21CF Chats: Jennifer Pransky on features for the 2018 World Cup

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Senior Coordinating Producer for FOX Sports talks about what it takes to connect with viewers

It’s safe to say that not many viewers who will tune in to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, which begins June 14 on FOX, will care about every one of the 32 teams in the tournament. But is it possible to get each viewer to care about just one more player, team or match — and maybe more beyond that? Absolutely, and Jennifer Pransky, Senior Coordinating Producer of Features for FOX Sports, is the person who will make that happen.

I recently spoke with Jennifer, who is in charge of post-production content for many of FOX Sports’ biggest sporting events – she’s worked on the World Cup, Super Bowl, Daytona 500, World Series and many others – about how she thinks about and approaches features for the upcoming World Cup, what the absence of the U.S. Men’s National Team from the tournament means for her group’s work, and how this World Cup is different from the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Can you talk about what audiences can expect in the way of features for the 2018 World Cup?
My goal is to give people a reason to cheer for and care about teams they normally would not have. There are 32 teams and 64 matches, and you’re not going to have a personal interest in all of them. But maybe we can share a story about a certain player or team so you can connect to them. And then you have a reason to root for that team, and a reason to watch those games and maybe the next game they’re playing in. So that’s my goal: to drive interest in the tournament based on that human connection.

That sounds familiar. When we spoke with David Neal a couple years ago, he mentioned your incredible work for the Women’s World Cup in 2015 as an important way to attract casual fans or non-fans to tune in. He said those features introduced athletes from around the world as characters that give viewers a reason to care about a team or game they might not otherwise have an interest in. What goes into planning these features?
Our research department has been connecting with teams, talking to press officers, and trying to dig and find some information that isn’t commonly known already. I have also been getting a lot of great story ideas from staff in various departments, which is pretty cool. Also, various people from around FOX Sports have been sending me story ideas for the past few years. We want to find those little things that will make people feel like they’re getting some new knowledge or insight, things that will create that human connection. There are so many great stories I want to tell, so it’s important to build a comprehensive plan and map out a strategy ahead of the tournament.

How has the U.S. Men’s National Team’s absence from the World Cup changed your approach to this year’s features, if at all?
We would’ve paid a lot of attention and put a lot of effort and energy toward telling the stories of the U.S. team. They were going to be our most important team, but they were still just one of 32. As much as I would rather have had the U.S. in it, as a unit that’s here to tell stories and introduce audiences to players they don’t know, this is actually more of an exciting challenge because we now have the bandwidth to get out there a little more and tell new stories. Personally, I was very upset; professionally, it’s something that opened some great creative opportunities for us.

How does your experience with this year’s World Cup compare with your experience creating 60+ features for the Women’s World Cup in 2015?
The Women’s World Cup was our first time, so that had its own excitement. The opportunities we had with a lot of the women’s teams were terrific because of the access they afforded us. The women saw it as a great opportunity to work with us and understood that that might be the first time people were hearing about them. An important part of this is also that our platform was so big, and the women were smart enough to use that to grow their sport. The women’s final was the most-watched soccer match in the USA ever, men’s or women’s. We got some great cooperation with some of the teams and a lot of the players, so that was really an amazing experience. For this men’s World Cup, access is limited due to demanding schedules. We have to be more creative and interesting in our approach so we can make it worth their while.

You’ve worked on a lot of important sporting events. How does the World Cup compare with other big events, from your view?
Well, the World Cup is the largest production FOX has ever done, and it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done. It’s kind of a big deal! It’s also the longest we’ve been able to work on any event or property, which is an exciting thing. Even for a Super Bowl, we know the teams only two weeks before it happens, so you plan as much as you can, but at some point, you only have those couple weeks to execute anything. Whereas for the World Cup — yes, the rosters and teams aren’t decided until May or the beginning of June, and the teams aren’t even really qualified until a year before, but we’ve been able to plan generally for a couple years now, and that’s what’s so unique. Normally, I feel like my work has a short turnaround of a week or a month. But now we’ve got this thing that we’ve been working on for three years, so the culmination is going to be exciting.

That’s quite a buildup.
I will say that these global soccer tournaments have been some of my favorite things to work on. There’s just something about this game. It doesn’t matter if we’re here at 1 a.m. for several weeks in a row, there’s just a great energy among the people and team we’re working with, and that’s a lot of the stuff I remember afterward: the experience of working with everybody, having done it with people. It’s only fun because we get to share it, right?

In case you missed it, here’s our conversation with Robert Gottlieb, EVP of Marketing for FOX Sports, about marketing the World Cup.

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, FS1 and FOX Sports GO.