We are fewer than 300 days away from the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, which means FOX Sports is that many days away from broadcasting its first World Cup presentation. When the biggest tournament for the biggest sport in the world begins on June 15, 2018, it will be the culmination of more than four years of planning, practice and “international diplomacy,” according to David Neal, Executive Producer of FIFA World Cup on FOX and Vice President of Production for FOX Sports.
The 21st World Cup will feature 32 nations playing 64 games over 32 consecutive days. To be invited into a family’s living room multiple times during the tournament is a privilege, and FOX Sports knows it has to have a top-notch team in place for those audiences, both behind and in front of the cameras.
I recently spoke with David to find out how he and his team are ensuring that they’re ready for the biggest global event. During our conversation, he talked about the ups and downs of the past year for the U.S. Men’s National Team, how FOX Sports will make the host nation of Russia a special part of its coverage, and the complexities of broadcasting an international spectacle like the World Cup.
It’s been more than a year since we spoke last June about the Copa America tournament, among other topics. What have been some of the highlights of soccer coverage on FOX Sports since our last conversation?
It’s been a year of plot twists, like a great action movie. On an early November night during election week, a large audience saw the U.S. lose to Mexico in their qualifying opener. A few days later, the U.S. lost again. That led to a coaching change and Bruce Arena coming on board. Since then, it’s been a much more positive story for the U.S. Men’s National Team, and happily for us, we’ve been documenting a good portion of that success, culminating with the U.S. going against Mexico again in early June on FS1 and getting a hard-fought draw, which is very important for qualifying. We had over 2 million viewers on FS1, which made it easily the most watched U.S. Men’s National Team game on FS1 ever.
How has FOX Sports been preparing to broadcast its first World Cup presentation?
The process began in 2013 with initial meetings with FIFA; the local organizing committee, which is called the LOC, based in Moscow; and the host broadcaster, HBS. Those meetings have been ongoing since 2013. With any big project like this, there’s only so much groundwork you can lay early on, and there are some things which, out of necessity, must be done closer to the event. Some of that is because you need to wait and see who qualifies. You also have to wait for the draw, which is a hugely important event that occurs on Dec. 1, in Moscow. It’s going to be in a historic theater inside the Kremlin walls.
Can you tell us about the location of FOX Sports’ set for the World Cup?
We’ll be in Red Square, and it’s taken every bit of the 3.5 years since we started on this back in 2013 to win those approvals. As you can imagine, wanting to be in a sensitive area like Red Square has taken very lengthy negotiations, a lot of relationship building between us and the organizing committee in Moscow. The location is spectacular. When our viewers see our studio, they’ll know exactly where we’re broadcasting from.
How does FOX Sports plan on portraying Russia as the backdrop of this World Cup?
The 32 teams at the World Cup are the cast of characters – they are the protagonists, antagonists, heroes and villains. But the 33rd team, for us, is the host nation. Russia is a source of fascination and mystery, and there are things about Russia that Americans are very curious about. So for us, we will make that a very big part, a constant component of our coverage. A major resource for us is the collaboration with our colleagues at National Geographic, part of the 21st Century Fox family. National Geographic has been in Russia since before the revolution, so they’ll be a very big part of our effort to bring Russia, the Russian people, the Russian landscape, the Russian cities and the diversity of Russia to life for our viewers.
I know you led efforts for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which was hugely successful for FOX Sports, and this summer’s Confederations Cup. How can you draw from both of those experiences as you prepare for the World Cup?
For those who may not be familiar with the World Cup qualifying process, can you walk us through what it looks like?
It’s slightly different for each region. There are regional confederations that govern different parts of the world. One that many fans are familiar with is UEFA, which is Europe. The one that covers the U.S. is called CONCACAF, and that’s the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Each confederation gets a certain number of the 32 qualifying spots for the World Cup. In CONCACAF, we were allocated 3.5 spots, which is kind of interesting. So the top three teams that finish in qualifying get automatic berths into the World Cup, and the fourth-place team gets to play off against another runner-up from a different part of the world. This time around it’s from Asia. Right now, we’re basically halfway through qualifying. The U.S. sits in third place, so if the qualifying process ended today, we would be in an automatic qualifying spot. Our editorial research people tell me looking at the road ahead looks very good for the U.S. to qualify.
