Fox Sports paid $400 million for the US broadcast rights to the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, and despite the huge blow that was the US men’s team failing to qualify for the finals in Russia this year, the network has gone all in, broadcasting every game live on either their main network or Fox Sports 1.
Nielsen data showed a 44 percent drop in viewers in the first round compared to the 2014 cup, but ratings picked up in the second and third rounds, with Saturday’s Germany vs. Sweden thriller breaking several US World Cup viewership records.
For anyone who experienced the Gus Johnson Champions League final trainwreck, watching soccer on Fox might still fill you with trepidation, but things have definitely improved since that dark day in 2014.
Unless you planned your vacation around the World Cup — or scheduled that surgery you’ve been putting off so you could recover in front of the TV — most of the weekday games are on during normal work hours, so you probably are like me and recorded every game 😉 so you can fully concentrate on them after work.
Watching every match since the Russia-Saudi Arabia opener on June 15 (38 so far), has caused me to form some strong opinions about the Fox broadcast teams. Here’s how I would grade their work so far, from best to worst.
1. Derek Rae and Aly Wagner (A+)
Rae is a vastly experienced Scottish commentator who was named the number one soccer commentator by World Soccer Talk in 2016 and has called eight World Cups.
Wagner is a vastly experienced player, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Cup bronze medalist with the US Women’s National Team, and she became the first female game analyst for a men’s World Cup on U.S. TV when the pair handled the Iran-Morocco match on June 15.
Together, they are the best Fox has. Rae understands the flow of the game, doesn’t get overly excited about little things but truly appreciates (and recognizes) extraordinary moments. He doesn’t spew endless stats and boring histories of players and teams, he just feels the game so naturally and has a gift for storytelling. Wagner actually seems to prepare for games by studying players, formations and previous games. Even better, she doesn’t overdo her playing experience. So refreshing.
They were awesome in England’s 6-1 Panama smashing, when Wagner noted that she spent a bunch of time studying how England’s back three made entry passes to the midfield. Because she thought the viewers would benefit from that and hell yes I did.
She knows what she’s talking about, but she keeps everything on a easy to understand but engaging level. That’s not an easy skill to acquire and it seems to come naturally to her. Rae plays to her strengths perfectly and they truly enrich the games. And that’s kind of the point.
And get this: They are calling the games from a studio in Los Angeles and not in the stadiums in Russia. Imagine if Fox had actually cared enough to send them to the World Cup…
2. Jorge Perez-Navarro and Mariano Trujillo (A)
Another pair that Fox decided to keep in LA instead of having them actually be at the games. WTF.
Flamboyant at times and penetrating at others, Navarro is a big, loud presence, celebrating the World Cup with joy and passion. He’s super knowledgable about personnel but doesn’t overdue stats, and is fantastic at rising and falling with the ebbs and flows of the game. And his goal calls — like this one on Javier Hernandez’s 50th for Mexico — can make the hair on your arms stand up.
Trujillo is a great partner for Navarro because he speaks his mind and is not afraid to straight up disagree. He’s spent a lot of time on the pitch himself, but has an easy insight into the game and doesn’t rely on the usual cliches that ex-players (see Warren Barton below) usually use as a crutch. He has a refreshing style and brings a great perspective on North and Central American players and approach. Might make a good coach one day.
Mark Followill and Warren Barton (B-)
This team, also based in LA, is a case of one half (Followill) over preparing and the other (Barton), not preparing enough.
Followill has mostly done announcing for basketball and other Fox events, but he’s pretty good on the flow of the game and handling the players and tricky names. He’s pretty bad, though, at controlling the stream of stats, facts, figures and past scores that seems to flow out of his mouth constantly. Sure, it’s OK to mention a stat here and there or a past matchup that’s relevant, but it seems at every dead ball or lull in play, he feels like has to fill it in with something. Let the game breathe, Mark!
On the other hand, he’s pretty good at sensing a key moment and his goal calls are pretty exciting, hence the third place ranking and the B- here.
