Fox’s World Cup coverage, broadcaster impact, MLS’ Apple deal and more: Sports Media Mailbag, Part II – The Athletic

Welcome to the 34th Media Mailbag for The Athletic. Writing a mailbag — as egocentric as it is — is always a fun exercise. Thanks for sending in your questions via the website and app. There were nearly 100 questions, so this will be a two-parter. Part I appeared earlier this week.

Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and length.


What are your thoughts on Fox’s WC coverage so far outside of not covering social issues? (I agree that it is really bad.) Seems like they are doing a good job of not treating the fan as novices while doing a good job of explaining tactics. — Joshua S.

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Can you explain to me how Alexi Lalas has a job? His commentary for the World Cup is borderline buffoonish, and I can’t think of one insightful thing he’s said so far. The in-game analysts for Fox have been great (Stuart Holden, especially), but the studio hosts have been terrible. — Nate G.

Can you explain the definition of “viewers” when Fox Sports says that viewers do not want to hear about Qatar during the World Cup? Is this backed up by surveys, focus groups, etc., or is this all smoke and mirrors with Qatar Airways sponsoring the coverage? Further, has anyone asked the question to Fox Sports executives for specifics? — Robert D.

How has the coverage of the World Cup on TSN been compared to on Fox? Has TSN been willing to comment during broadcasts or in interviews about Qatar hosting, human rights, migrant workers, LGBTQ, etc.? Does the viewership numbers that TSN will get for the Canada matches and non-Canada matches make TSN and Sportsnet reconsider ever getting back some portion of EPL or Champions League rights to help casual or non-soccer fans who become interested from the tournament stay interested leading up to 2026? — Chetan H.

Not surprisingly, there were a ton of questions on Fox’s coverage of the World Cup. An observation to start: I’ve always found global soccer viewers to be the toughest graders of any U.S. sports audience. My theory (and it could be bogus) is that many of these fans (including a heavy immigrant viewership base) have watched the sport through other networks and broadcasters and are used to the sport not being dumbed-down, names being correctly pronounced, tactics being deeply discussed, and coverage that goes beyond a singular team.

I’ll continue to say what I’ve said in multiple forums, including on my podcast. I think Fox has significantly improved its game coverage since 2018 with the additions of Derek Rae, Ian Darke and Jacqui Oatley, the development of John Strong and Holden, and a commitment to showing the walk-outs and anthems. As for the studio, and this is obviously anecdotal based on my own social media consumption and reading: I have never seen more criticism of World Cup studio coverage for a U.S. broadcaster, and I think it’s justified. They punted on the bare minimum of acknowledging the human rights issues in Qatar, and as far as being soccer-specific, ask yourself if you have been educated at all on the teams beyond the United States. Obviously, Fox has to be American-centric, but I find myself as a viewer being woefully uneducated about the other teams when I watch Fox’s studio coverage. Lalas likes to play the pro-wrestling heel, which could work if he had anyone on set challenging him. That usually doesn’t happen.

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On the definition of viewers, I had a long interview last month with David Neal of Fox Sports, who is the executive producer and point person of Fox’s coverage. He didn’t cite any focus groups or studies, but what the company believes is the expectation of the viewers that come to Fox.

“The decision is an editorial decision, and it’s not made out of some fear of offending FIFA or offending the host nation,” Neal said of not covering issues outside the game. “It is made because it’s a belief on our part that’s not what our viewers want. We’re not worried about offending anybody. It’s a question of what our viewers are coming to us to learn about. When viewers come to us on that first day, we believe they’re coming to us to see the World Cup, to hear our predictions of who’s going to do well, to hear the latest news about the United States, to see the opening ceremony that’s going to take place. We don’t believe they’re coming to us looking for news about workers on the stadiums or any of the other stories that have been out there for years now.”

As I said before, Fox was never going to be punished for this viewership-wise because soccer fans want to see the games and not everyone is willing to watch outside of their own language. (Personally, I’d argue you don’t need to know any Spanish to enjoy Telemundo’s game coverage.) The viewership numbers for Fox have been strong, especially with the time difference. Fox averaged 2.638 million viewers for the group stage matches, up 35 percent from the 2018 group stage average from Russia on Fox/FS1 (1.958 million). Yes, this year’s increase does include some out-of-home viewing pops, but it’s still solid.

As for TSN, from what I’ve watched, they have addressed some off-the-pitch issues. They don’t overwhelm viewers with it, but they acknowledge it. Where they blow Fox out of the water, in my opinion, is with the pregame analysis. Those on set really have immense knowledge of the teams away from Canada, and you come away getting educated on, say, why Morroco is so effective. On the other part of Chetan’s question, I have no idea of the interest of TSN and Sportsnet in the EPL or Champions League, but obviously, those are premium properties for Canadian soccer fans and they’d philosophically want them. It always depends on the price.