The Women’s World Cup was a spectacular success: The final reached over 25 million viewers on FOX, easily making it the most watched English-language soccer broadcast of all time in the U.S. It gave us all a great first taste of the world of the World Cup, working with FIFA and working with international broadcasters. We remind each other internally that the challenges for the Men’s World Cup will be vastly different from the Women’s World Cup in Canada given there are 12 more teams, not to mention the distance between the U.S. and Russia, and having to account for multiple time zones. We did extensive multiday debriefs after both the Women’s World Cup and the Confederations Cup where we had our production team and our talent group talk about the lessons learned, things that worked very well, things that need to be addressed. In some ways, these are both test events that allow us to get ready for the show that matters the most, and that’s the World Cup next year.
You’ve also produced nine Olympics, as well as a number of NBA Finals, World Series, a Super Bowl pregame show – how does preparing for the World Cup compare to the Olympics or other big events you’ve been involved with?
It’s very similar to the Olympics. The first point of understanding that a broadcaster has to have about the World Cup or the Olympics is that there are hundreds of other rights holders from around the world. If we go in to broadcast the Super Bowl, World Series or NBA Finals, we are essentially the only broadcaster in the building, and that gives you a great deal of flexibility. When you enter an arena like the World Cup or the Olympics, you are one of 200 or 300 broadcasters, and everyone has paid their rights fee to be there, everyone has their own point of view about how to do things, everyone has their own needs. So you rely much more on relationship building within a global event like the World Cup or the Olympics. You have to spend years building relationships with the organizing committee and the governing body, whether it’s FIFA or the IOC, and building relationships with other broadcasters. In some ways, running the production, planning and ultimately the execution for us at the World Cup is a lot like international diplomacy because you can’t come in and expect everything to be given to you.
What do you hope will set FOX Sports’ coverage of the World Cup apart from previous broadcasts?
One of the things I love about being part of the FOX Sports family is that we are about putting informed opinions on the air. Something that started with [former senior FOX executive] David Hill and goes now through [FOX Sports President, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Producer] Eric Shanks and [FOX Sports President of Production and Executive Producer] John Entz is that we want our broadcasters to tell us “why” not “what.” Tell us why something just happened – why did a goal just get scored, why was a penalty called? Don’t just tell us what we can see with your own eyes; tell us why something happened.
Speaking of which, what can you tell us about your on-air team for the World Cup?
The group of on-air talent that we’re compiling for next summer is the finest, most accomplished and most entertaining group of on-air talent I’ve ever worked with in any sport, at any network. These are people who know the sport inside and out and are also fun and relatable, individuals whom a viewer sitting at home would say, “Wow, I’d like to be in a sports bar watching the game with him or her.” That’s what it’s about. I honestly can’t wait to get started because I think we’re going to take the level of coverage of the World Cup in the U.S. to a new level.
What’s your favorite part of broadcasting huge events like the World Cup?
My favorite part of events like the World Cup is the way they bring a country together. The co-viewing you see for a World Cup are families that actually watch together, which is so rare these days. When you get research that tells you that families are watching these big events together, you realize you have an added responsibility because you’re putting together broadcasts that are going to reach entire families and huge parts of the population who might not even consider themselves sports fans. The other thing that’s really gratifying, which we experienced back in 2015 for the Women’s World Cup, is the way the entire company comes together. The level of support we enjoyed for the Women’s World Cup throughout every part of the 21CF family was extraordinary. The support that we’re getting from every part of the company is just breathtaking.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup begins June 14, 2018, and ends with the final in Moscow on July 15, 2018. All games will be live on FOX Sports and FOX Sports GO.