Uruguay and Peru squared off September 2 in a qualifying match for FIFA 2022; Uruguay won 1–0, earning a spot in Qatar.
The Fox Sports broadcast team: (back, from left) Mark Clattenburg, Derek Rae, Joe Machnik, Rodolfo Landeros, JP Dellacamera, Maurice Edu, Jenny Taft, Chad Johnson, Clint Dempsey, Jacqui Oatley, Ian Darke, Geoff Shreeves; (front) Kelly Smith, Warren Barton, Kate Abdo, Cobi Jones, Rob Stone, John Strong, Stu Holden, Alexi Lalas, Tom Rinaldi, Landon Donovan, Aly Wagner and Eni Aluko. See below for full credits.
This year's FIFA World Cup promises to be like no other in the storied tournament's ninety-two-year history. For the first time, the globe's biggest soccer competition will take place in the Arab world, hosted by the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. In another first, the Cup — normally held in mid-summer — will take place during the winter holidays, with the first round starting November 20 (Qatar meets Ecuador in the opening match) and the final scheduled for December 18.
But the most exciting news for broadcaster Fox Sports, from both a marketing and a ratings standpoint, is the return of the U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) which — after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia — will be at Qatar with a new coach, Gregg Berhalter, and a revamped group of young players bent on redemption.
David Neal, the multi-Emmy-winning executive producer of FIFA World Cup on Fox Sports, says, "Having the U.S. team in the tournament is a benefit for all of us. With such a youthful and dynamic team, we think they can make some noise."
With families and friends gathered at home for the Thanksgiving holidays, Fox gets a dream matchup on Black Friday, November 25, when the U.S. will play a long-awaited rematch against England, airing at 11 a.m. PT/2 p.m. ET. "It has the potential to become one of the most-watched men's World Cup matches in U.S. history," Neal says.
The industry's initial response to a winter World Cup was that it would be disadvantageous for Fox. "In fact," Neal says, "it's not a detriment, but a positive, because we're in a time of year with higher HUT [homes using television] levels. There'll be more eyeballs available to watch."
The Black Friday game also offers Fox unparalleled cross-promotion opportunities with another sport that generally rules the network's airwaves in November and December: football. "We'll definitely benefit from being adjacent to NFL programming," Neal says.
Fox will carry all sixty-four World Cup matches live through its broadcast network and cable channel FS1, with live streaming through the Fox Sports GO app. Games are scheduled for the early and late evening to beat Qatar's formidable desert heat, so East Coast viewing times will be in the 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. time slots.
All told, the network will produce 226 total hours of live, first-run programming around the tournament and close to 100 hours of studio shows on linear TV.
Completed matches will be available on demand via Tubi, so aficionados of the sport widely known as "the beautiful game" won't miss a minute of coverage. "Years ago, there was a belief that streaming would cannibalize linear TV product, but there's been a 180," Neal says. "We now understand the product needs to be available to as many people on as many sources as possible."
On the social media front, Fox has partnered with Twitter to produce and distribute exclusive content on the platform for the duration of the tournament.
Some 300 Fox Sports personnel will travel to the capital city of Doha to support a massive undertaking that Neal describes as "the single biggest production in the history of the Fox network." The Fox team will be greatly aided by Qatar's manageable size — comparable to Connecticut — making travel and logistics much easier than in previous host countries such as Russia and Brazil.
"The stadium plan is compact; there are only eight venues and no two are further than ninety minutes apart," Neal explains. "As a result, for the first time in U.S. TV history, we will have commentators onsite in stadiums for all sixty-four matches."
By contrast, when Fox traveled to Russia in 2018, the distance between cities was so great that commentators often had to broadcast remotely from stateside studios. "We had a lot of people getting on planes and flying overnight to get from one place to the other," Neal recalls. "By the time everyone arrives in Doha, they won't get on a plane again until December 18, when they're going home. It allows us to have someone in every stadium for every match, and that's a real plus for the fans."
