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For Fox Sports, Soccer Success Is the Premier Goal

It may be close to summertime, but the livin’ won’t be easy for Fox Sports. During its 21-year existence, the net’s sports division has excelled at covering numerous big-time events, from Super Bowls, to World Series, to Daytona 500s. But this month, the network becomes a rookie again, in front of arguably its biggest global audience yet.

Beginning June 6, Fox will make its long-awaited—or long-feared, depending on whom you ask—debut in covering the World Cup with the women’s tournament kicking off from Canada.

Fox Sports president and COO Eric Shanks is well aware of the many media watchers who are waiting to see how Fox will attempt to rise to the challenge. “We’ve put an amazing team, both behind the camera and in front of the camera,” he says. “Our investment monetarily, creatively and from a talent perspective is hopefully going to be evident to everybody watching.”

The World Cup is not the only new high-profile property Fox debuts this month. Fox raised many eyebrows when it snagged golf’s U.S. Open away from ESPN and NBC (the two had combined to cover the four-day tournament) for the next 12 years. The network will air its first U.S. Open from Chambers Bay in Washington’s Puget Sound, beginning June 15.

“The opportunity was there,” says Shanks of Fox getting into golf, a sport the network has virtually no experience in covering. Fox’s deal with the USGA includes eight events annually, plus the Franklin Templeton Shootout.

Fox will use the bulk of its new inventory to help prop up Fox Sports 1, which will celebrate its two-year anniversary in August. As expected, the channel has struggled to gain much of a foothold against longtime leader ESPN, though Shanks is hopeful that having two major events to program around will aid the cause.

“The investment in a broad sports portfolio for FS1 helps bring in a new audience,” he says. “Being the consistent place for those fans to go is just as important.”

Big Shoes to Fill on the Pitch

Fox executives are well aware of the high bar ESPN set for soccer coverage, and the 13.46 million viewers for the net’s telecast of the U.S.-Japan World Cup final in 2011, a record for women’s soccer.

“They did an outstanding job of covering the World Cup,” says David Neal, executive producer of Fox’s World Cup coverage. “So for us, that sets a level that we have to make sure we can measure up to.”

Neal is no stranger to huge global sporting events. During his three-decade tenure with NBC Sports, Neal produced nine Olympics, four NBA Finals, two World Series and a Super Bowl pregame show. “In any sort of big live event television, pressure is an inherent ingredient,” says Neal. “It’s unavoidable.” Shanks also notes Fox’s World Cup broadcast teams collectively have called 15 World Cups and Olympics.

That Olympics experience will prove even more useful to Neal here, given that the women’s game is not as well known as the men’s. Aside from covering the matches—Neal stresses that “nothing is more important than the event”—he aims to give viewers a connection to the players, many of whom are new faces. “If it’s Cameroon vs. Brazil, we have to provide reasons for an American audience to care about some of the players,” he says.

“There’s kind of a built-in familiarity with the men’s game,” adds Shanks. “The women’s game, you really invest a lot more time in storytelling.” While Shanks and the rest of Fox Sports is hoping the U.S. plays all the way through the July 5 final—unlike the men’s team, the women’s national team is routinely considered to be among the best in the world—he understands the need to educate viewers on the other countries’ players. “You can’t lose sight of the fact that some of the best players in the world are playing for other countries,” he says.

Needless to say, any fallout from a continuing FIFA bribe scandal would serve as a backdrop to the action.

Although many soccer observers consider the biggest test for the network will come in three years with the next men’s World Cup, Fox is not treating this summer as a warm-up act. Neal recalls a first meeting with Shanks and David Hill, senior executive VP of 21st Century Fox, where the two “made it abundantly clear” that this year wasn’t meant to be simply a testing ground for 2018. As such, Fox will air all 52 matches live—this will be the first year under the new expanded format—and a record 16 games on broadcast television, including the July 5 final from Vancouver, which will air in primetime on the East Coast.

“We’ll be sampled by viewers who have never watched soccer on Fox before,” says Neal. “It’s a moment to validate that we’ll be a more than worthy home of the World Cup.”

Fore Warned

Fox can at least claim some soccer-coverage experience prior to the World Cup—the network has aired European tournaments and is an MLS rights-holder. When it comes to covering golf, however, the network can’t get any greener.

But Fox assuaged a lot of golf enthusiasts’ fears when it hired Mark Loomis, a longtime coordinating producer for ESPN and ABC’s golf coverage, to lead its first foray into the sport. “Even though the U.S. Open itself has not been on Fox before, there are plenty of people doing it for Fox that have done it before,” says Shanks.

Fox will use a mix of golf veterans and longtime Fox Sports staffers who love the sport but were never able to cover it. One of those personalities will be Joe Buck, who is no stranger to calling big events. Loomis credits Buck for putting a lot of effort into learning how to properly call the sport, noting that the perennial baseball play-by-play man is getting a lot of help from his broadcast partner Greg Norman, a lauded veteran of the game.

“They spend a lot of time texting and going back and forth on emails,” says Loomis. “They have a natural respect for one another.”

Shanks is aware that golf on Fox might seem like a strange fit, but he adds that the network won’t shy away from putting its stamp on the sport. “We couldn’t be the same as anybody that’s ever done golf even if we tried.”