Could you shed some light on the team behind the “Monday Night Football” weekly graphics packages? Every single week they manage to put together something that is both informative and pretty funny. I’d love to hear a bit more on how it comes together. — Chris in NE

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This answer, from Jason Rickel, ESPN associate producer: “Appreciate the compliment, Chris! We have a great time putting them together, and there are many people who deserve credit for their success. It begins each Tuesday, as Ryan Hoff, a fellow graphic producer, and I brainstorm together with a focus on the biggest storylines of the upcoming game. Once we lock in a few that we want to focus on, we search for relevant tie-ins, relying on inspiration from pop culture and emphasis on a unique aspect of the team and/or city they play in. After that, we submit a storyboard to our producer and a small team of animators. By now, it’s late in the week and we all meet as a group to hash out all the details. Believe me, no stone goes unturned in that meeting! From there, the animators add their creative touch, bringing everything to life. Then, we do it all over again for the next game.”

Daniel Brown wrote an excellent article about broadcasters and statisticians last week. The article mentioned that some broadcasters have personal statisticians or at least statistician they prefer to work with. Does the broadcaster, network, or someone else pay those statisticians? — Matt T.

I asked a number of network broadcasters how the pay works. At the highest levels, the network pays the statistician. And they absolutely have people they have worked with for years. When it comes to mid-level college games and with so much inventory, it’s more than likely that the pay comes from a variety of places (the school, gratis) depending on the game.

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How is ESPN broadcasting Formula One races without commercials? I love it, and it adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of the experience. But it seems unlike any sports on TV experience to go 1.5-2 hours without having to endure commercials. — Michael S.

In October, ESPN and F1 announced a new multiyear rights partnership through the 2025 season, a nice piece of business for ESPN even with the significant increase in rights fees. When I spoke with our motorsports reporter Jordan Bianchi on your question, he said that offsetting the costs of being commercial-free is that each track session — race, qualifying, and practice — has Mothers Polish as a presenting sponsor. The additional content on ESPN+ could also lead to additional revenue if diehard F1 fans pony up for a digital subscription.

In your opinion, how much do announcers affect viewership? Does having Troy Aikman and Joe Buck improve the watchability of MNF, or are the same number of people watching anyway? Does the Manningcast drive more viewers to the game just to listen to them talk? Or is it just a portion of people that would already be watching? — Matt W.

What impacts game viewership above everything else is matchup, quality of the game, and the broadcast window where the game airs. I think announcers have a neutral impact on viewership. Now, where I think broadcasters have a significant impact is in how you process the broadcast and how you feel about a particular network after the broadcast. All sports networks want to put on a quality production, from the front-facing people to those in the production truck. Yes, I think Buck and Aikman make “Monday Night Football” feel like a bigger event. As for the Manningcast, ESPN looks at that alternative broadcast as additive. I’m not sure it drives a ton more people to the game — it’s a portion of the people already watching — but it gives ESPN viewers more value for their cable or digital subscription. They also like being in business with Omaha Productions, and that will provide shoulder programming — some of it very popular — for ESPN+.

Why do male announcers wear jackets and ties? When will we see female American professional football announcers? — Anonymous U.

Pure guesswork: I think it’s simply a relic of what was done in the past and the tradition has continued to modern-day. As for women calling the NFL, I absolutely think that’s coming. Beth Mowins will not be the NFL’s only play-by-play broadcaster as we head forward.

Is it possible Jason Benetti becomes the No. 1 Fox baseball announcer? — Larry J.

I think Joe Davis has that job for as long as he wants it? — Mark H.

Benetti is terrific, but Davis is Fox’s No. 1 MLB announcer, and I don’t see that changing.

It seems that young national broadcasters are all cast from the same mold. There are few, if any, who have unique deliveries like Kevin Harlan or Gus Johnson. Is this due to networks demanding a uniform/vanilla approach? Will we ever again see the likes of Vin Scully, Keith Jackson, Brent Musburger, Dick Enberg or Marv Albert? — Regis B.

It’s such a subjective business and so much of hiring depends on management. I’m not sure we will ever see someone like Scully ever again, and by that I mean universally loved by more than 95 percent of the audience. But I absolutely think people with unique styles can shine as play-by-play people. I really like Harlan and Johnson, but you can do an easy Google search and find people who write sports media who think they are bombastic.

Fox’s NFL “A” Team, with Buck and Aikman gone, is clearly and by far the weakest of all the networks’ top teams. Is there any chance they look to upgrade in the offseason? If so, who might they target and/or promote? — Robert T.

Does anyone actually think that Tom Brady will make a good No. 1 analyst? He’s never said anything interesting in 20-plus years — he’s just going to turn it on when he gets in the booth? — Chris A.