Barton, on the other hand, would do maybe watch a game or two before hand. It seems if a player didn’t play in the Premier League or the Champions League, he has no idea who they are. He spent a lot time in the pro leagues in England and certainly understands how to play proper defense (something he’s not shy about mentioning), but he speaks in generalities and cliches so much of the time, it’s hard to tell what he’s really saying anyway.
Barton does have a good sense of humor, though, and gets on well with Followill, so for the most part they are bearable, and occasionally entertaining.
John Strong and Stuart Holden (C)
This is Fox’s lead team (as far as I can tell) and they are actually in Russia, which should give them an advantage. They also handled the Champions League Final and some of the big games in that tournament.
The best thing you can say about Strong is that he’s solid. He understands the flow, knows the players and key situations, but blends into the background too much. The great announcers of the game — and even Arlo White — inject some flair of personality or a flick of humor into their unbiased narrative of the game. Not enough of that from Strong. That means Stu has to carry the load and for various reasons, that doesn’t always work.
Make no mistake, Holden knows soccer. He’s a former US international and also played in England, though his career was cut short by injury. He has a tendency to employ phrases and stylings that are generally most effective when deployed by English broadcasters, which feels a little hollow at times. And why so serious all the time, Stu! Everything feels life or death with his commentary. As much as I’m in disbelief that I’m about to type this statement, Holden could use a little of that Alexi Lalas cynical humor from time to time.
Holden is a very sharp analyst, for sure, and he’s still young. Combine that with the fact that he’s probably already close to being one of the best (male) analysts in the US, he could well develop into a legendary commentator. Or not.
JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola (D)
I’m totally sure that JP and Tony — who are also on site in Russia — are really nice guys and would be tons of fun to talk to at a cocktail party or a backyard barbeque. But they’re both so monotone, so mannered, so seemingly un-thrilled about the games they cover that every match turns into a sleepy Sunday MLS encounter. Which, I know, isn’t the most exciting thing in the world.
Not that every commentator needs go totally nuts like Ray Hudson or every play by play man have the wild flair of Jorge Perez-Navarro, but a little something would be great, guys.
And unofficially, Tony has said “JP” 14,287 times since their broadcasts began. Right, JP?
Glenn Davis and Cobi Jones (D)
I’m actually completely not sure if Davis and Jones are nice guys or if they would be great fun to talk to at a backyard barbeque or cocktail party. But I do know that they were mostly assigned to the matches featuring the lesser-known teams — two Saudi Arabia matches, Sweden-South Korea, etc. — and they pretty much were kind of serviceable. Kind of sub-meh.
Jones, of course, is the all-time leader in caps for the US men’s national team and a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. His approach is very player-centric and he oozes ex-athlete giving a tough-but-fair assessment of the players on the pitch, grinding it out, doing the defensive work, a bunch of stuff that won’t show up on the stat sheet or grab the headlines, etc, etc. etc.
Davis is a former player, too, having made his way around the lower levels of the American soccer pyramid for many years and playing at a pretty high collegiate level. He’s decent, knowledgeable and has World Cup experience. But sometimes you are only as good as the match in front of you and well, what are you gonna do?
Bottom line, these guys just don’t do it for me as a TV viewer. I need something distinctive, out of the ordinary and above the mundane. Davis and Jones are just too middle of the road for me. At least they are not any worse than JP and Tony.
But after giving it some thought, these two probably are pretty nice guys and would be great fun to talk to a backyard barbeque. But that only goes so far.
So there you have it. If you ask nicely, I might just find it in me to do 1,500 words on Dr. Joe. But for now, the knockout stages await.
Ever wished you could start a career covering your favorite sport? Have you spent time wishing you could combine your love of sports with your passion for writing and reporting? CMN’s Sports Journalism course is an experiential learning program designed to give the practical experience you need to get your foot in the door in this ultra-competitive industry. You’ll get useful, direct feedback on your reporting, exposure to experienced sports journalists and influencers, and a great place to build your portfolio. You can get college credit, too. Get all the details on the CMN's Sports Journalism Course here.