21CF Chats: FOX Sports’ David Neal on the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup

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Looking back at the Men’s World Cup, what’s unique about Women’s World Cups, 2015 vs. 2019 storylines

Now that a small soccer tournament in Russia is over, it’s time to look forward to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. But first, David Neal, Executive Producer of FIFA World Cup on FOX and Vice President of Production for FOX Sports, has some reflections on the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup, which exceeded expectations.

“I’m enormously proud of what we did as a company and what our World Cup group did as a unit,” David said. “It’s very gratifying to see that we still delivered a product that got Americans excited despite an atmosphere where you didn’t have the natural draw of the U.S. team.

And the success of the 2018 World Cup wasn’t limited to viewership numbers: “Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve had many people tell me, ‘You made me care about soccer.’ And to me, to our group, that’s the greatest thing.”

I recently spoke with David about comparing the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada with the approaching 2019 tournament, the main difference between covering a men’s and women’s World Cup, the importance of digital content outlets, and more.

David Neal, Executive Producer of FIFA World Cup on FOX and Vice President of Production for FOX Sports

What will you remember most about the 2018 Men’s World Cup?
In October of last year, the morning after the U.S. Men’s National Team failed to qualify, [CEO, FOX Sports] Eric Shanks and [FOX Sports President of Production and Executive Producer] John Entz called a meeting. The message from Shanks was: “This is where we all now prove our mettle as broadcasters, as producers, as on-air talent. The U.S. is out – we’ll deal with it. Now you go out and you tell those stories of all the teams that are there. The team that’s not going to be there is not the story.” I’m enormously proud of the way everyone responded. Nobody went there hanging their heads saying, “If only the U.S. was here.” Eric’s rallying cry carried us through a very successful event.

Does the 2018 Men’s World Cup give FOX Sports any sort of momentum for its coverage of the 2019 Women’s World Cup?
Yeah, it’s interesting you say that because I really think it does. The World Cup in Russia was arguably the greatest ever. There were upsets, Cinderella teams and all those great components. I think what it did, in a way, was make Americans say, “Wow, what an amazing event. Wouldn’t it be great to have a U.S. team in it?” Now it’s incumbent on us to keep reminding them that, if they qualify, we’ll have not only a team but the defending world champions at the 2019 World Cup. A number of us from FOX, including [Executive Vice President, Marketing for FOX Sports] Robert Gottlieb and [Senior Coordinating Producer of Features for FOX Sports] Jen Pransky, met with the U.S. Women’s National Team a few weeks ago. They are keenly aware of the flag-carrying status that they have and know we just went through a World Cup with no U.S. team. I think they feel the responsibility. I do think in an interesting way, not having the U.S. in this past World Cup just whets the appetite for American viewers. That’s an ideal scenario for us.

What has changed most since 2015?
At the soccer group, it’s ingrained in our heads now to always say, “If the U.S. qualifies.” We don’t take anything for granted. The qualifiers take place this month, and I’m very positive about the prospects for the U.S. Women’s Team. Nevertheless, if they qualify, the fact is you go into this tournament with the Americans as the defending champions. That’s an entirely different scenario. There was an iconic promo spot that we did for 2015 that had two stars on the U.S. jersey: the first star was won in 1991, the second star in 1999. The narrator asks, “See that third blue star over the crest? No? Well, just wait.” That was the quest for the U.S. Women’s team to return to the mountaintop, and they did. I think there’s an even more compelling story now to say they’re the defending champs trying to become the second team (after Germany) to go back-to-back.

The 2015 Women’s World Cup was obviously wildly successful for FOX Sports.
It’s something I’m very proud of. The final was the most watched soccer game of any gender in U.S. television history.

I think it was 25.4 million viewers?
That’s exactly right. If you include out-of-home, it was over 30 million viewers. That is just a wonderful achievement and shows the power of this team.

So do you openly talk or think about topping 2015 at all? Or is that something you turn a blind eye to as you push forward?
It’s not our focus, and one of the factors there is that in 2015 we were in Canada, which matches our time zones; our time zones are their time zones. This time we’re in France, which is six hours ahead of the East Coast and nine hours ahead of the West Coast. So the majority of the matches will be played either in the morning or very early in the afternoon our time. The HUT (homes using television) levels tell you it will be a challenge to hit the same numbers that we hit in 2015, but we’re going to do everything we can to achieve the same kind of ratings success we did four years ago.

Are there any major differences preparing for a Women’s World Cup compared to a Men’s World Cup?
The men – we’re talking about Neymar, [Lionel] Messi or [Cristiano] Ronaldo, and now [Paul] Pogba or [Kylian] Mbappé for France – have so many demands on their time. It can be a challenge to get them in front of a camera to get an interview, to do the kind of storytelling we like to do. The women in general are more understanding of the value not only to themselves personally but to the game when they make themselves available to media. Accessibility to the players is clearly better with the women’s game.

The on-air broadcast team for the 2019 World Cup hasn’t been finalized yet, correct?
No, it hasn’t been announced. But it’s absolutely safe to say that the terrific group we had with us in Canada will be back almost entirely intact. So we’re bringing back as much of the core as possible – the great group at the studio and the great group calling games. We’ll have a few new additions of recently retired players and coaches, but by and large the group that was such a key to what we did in 2015 will all be back.

Will digital outlets or sharing content on social media play a bigger role this time around?
It will. I thought that our entire digital operation that was with us in the broadcast center and around Russia was a fabulous part of our overall success. From Rachel Bonnetta and her daily show on Twitter, to everything the digital group did – we were all telling the same big story. They were an enormous asset to us and I would expect it will be just as big if not more of a positive for us in France next year.

Taking a step back: You earned a degree in Broadcast Journalism from USC in 1978. What do you think your newly graduated, younger self would be most surprised by regarding what his future self is doing today?
I don’t think anyone in the U.S. said with any degree of conviction or reliability that soccer would be the giant factor that it’s become here today. I recently saw a video of a big adult swimming pool with a swim-up bar at a hotel in Las Vegas – over 100 people watching the World Cup final on a big screen. It was a social event. Here were people in Las Vegas glued to a giant screen watching the World Cup on FOX. Four decades ago, soccer was barely a blip on the radar here in the U.S., and FOX Sports didn’t exist either. So if anyone had told me back then that four decades from now, you’re going to be overseeing the World Cup on FOX Sports and drawing millions and millions of viewers, that would have required a big leap of faith.

The draw will take place Dec. 8, at the Seine Musicale arts centre in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris.

The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Qualifiers begin today, Oct. 4, at 5 p.m. ET on FS2 as Trinidad & Tobago takes on Panama to begin Group A. Read FOX Sports’ on-air roster announcements.