalas and all our colleagues at Fox. To broadcast a World Cup is both an honor and a grueling endeavor. We wish them Courage and are looking forward to making great memories." The MMQB's Albert Breer: "This is a pretty good weekend for Fox. Both the NBA and NHL end early, and they've got the World Cup and US Open. Just like you'd draw it up."
EARLY RETURNS: The availability of pregame coverage was an issue in some markets. Deadspin's Timothy Burke tweeted 19 Fox affiliates in the U.S. "do not have #WorldCupFever, have elected to air local news, infomercials, or Wendy Williams instead of live network coverage from Russia." USA Today Network photojournalist Adam Wesley: "@FOXSoccer has already dropped the ball. Their pregame show going on right now for the opening match of #WorldCup2018 is not airing on my local Fox in Green Bay (and other markets). Good thing I have cable & Telemundo but c'mon, Fox" (TWITTER.com, 6/14).
INTERESTING TEST: In Austin, Kevin Lyttle wonders if the positive momentum soccer is enjoying in the U.S. is "enough to justify" Fox' $400M "broadcast-rights gamble" for the World Cup. Author Michael MacCambridge said "everything is working against" the World Cup being a "big event" this year in the U.S. MacCambridge: "Because of the time difference in Russia, most of the matches will be occurring in the morning. For the first time in the memory of most American soccer fans, ESPN isn't broadcasting it. And the U.S. isn't playing. If, in the face of all that, the tournament still gets substantial viewership numbers -- and dominates sports talk for the next month -- that would be telling." Fox' Stuart Holden acknowledged the lack of the U.S. means "decreased ratings" for the World Cup. However, he said he thinks soccer has "grown up enough in the U.S. to weather the storm" (AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN, 6/14). In Atlanta, Mark Bradley wrote a "changing U.S. will pay attention to the World Cup, even without U.S. involvement and the latest games from Russia starting" at 2:00pm ET. He predicted that Fox' ratings "will be better than you'd think" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 6/9).
QUESTIONABLE DECISION: In N.Y., Hannah Withiam noted Fox is "sending just two broadcast pairs to Russia" while the rest of the on-air talent will be "calling games from Fox's studios" in L.A. Fox World Cup Exec Producer David Neal "wouldn't say whether the U.S. team's absence factored into the decision to do most of the group-stage games 'off-tube.'" From the quarterfinals on, all games "will be broadcast" from Russia. Neal: "You have to get the most out of your resources, and one of the things that I did as I was analyzing where we were gonna spend our resources was that soccer is a game that's uniquely done this way" (N.Y. POST, 6/11). The GUARDIAN's Aaron Timms wrote the idea of calling World Cup games from a studio in L.A. is "ludicrous." There is "no comparison between what you experience at the stadium ... and the restricted, antiseptic view offered by TV." It is "not hard to see why Fox has gone down this road -- viewership of the World Cup is likely to be lower than if the U.S. had qualified, mandating a slimmer spend on tournament coverage -- but understanding the decision does not make it any better" (GUARDIAN, 6/12). In Boston, Chad Finn writes it is "difficult to blame Fox for cutting a financial corner or two upon the U.S. team's failure to qualify," as that is "going to have a significant effect on viewership stateside." However, it "opens up the question" of whether Fox is as "committed this year as it will be in eight years, when the matches are played in North America, and the U.S., presumably, will be a playing participant" (BOSTON GLOBE, 6/14).
FERNANDO MANIA? YAHOO SPORTS' Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote people watching the World Cup will get to know Fox' Fernando Fiore "soon enough," as fans will "hardly be able to miss his outsized personality and comedy routine on the wall-to-wall Fox Sports broadcasts." Fiore is "known to break into song during live shows, while his colleagues pick apart plays and stats." Schaerlaeckens: "He dances. He wears funny hats. He mimics. He demonstratively rolls his eyes." Fiore has "carefully cultivated his persona, consciously setting himself apart from your milquetoast, dime-a-dozen soccer analyst" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 6/10). In Philadelphia, Jonathan Tannenwald writes Fiore is "charismatic, loud, and a passionate lover of the world's game." His World Cup broadcast presence will mean "a lot of people will cast judgement on Fiore who haven't before" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 6/14).
VOICES CARRY: In N.Y., Andrew Marchand wrote Aly Wagner, who will "become the first woman World Cup game analyst, is a rising star." It is "too bad she will be calling games from a studio in LA instead of on-sight." Wagner has "stood out for her insights and by being opinionated without making it all about herself" (N.Y. POST, 6/13). Meanwhile, in S.F., Bruce Jenkins writes ESPN during previous World Cups had the "good sense to employ a number of British announcers, an absolutely crucial element for international events." Fox this year has "enlisted only two ... leaving the rest to Americans" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 6/14).
LIKE YOU'RE THERE: N.Y.-based tech startup LiveLike has partnered with Fox Sports to produce the World Cup for fans in social VR with all 64 games during the tournament available through the Fox Sports VR app for free. The production also includes sponsorship integration with Adidas (THE DAILY).