Play-by-play announcer John Strong, who'll be working his third World Cup, likens the thrill of calling the matches to "a twenty-four-hour fever dream... for those of us who live and breathe this sport, it's the most incredible fun you get to experience in any four years."
Strong, along with game analyst Stu Holden, will lead the Fox on-air team, which will consist of five two-person teams of both play-by-play and color analysts.
While the announcers will be inside every stadium, Fox cameras won't be. All countries will use the FIFA feed, managed by Host Broadcast Systems (HBS), based in Paris. "FIFA is making sure the broadcast will look the same all around the world," says Kevin Callahan, Fox Sports vice-president of field operations and engineering, "whether you're in Mozambique or Minnesota."
And using the FIFA feed, Neal adds, "allows us to focus our coverage on what can really set us apart from our competitors: studio coverage, pregame, halftime and postgame."
To that end, on the Doha Corniche — a waterfront promenade with majestic skyline views — Fox has built a lavish set, designed by Fox Sports executive vice-president and creative director Gary Hartley.
"We're creating a destination in our viewers' minds," Neal says. "We want to become appointment viewing for a solid month — and a big part of that is creating easily identifiable locations."
Symbolically, the Corniche plays into a forward-thinking mindset that Qatar hopes to project to the world.
"They want to be seen, not as a dusty backlot, but as a modern, affluent city," Neal says. "That features prominently into our set, which will be very high-tech, driven by giant, state-of-the-art LED screens. There's nothing subtle about it. In typical Fox Sports fashion, it will be very big, very flashy."
Studio coverage will be led by veteran anchor Rob Stone, whom Neal fondly calls "America's host." The late-night show FIFA World Cup Tonight will be led by Kate Abdo, former soccer star Maurice Edu and colorful former NFL receiver — and self-described soccer fanatic — Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson. "He'll get to take his cameras backstage and have conversations with players that viewers can only dream of," Neal says. Other U.S. soccer veterans providing analysis include Clint Dempsey, Carli Lloyd and Kelly Smith.
One of the most recognizable faces in the studio will be Alexi Lalas, an Emmy-nominated analyst and National Soccer Hall of Famer who hosts the podcast State of the Union. "The set and environment and culture are as much of a star as anyone who kicks the ball," Lalas says. "It's this unique, Brigadoon-ish experience where everyone is in one city, there's no traveling and we're in this amazing soccer bubble."
A self-described "studio rat," Lalas promises to be in the studio daily as the Fox team cranks out an unprecedented four games a day. "We'll be doing previews, halftime reviews and stand-alone content that educates and entertains," he says.
Lalas, who played in the 1994 World Cup at the Rose Bowl, says the experience "changed my life forever" in terms of the opportunities it provided him, both on and off the field. The analyst views himself as a soccer ambassador of sorts, hoping to entice casual fans to embrace a sport that American TV viewers have often kept at arm's length.
"Part of my responsibility is to make it as welcoming and inclusive as possible," Lalas says. "It's a beautiful game, a simple game, but there's layers, there's context. I never want anyone to tune in to a soccer game and not feel welcome."
Compelling storylines abound. First and foremost is whether the Americans can redeem themselves after not qualifying in 2018, an event Lalas calls "the biggest failure in U.S. soccer history." Defeating favored England — which the U.S. played to a draw in their previous World Cup meeting, in 2010 — would go a long way toward winning over fans. "I think it will be one of the great special occasions in the history of soccer in America," John Strong says of the match.
Coach Berhalter is aware of the burden of expectations on his squad, but he remains optimistic. Having enjoyed a twenty-five-year-career as a player, he's the first World Cup veteran to coach the USMNT. "It is, by and large, a brand-new team — only one player on this current roster has ever been to a World Cup," he says. "For us, it's going to be about staying in the moment — not getting ahead of ourselves and not worrying about what's happened in the past."
