21CF Chats: FOX Sports host Rob Stone on U.S. Men’s National Team’s must-win World Cup qualifying match, soccer’s growth in U.S.

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After disappointing performances in its first two World Cup qualifying Final Round matches, the U.S. Men’s National Team is in an unexpected position of vulnerability heading into its next qualifying match against Honduras on Friday, March 24, in San Jose. Rob Stone, the lead studio host for FOX Sports’ soccer programming, says you have to go back to 1989 to find a World Cup qualifying game that had so much significance for the country’s soccer team.

We spoke with Rob to hear more about the weight of Friday’s match, as well as the explosive growth of soccer in the U.S., the remarkable evolution of FOX Sports’ soccer coverage, how social media plays a role in his job and more.

After a disappointing first two Final Round matches, how important is the qualifier against Honduras for the U.S. Men’s National Team?

This game is of the utmost importance. The situation that they find themselves in is rare for a program that’s seeking its eighth consecutive World Cup finals appearance. We’ve grown to accept success from this U.S. team and expect it, and losing the first two games in World Cup qualifying set off a lot of alarms with this program. It led to the firing of a coach and the rehiring of an old coach and this new hope that we can straighten things out. Nobody has hit the panic button yet, but they’ve dusted it off, they’ve located it and they know where it is should it be necessary. The U.S. should still qualify for the World Cup, but getting a win and the three points that come with it Friday night in San Jose is absolutely paramount.

What are some other storylines people should be paying attention to during these qualifiers?

I think the biggest story is [U.S. Men’s National Team head coach] Bruce Arena returning to the U.S. Men’s National Team. There are very few situations in the past in sports where you see a manager who absolutely excelled with one team and comes back many, many years later to try and reboot it. I think he’s in an excellent position to do it. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of American soccer figures right now, and he’s in a position to strengthen that case.

When did you start covering soccer?

I got my on-air start at a local FOX affiliate in Albany, Georgia: WFXL FOX 31. I was a cameraman, reporter and anchor at that time, and I went out of my way to film any soccer event going on in town. When I was doing local news for them in ’94, I was constantly shoving World Cup highlights down southwest Georgia’s throat, whether they wanted it or not.

So, you’d be a great person to ask: How has the hype and interest from American audiences in soccer and the World Cup specifically changed since the time you started covering the sport?

In the past at the other networks where I worked, the World Cup was seen almost as an inconvenience. The game is over, get off the air immediately and let’s get back to our regularly scheduled program so we don’t lose viewers. Everything was built around the success of the U.S. Men’s National Team. That is not the case anymore in this country. People know the value of the World Cup and they will watch it whether their team is involved or not. The resources spent on this event, I would guess, almost triples every time it happens. When the U.S. was struggling to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, nobody had a clue how important a Paul Caligiuri goal in Trinidad and Tobago would be for the growth of U.S. soccer.

How does it all compare to when you were younger?

I grew up in a day and age when you could not find soccer on television, and now it is in your face, bombarding you; it has overtaken programming grids like kudzu down in the South. It’s insane how much this sport has grown in a relatively short period of time here in the U.S. If you go back to ’90 when they qualified for the World Cup, it was almost like random summer programming that no one knew anything about. It wasn’t promoted; you kind of stumbled on it, looked at it and said, “What is going on in Italy right now that I should care about?” Now it is months and months out – marketing campaigns and major advertisers on board pumping their product, their players and their national teams. This sport has just absolutely exploded in front of my eyes and sometimes I need to stop, sit back and appreciate where it is now compared to where it was not that long ago.

What do you think it’ll take to continue the momentum?

I think it just continues to grow because it’s now a generational thing. I grew up not wanting to watch baseball. I grew up wanting and seeking soccer, and now I spread the gospel with my family. In the past, nobody knew anything about it. Now you’re surrounded by parents, friends and peers who have a wealth of not only experience but knowledge about this sport, and they’re able to pass it on. And you have a domestic league here in Major League Soccer, which continues to grow at a rapid rate every year. You now have the option to get out, see these games, and become fans of certain personalities and teams. It’s now in your DNA. I think America has been infected with soccer and it’s not going away – there’s no cure and nobody wants to find one.

Can you talk about the evolution of soccer coverage at FOX Sports?