Again, this is a subjective opinion, which you are of course entitled to have here. As far as Fox switching off Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen, there is zero chance Burkhardt would be replaced, and the only way I see Olsen leaving is if Brady retires after the season. I actually think Burkhardt and Olsen have had a solid year. As for your Q, Chris A: Impossible to know how Brady will be on air. The only thing I’d predict is that I can’t see him staying in broadcasting for the duration of his post-playing career.

Do the networks provide a talent coach for their on-air talent or require them to get feedback? There are some seriously bad announcers out there in college football. I’m wondering how much critique the talents gets and if the networks (demote) or let go of people because they continue to suck. — Dan B.

There are talent coaches at networks. When I worked at Sportsnet (Canada), we had someone who met with us every two months or so. It was helpful. Talent coaches will watch/listen to a broadcast with announcers and go over presentation, cadence, etc. I know that for some NFL rightsholders, the broadcasters and producers get notes from executives on what they liked, what they might want to improve on, etc. Again, this is all subjective. Someone you may dislike intensely could be loved by your next-door neighbor.

Do you envision anything being a 2020’s version of SI in terms of fostering longform stories, or will they be pieces featured in various outlets like ESPN, The Ringer, The Athletic, etc.? — Michael P.

I don’t see a sports outlet — digital or in another form — that has only longform as the business model. I think you will absolutely see longform stories all across the web — in terms of total stories, there are more now than ever. But something like 1970s Sports Illustrated is gone forever, in my opinion. It’s just a different time.

Do you think the top professional leagues in North America, with the likely exception of the NFL, are watching MLS’ agreement with Apple and wonder if that is the path forward when it comes to local media rights? I know it’s complicated to get out of agreements, but the regional sports network concept looks to be on its last legs. Why not make those rights available to fans nationwide for a fee? — Michael P.

I think plenty of Apple’s competitors in the sports space (if competitors is even the right phrase) are watching how many subscribers Apple can pull in, how the production will work from a singular league-wide production outfit, and all the shoulder programming that Apple pledges to produce. But I don’t see big leagues such as NBA, MLB or NHL going this route anytime soon, especially given long-term contracts.

Love the column! I’ve got a question for you that I’ve been wondering for a while: Why doesn’t The Athletic cover professional wrestling companies such as WWE and AEW? I know it’s not an actual sport, of course, but that hasn’t stopped other outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated from covering it more in recent years. Seems like the kind of thing that The Athletic could be doing as well! — Clarke W.

If management asked for my opinion, I would absolutely encourage them to do features on professional wrestling given the readership is always there; I saw that firsthand at Sports Illustrated. I would not hire a full-time beat writer for it, but I would definitely do more than we do. I also think a pro wrestling podcast within The Athletic universe would also be fun.


The Ink Report

1. On Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, “E60” will air an hourlong episode on the Ukraine men’s national soccer team and its journey to try and play while its nation is at war. “Remember the Blue & Yellow” will be available for on-demand streaming on ESPN+ after the initial airing. Wright Thompson followed the team over the last six months, in nine different countries.

1a. ESPN’s 30 for 30 Podcasts debuted all four episodes this week of “Pink Card,” an audio documentary from host and executive producer Shima Oliaee that tells a four-decade story of daring women who defy Iran’s ban on women entering stadiums. The podcast is the first project from Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe’s production company, A Touch More.

2. Episode 260 of the Sports Media Podcast features two guests. First up is Renee Paquette, who was recently hired by AEW (All Elite Wrestling) as a host, interviewer and producer. She also hosts her own podcast — “The Sessions with Renee Paquette” — and does video content for the Cincinnati Bengals. She is followed by Grant Wahl, the longtime soccer journalist who is covering the World Cup in Qatar. In this podcast, Paquette discusses how she ended up at AEW after her long run with WWE; what her responsibilities are at AEW; how she anticipates she’ll be used in the next few months and how that role will evolve; working as a producer at AEW; her fandom for the Bengals; the differences in how segments are done in AEW versus WWE; how she feels about any potential storyline with her husband, Jon Moxley; the importance of providing the audience with a visual response during interviews; the genius of Paul Heyman and Sami Zayn; what she hopes to accomplish with her podcast and how she chooses guests; maintaining friendships with WWE people, including Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch, and much more. Wahl discusses how his access has been during the World Cup; being stopped by Qatari officials for wearing a pride shirt; how much of Fox’s coverage he has seen; what he expects for the rest of the World Cup and more.

2a. Jenny Vrentas examined how the NFL’s broadcast partners discussed Deshaun Watson’s return from suspension.

2b. ESPN released its commentator assignments for college football bowl games, including the national semifinals and championship game.

(Photo: David Dee Delgado / Getty Images)