"This team is going to turn a lot of heads," Lalas predicts. "It will be the youngest team at the World Cup. There's a collective responsibility of ownership. They're trying to make us believe again."
In 2011, Fox spent $425 million for exclusive rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups (as well as the 2015 and 2019 Women's World Cups), outbidding longtime broadcaster ESPN. (Telemundo paid about $600 million for the Spanish-language rights to those events.) "ESPN had done a great job of covering soccer and growing the sport in the U.S.," Neal allows. "We knew viewers would be skeptical about Fox — they were worried that Bart Simpson would be hosting the World Cup."
The network put all doubts to rest with its telecast of the FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada in 2015. More than 25 million tuned in to watch the U.S. women defeat Japan in the final, the most-watched soccer telecast in men's or women's history. "We came out of that first tournament fully believing we had not only met expectations, but exceeded them," Neal says.
While Fox's coverage will emphasize the U.S. players, the network will also follow the quest of two aging legends — Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo — to win their first World Cup, in what may be a final opportunity for each.
A more delicate storyline involves Qatar itself. Controversy has dogged its selection as this year's host since former FIFA president Sepp Blatter awarded the tournament to the tiny nation in 2010.
Since then, Qatar has reportedly spent more than $200 billion to build up its infrastructure in preparation, including new soccer stadiums, airports, hotels, roads and public transit — amid reports of rampant human-rights abuses as well as deaths and injuries among the migrant workers hired to handle the construction.
Fox has taken heat for remaining largely silent on the subject of Qatar's dismal human-rights record. There is also the issue of the country's well-documented intolerance of LGBTQ rights.
It's a thorny topic for Neal, whose mandate is to produce an entertaining World Cup. While Fox will air pre-taped features on Qatar and Middle Eastern culture, "We firmly believe when viewers come to Fox or FS1, they're coming to see what's happening on the field," he says. "I don't want to pretend we'll be doing in-depth investigative reporting."
Berhalter says the team is doing its part to raise awareness and perhaps spur change. "We've been educating the players about Qatar and its policies; it's a process that started a year and a half ago," he says. "As a group, the players have adopted a 'Be the Change' mantra. It started during the Black Lives Matter movement — just acknowledging that we can ask for change, but it really starts with ourselves and what we're passionate about."
For Fox Sports reporter Jenny Taft, being on assignment in a country where women face discrimination — and a strict dress code — brings its own challenges. "It's about respecting their culture," she says. "You can't show your shoulders; you can't wear skirts above your knees. I'll always be traveling with a scarf. Is it on my mind that it's a little different being a female there? Absolutely. But at the same time, what an incredible opportunity to be a woman reporter at a World Cup, in a place where women don't have those same roles."
Ultimately, Fox hopes to continue expanding its soccer audience. In 2018, U.S. viewership peaked at 14.6 million for the final game between France and Croatia. "This could be the most-watched World Cup since 2014, given the rise in popularity of soccer in the U.S.," Neal says. "We certainly think we will build on the ratings from the 2018 tournament."
Fox does have one secret weapon, something that didn't exist four years ago: Apple TV+'s Emmy-winning soccer series, Ted Lasso, which has dramatically raised the sport's profile with U.S. viewers. Coach Berhalter calls the series "a great example of the power of positivity and hope."
"The Ted Lasso effect is real," Neal says. "There's no question there will be a significant percentage of viewers who are drawn to the World Cup partly by being fans of the show."
Fox is also banking on the sheer drama and unpredictability of the World Cup itself, where heroes can emerge from unlikely places. "There's always that dark-horse story," Taft says, "the team that surprises you and everyone gets behind. And that's the amazing thing about the World Cup — you have no idea what's going to happen."
Watch for these U.S. standouts on the pitch in Qatar.