I think it’s important that people know how far the coverage of soccer has come here at FOX. since I got here – and I’m not giving myself credit, I’m just saying since I got here – everything has changed. Everybody from the corporate offices, to our Avocado Room, to our meeting rooms, to the studios – we realize how important this sport is to us as a company and it’s now being reciprocated.

You also man the studio for FOX Sports’ college football and college basketball programming. What are the differences and similarities between your approach to hosting studio coverage for each sport?

Soccer is just so diverse – between the UEFA Champions League and Major League Soccer and the Women’s World Cup and the World Cup qualifying – every event has a different high value. With college football, it’s almost a weekly thing. It’s predominantly a Saturday deal and we’re able to reflect briefly on what happened and then spin forward. But with soccer, it’s this continual sausage machine – we just keeping banging it out. There’s no offseason, there’s no break and there’s no breathing. It just continues to pleasantly grind away at you.

Was it always that way?

In the past, once the Champions League final was over, my FOX Soccer cohorts saw that as the sign that it’s vacation time. That doesn’t happen anymore because the Champions League final ends and we go right to Confederations Cup, which bleeds right into the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which bleeds right into the MLS All-Star Game, and the next thing you know, Champions League is fired back up again and MLS playoffs are right around the corner. It’s the sport that doesn’t sleep. It’s the sports version of what New York City is. It just does not go to bed, ever.

Rob Stone and Alexi Lalas

Speaking of things that churn around the clock, I noticed that you’re quite active on social media. How has social media changed your job?

I look at my role as bit of a salesman because our pregame, halftime and postgame shows are trying to drive, keep and grow the audience. You want people to be invested in your product, purchase it, stick around, and be involved and influenced by it. I think social media is a huge part of what we do as broadcasters now, as far as engaging the crowd and maybe even, to a point, reminding them ever so subtly that something is on and that you’d better get your tail to the television or FOX Sports GO right away.

What about interactions with fans?

I think with soccer particularly, there’s a little bit of a family atmosphere. We started very small and didn’t have any cousins or aunts and uncles out there. But now every time we turn around, there’s another family member coming around the corner and they’re bringing their friends, they’re bringing their family. Because it started small, people want to hold onto that. The fact that people like Alexi Lalas, myself, Stu Holden or John Strong are readily accessible via those means – I think they kind of see us as family members, and they reach out to us want our comments and are very appreciative when we respond.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not busy working on soccer, football or basketball? What else gets you up in the morning?

My family gets me up in the morning. I’ve got four kids and a beautiful wife. They keep me running and gunning. I like going to the gym or running. I like sunlight, so I love L.A. I love new adventures. And I love variety, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’m just so happy to be able to call FOX home, because they’ve granted me variety in wonderful roles.

How do you mean?

Today I was flying into LAX and I happened to look out the window and see the L.A. Memorial Coliseum off in the distance, and I start humming the USC fight song – and I have no affiliation to USC outside of working with Matt Leinart, and I’m thinking, “Damn, college football is just a couple months away!” I get keyed up here in March, not too far away from the World Cup qualifier, about college football. And I’m still riding the high of the Big East Tournament and looking toward Big 10 entering our family this fall.

How are preparations going for the 2018 World Cup in Russia?

For me, not a day goes by when I don’t think about Russia in 2018 – not a single day goes by. Because, again, soccer never sleeps and the storylines are always changing: what you’re doing for your club; how that impacts your country; how that can impact our research; and how’s that going to impact our coverage of Team A, B and C. The people behind the scenes – David Neal‘s group at FOX Sports – have been more than frequent visitors to Russia. We are leaps and bounds ahead of every TV outlet that is going to air the World Cup in 2018. I know damn well that nobody is going to beat our groundcrew and what we’ve done to build the base for a month’s-plus worth of coverage in Russia that is going to change the industry, perceptions and a lot of lives as well.

Is there a standard you want the coverage to aim for?

The work we did at the Women’s World Cup in Vancouver was my most satisfying broadcast moment ever. Alexi Lalas and I have done a ton of World Cups and a ton of other events, and every time we get together and talk about the past, it goes to that moment. It was our greatest broadcasting moment, and we were so proud to have been a part of it and so proud to have helped play a small part in elevating this sport at this network to such a high level. The bar has been elevated to a point where not many people probably think we can surpass it, but we’re going to absolutely crush it in Russia.

Watch the U.S. Men’s National Team face Honduras on Friday, March 24, at 9:30 p.m. ET on FS1.