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The Stone-Lalas dumbumvirate sums up Fox’s botched World Cup coverage

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.

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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.

Lothar Matthus shakes hands with Russias president Vladimir Putin during a meeting with former players at the Kremlin. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/Pool/Tass

Part of the trouble has been to do with framing in the promos and intros. Fox has over-hyped simplistic personal narratives (the stale Messi v Ronaldo rivalry, the LeBronification of Neymar) and missed all the things that have made this tournament special (the emergence of Kylian Mbapp, the glory of the Croatian midfield). Basic errors about the sport have littered Foxs coverage; ahead of the Spain-Portugal match, for instance, the promo tagline was, The most beloved man in all of Spain now becomes enemy No1. Itd be tough to picture Ronaldo as the most beloved man in his own team, let alone all of Spain.

Much of the analysis on set has been distorted to fit this ignorant framing; the promos have molded the analysis, rather than the other way around, and the mid- and post-match segments have been bizarrely perfunctory and rushed. Theres been no detail in the analysis, which is to say there hasnt been much real analysis at all. At half-time in France v Belgium, Foxs analysis involved Lalas saying, Hazard looks good, then we saw a clip of Olivier Giroud surrounded, inexplicably, by a flashing circle while Ian Wright noted, He looks down on confidence. And that was it. (The use of flashing circles to indicate nothing more than a player due to be spoken of for the next 10 seconds has been a recurring theme.)

Theres been no one at the tactics board, no one with a marker, no Gary Neville and not even a Jamie Carragher. Instead weve been subjected to quick, obvious, reactionary takes and a few preview paragraphs cribbed off Wikipedia, then summarily whisked off to the next minute-long promo about the rivalry between Messis beard and Neymars hair. Amid all this stupidity, even a legend of the sport such as Guus Hiddink whos led three different countries to the knockout stages of the World Cup has managed to appear weirdly clueless, one moment a hyperventilating moron, the next a barely sentient blob.

Much the same could be said of Foxs other name pundits: Seedorf, ONeill, and Hernan Crespo have all seemed shackled, as if not wanting to display excessive football intelligence for fear of offending their hosts. It does not, of course, need to be this way: NBCs Premier League broadcasts have shown that soccer coverage in this country can be quick, succinct, tactically astute, intelligent, and appealing to a mass market all at the same time.

As for the rest of Foxs talent pool, the World Cup returns were as slim as the pool is shallow. Rules expert Joe Machnik proved, once again, that there are no words better calculated to induce sleep mid-match in a soccer-watching American than Fifa match commissioner Dr Joe Machnik. Fernando Fiore was fantastically unhinged, many of his night-show monologues so long and so obscure that they achieved a kind of anti-TV. As for Grant Wahl, he asked all the best questions at press conferences.

There have been bright spots. Kate Abdo has been poised, sharp, witty, and has a genuine and obvious passion for the game. Indeed theres a good argument that Foxs strongest performers have all been women. Aly Wagner has been one of the more insightful match commentators, and in the Red Square studio, Kelly Smith has battled courageously to make intelligent points, even though, like the rest of Foxs English talent, shes mostly been called on to perform jingoistic yucks.

The match commentary, overall, has been adequate but unspectacular. The fact that many matches were called from a studio in LA rather than on site in Russia has been less of a concern than expected although there have been moments such as the one during Mexicos match against South Korea when the Fox boffin, following some trickery from Carlos Vela, noted, Weve see him do this here in LA so many times. Stu Holden has been among the best of the commentators, despite having a voice with all the command of an out-of-his-depth instructor at summer camp; Mark Followills basso profundo has reached depths previously unexplored in the history of American broadcasting; and Ive even grown to like Tony Meola, whose every lachrymose regular-shmo sentence sounds like it should end with him inviting you round to his place for burgers and Buds. And look, the music hasnt all been bad. Theres something pleasantly dramatic about Foxs lead orchestral theme for the tournament, a back-and-forth strings arrangement that fits the grandeur and history of the greatest sporting show on Earth.

Foxs real problem this World Cup is that it has neither truly dumbed the coverage down in a spirit of education for the casual fan nor totally raised it up for those already in the know. Instead its coverage has ended up as the broadcasting equivalent of Marouane Fellaini: neither attacking nor defending, stuck in transition, a player that tries to do everything and succeeds at almost nothing. In years to come, what will we say? The women came better prepared than the men. The theme tune was nice. And thats about it.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/jul/13/fox-sports-world-cup-coverage-soccer-criticism

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