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Our worst fears about Fox's World Cup coverage appear to be coming true

The 2018 World Cup will be the first men’s World Cup broadcast on Fox in the United States. (Getty)

Ever since Fox outbid ESPN for World Cup broadcast rights from 2015 onwards, soccer fans have been worried. Worried that the network with a checkered soccer past would curb enjoyment of the sport’s quadrennial showpiece event. Worried that Fox Sports wouldn’t cover it with the importance, depth and grandiosity it deserved.

And 50 days before the 2018 tournament in Russia kicks off, the nightmares began to come to life.

Fox Sports announced its coverage lineup for the first USMNT-less World Cup in 32 years, and in the eyes of many, its announcement confirmed fears. Its roster features zero color commentators with men’s World Cup broadcasting experience, and only one with women’s World Cup broadcasting experience. The play-by-play cast is more seasoned, but nowhere near as respected internationally as ESPN’s from 2010 or 2014.

More alarmingly, four of the six broadcast teams won’t even be in Russia. They’ll be in Los Angeles. Calling games off monitors. Seriously.

Perhaps “nightmare” is too strong a word. Perhaps it’s unfair and premature to criticize Fox’s coverage before it comes to life. And indeed, it will have its strengths – more on those later. But there’s a reason Wednesday’s news was equated by some to Fox “throwing in the towel” or “half-assing the World Cup.” It was ominous.

Fox’s announcer teams

John Strong and Stuart Holden will be the lead pair, and will get the big assignments. Strong is great. Holden is often insightful.

The other duo on site will be JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola. It’s sacrilegious to slander those two given their status as American soccer legends; but let’s just say some viewers won’t enjoy them as much as Ian Darke or Jon Champion. (ESPN put Darke, Champion and four other play-by-play guys on TV in 2014, while Dellacamera called games on ESPN Radio.)

The other four teams will call games from Fox’s studios in LA:

Derek Rae and Aly Wagner
Glenn Davis and Cobi Jones
Jorge Perez Navarro and Mariano Trujillo
Mark Followill and Warren Barton

Wagner, the only one with World Cup experience, will become the first woman to call a men’s World Cup match in English in the United States. She and Rae are excellent. But the problem is that they’ll be parked in front of a screen thousands of miles away. As Wagner told the Associated Press, calling games off monitors is “not an advantage at all. You’re limited in what you get to see.”

That’s the main issue here. There will be gripes about the individual voices. But Fox is setting them up to fail. It has run commercials claiming it is “all about El Tri,” and yet it’s not even sending its Mexican broadcast team to Russia.

By comparison, Telemundo, which has Spanish-language U.S. rights will call the “majority” of its games from Russian stadiums. Four years ago, ESPN sent five commentator teams to Brazil. In 2010 and 2014, it called a total of 20 games off monitors – though always from the international broadcast center in the host nation. Fox will broadcast more from Los Angeles in 2018 alone.

The real problem with Fox’s coverage plans

Most headlines detailing Fox’s plans have highlighted the heavy American presence. All four match commentators headed to Russia are American, and eight of the 12 overall are. That’s not necessarily a positive or a negative.

The problem is that it’s a byproduct – and emblem – of Fox’s unwillingness to go all in on its World Cup coverage with the USMNT absent. ESPN hired Darke, Champion, Martin Tyler and others not because they weren’t American, but because they’re some of the best in the business. Fox’s lineup pales in comparison.

Fox’s excuse will be that it is promoting American voices. Indeed, executive producer David Neal told the AP: “There’s no question that we did this deliberately, and the message is that we have an abundance of outstanding American play-by-play voices and frankly it would make no sense not to avail ourselves of that. It’s as solid a group of American voices as have ever been collected for a World Cup.”

The real story, according to World Soccer Talk’s reporting, and to logical conclusion-drawing, is that budget cuts led Fox to pull out of negotiations with top commentators. The result, as WST wrote, is the “weakest list of World Cup commentators since 1994.”

And it’s not weak because it features American voices; it’s weak because the talent doesn’t measure up to what ESPN assembled earlier this decade. The talent doesn’t measure up because Fox has clearly gone back on its word and scaled back plans for the tournament.

Other aspects of Fox’s coverage

Fox will have analysts in Russia. And it will have voices primarily accustomed to analyzing European or South American players on display in Russia. Those voices just won’t be heard during games.

Among Fox’s hires for studio coverage are former Argentina international Hernan Crespo, well-travelled manager Guus Hiddink, former German international Lothar Matthäus, Mexican goalkeeper Moises Muñoz, and former England internationals Kelly Smith and Ian Wright.

Anchoring the studio coverage will be Rob Stone and Kate Abdo, both of whom are strong. And that studio coverage will be extensive, with three different shows, all of which will be shot from a set in Moscow.

Plus, 38 of the 64 matches will be on Fox’s main, over-the-air channel, with the rest on Fox Sports 1. That’s impressive.

Of course, that allotment was announced before Oct. 10 – before that infamous night in Trinidad. Now that it doesn’t have the USMNT, and instead has a diminished audience, it is staying true to its spotty reputation; it is confirming soccer fans’ fears.

It still has the “greatest sporting event on earth.” Those are its own words. But rather than treat “the greatest sporting event on earth” as such, it’s cutting its losses. Which is a shame.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.