Fox Sports Gets It Right: Now Keep It That Way

Fox Sports — or more specifically its Fox Soccer Channel — was handed an absolute masterpiece of a game Tuesday afternoon and did exactly what a network should do with it — stayed the hell out of its way.

The telecast was of the semifinal of the UEFA Champions League, a tournament that ends with the Super Bowl of European club soccer, and was an absolute classic that saw England’s Chelsea beat heavily-favored Barcelona of Spain in dramatic fashion despite the British side playing much of the game down a man after it had a player ejected. (The other semifinal, between Spain’s Real Madrid and Germany’s Bayern Munich, is Wednesday afternoon on FX.  Yes, FX, as in the future home of Charlie Sheen, who like Chelsea defender John Terry, was once himself famously ejected in high profile fashion).

There were no bells and whistles in the Fox telecast. No fancy experimental technologies. No kitschy taped packages with celebs that demeaned the importance of the event. There was just a solid studio show before, at halftime, and after the match featuring four people who know what they are talking about. The in-game commentary was pulled down from abroad. And it worked, perfectly.  As a viewer and a fan, I just hope Fox remembers this strategy for the upcoming championship game of this tournament…and then when Fox finally gets its hands on the World Cup down the road.

There is a fantastic playbook for big soccer events in America. It is called ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup, which after some well-documented (cough, cough) missteps in past years has now become absolutely wonderful and a how-to of big event coverage.  And much like what Fox did with its new studio host, the rock solid Rob Stone, it should basically just steal it from ESPN.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel here.

The Fox studio team featured Stone (who you can interact with on Twitter during the matches – @RobStoneONFOX) along with Fox regulars Warren Barton (a former English player) and Eric Wynalda (a former American player). Joining them Tuesday was another former U.S. player, Brian McBride, who has the looks to boost female viewership by about 647% judging by my wife’s reaction every time she sees him, including Tuesday afternoon.  If he weren’t such a good guy, I’d want to strangle him with that fancy pink tie he wore on set for being that pretty.

The studio shows worked — not a lot of fluff, just solid analysis. The highlight being at halftime when Stone immediately re-set the score of the game - a complicated system in which the teams play two games with goals scored in the other team’s stadium potentially being a tie-breaker (as it was in this case) — which the in-game broadcasters did not do well enough, especially for relative newcomers.

Perhaps the only thing lacking as I write this was some more talk on set about the shocking decision by Barcelona (or perhaps UEFA, the governing body of the event) to have a lack of protocols that resulted in allowing a player to literally get knocked out on the field, and then get up under the care of doctors and be allowed to continue playing. Ask ESPN analyst and former player Taylor Twellman — a concussion sufferer and devoted spokesman — what he thought about that. That’s a point that deserved some chatter, albeit overshadowed by the incredible dramatics of the match itself.

Using an international feed for the match commentary was just fine. American audiences are smart enough to pick up on what is happening, and ESPN got us past the point of being petrified of matches called by foreign accents.

I can’t see Fox not using its own teams for the World Cup, for instance, but I very much hope they will realize that a major event is not the time to experiment with new voices, when there are plenty abroad that can be imported, which ESPN did so well in the last World Cup with names like Derek Rae and Ian Darke.

Overall, soccer fans had to be thrilled with Fox’s presentation of an absolutely fairy tale story of a game on Tuesday.  I was. Here’s hoping Fox sticks to that script and doesn’t try and get cute for the Champions League Final, set for May 19 on the Fox broadcast network.  If you see Michael Strahan’s face anywhere on that broadcast, you know my words went unheeded.