The broadcasters efforts at Russia 2018 were the TV equivalent of Marouane Fellaini, a player who tries to do everything and succeeds at almost nothing
Ratings in the US for this years World Cup are down significantly on 2014 and if reports are correct, Fox Sports will lose money on its coverage of the tournament. Fox executives will no doubt point to the mitigating factors: the unfavorable time zone; the absence of the US mens national team; perhaps even the unexpected failure of big teams such as Spain, Germany and Argentina. On the other hand, this has been the most exciting World Cup in decades. If Fox has missed an opportunity to reel in casual American fans and get them excited about soccer, and it almost certainly has, thats down to one thing: Foxs own coverage of the tournament. It has been appalling.
OK, thats maybe not entirely fair. The coverage has not been quite as horrendous as it promised to be before the tournament. But its still been poor. The network has had plenty of time to get things right too: Fox secured the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments in late 2011, and the following year hired David Neal, a veteran producer who worked on nine Olympic Games for NBC, to oversee its coverage. This is perhaps when the rot began to set in: Fox insiders told the Guardian that Neal mostly staffed his World Cup team with the networks existing roster of baseball, Nascar and NFL producers, whereas Foxs soccer group which handles year-round coverage of the sport, including the Champions League and MLS was left in a largely peripheral support role.
Indeed, when you ask people more accustomed to working on the Nascar Camping World Truck Series at Kentucky Speedway to manage coverage of the World Cup, you shouldnt be surprised when the World Cup winds up looking and feeling like the Nascar Camping World Truck Series at Kentucky Speedway. If nothing else, Fox has succeeded in thoroughly Foxifying the World Cup, turning it into an abomination of doof-doof backing tracks, quick cuts, shouting, and no analysis.
In a tournament of bad choices for Fox, the selection of Rob Stone and Alexi Lalas as the leading in-studio Americans has been perhaps the worst choice of all. More Ryan Seacrest than Gary Lineker, Stone has done one thing well this tournament: announce the start of the half-time show. The World Cup half time show on Fox is presented by Verizon: Stoneys ability to consistently hit that dramatic half-beat before Verizon, match to match, has been deeply impressive. But its in the combinations with Lalas the Modric to his Rakitic that hes shone dullest. Ahead of the Belgium-Japan match, Lalas observed that for Japan, it all comes down to W-I-L: where is Lukaku? The other pundits appeared puzzled by this decision to abbreviate but Stone took the theme up with relish, noting that everyone in the studio would soon be wearing W-I-L bracelets. The only thing more stupid than a pointless acronym is a pointless acronym thats been turned into a fashion accessory, and for achieving that rare double, the Stone-Lalas dumbumvirate deserves our eternal respect.
Lalas, of course, has been in typically robust form this World Cup. Never before on American television have so many opinions been so obvious and delivered at such high volume and speed for such little on-screen impact. Lalass best work arguably came in the last-16 match between France and Argentina. If youre going to let the inmates run the asylum, he noted, referring to the internal tactical tussle between manager Jorge Sampaoli and Argentinas senior players, it better be the best damn asylum out there. In a World Cup of not-quite-there metaphors, Lalas won the quarter-final to Americas heart. What.
A quick index of how badly things have gone for Fox is the sheer speed with which the roster of on-screen pundits has changed. Lothar Matthus got top billing before the tournament, but he never made it to air and was quietly dropped due to scheduling conflicts a few days into the group stage. Fox quickly added Clarence Seedorf, Martin ONeill, and Cobi Jones as analytical talent, but only Seedorf and Jones lasted the distance; ONeill seemed to vanish once the quarter-finals got under way.