The last indelible image that World Cup fans have of Pulisic is from 2018, when the nineteen-year-old left the field in tears after the U.S. team's stunning loss to Trinidad and Tobago in the qualifying round. In 2022, fans hope any tears shed will be of joy, as a more seasoned Pulisic leads a youthful group on a mission of redemption. An attacking midfielder-winger for England's Premier League club Chelsea, Pulisic exhibits an intense style of play that has led fans and players alike to dub him "Captain America."
McKennie is prized for his versatility — he's played many positions, including center back, full back, even striker. He's also been praised for his defensive skills and ability to win back the ball in contested situations. McKennie, twenty-four, was the first U.S. player to join the Juventus team in the Italian League. Though he suffered a compound fracture in his foot back in February, McKennie promised via Instagram, "I will be back stronger than before.
The elder statesman of the group at twenty-nine, Zimmerman is a three-time All-Star who's played in ten World Cup qualifiers and brings valued experience to a young squad. While many of his teammates ply their trade overseas, Zimmerman plays stateside for Nashville SC in the MLS (the U.S. soccer league). He won Defender of the Year awards in back-to-back seasons in 2020 and '21, becoming the third player in league history to do so.
Nicknamed "The American Dream," Reyna has soccer in his blood: his parents played for the U.S. men's and women's national teams. A fleet-footed midfielder with artful ball-handling skills, he plays for Germany's Borussia Dortmund club. After an injury-plagued 2021–22 season, the twenty-year-old should be healthy at Qatar. Reyna told ESPN, "The only thing on my bucket list — since I was a kid and first started watching soccer — is to play in a World Cup with the USA."
A prolific scorer for FC Dallas in the MLS, Ferreira is a legacy player with a special connection to the club: his father, David, a Colombian national, is a former MLS MVP who in 2010 led FC Dallas to its only MLS Cup appearance. Jesús and David are the only father-son duo to be MLS All-Stars. At Qatar, the twenty-one-year-old has a good shot to be the U.S. team's striker, the player stationed nearest to the opponent's goal. —G.F.
WHERE SANTA MEETS SOCCER
Santa Claus sits poolside at a Hawaiian resort, enjoying his summer off-season. Suddenly his cell phone vibrates with a call from the North Pole. It's an elf, with breaking news: the World Cup has been moved to the holiday season. "But that, that, that's my time to shine," Santa stammers, realizing he's got competition.
This thirty-second spot, titled "'Tis The FIFA World Cup," premiered during the 2022 MLB All-Star Game as a kickoff to the largest marketing campaign in Fox Sports history.
The actor in the red suit and lush beard is none other than Mad Men and Top Gun: Maverick star Jon Hamm. Other spots find him joined by actress Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids), singer Mariah Carey, NFL quarterback Tom Brady and members of the U.S. soccer team, who pass cranberries at a dinner table while a broadcaster breathlessly does play-by-play.
The campaign capitalizes on a once-in-a-lifetime event: a winter World Cup.
"It hasn't happened before, and likely will never happen again," says Robert Gottlieb, president of marketing for Fox Sports. "Instead of making it competitive with the holiday season, we're making it a part of the holiday season."
Other innovative marketing touches will include celebrities wearing ugly holiday sweaters, citywide snow-globe installations and branded viewing "takeovers" at commuter hubs such as the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan.
But Gottlieb is most jazzed about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which will feature a World Cup "balloonicle," a hybrid vehicle combined with a cold-air balloon.
"Coming the day before the U.S.–England showdown, we think the energy around that game will be a unique moment in U.S. soccer history," he says. "There's a lot of fans who want to be part of a communal moment that their friends are talking about. We look at this as an opportunity to roll out the red carpet and invite those people into an event." —G.F.
CALLING THE SHOTS AT LA COPA MUNDIAL
Eli Velázquez doesn't look like a man about to run the massive, month-long TV production of the biggest sporting event in the world. As executive vice-president of sports content for NBCU Telemundo, Velázquez will steer the network's Spanish-language coverage in the U.S. of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off November 20 in Qatar.
Among the areas Velázquez will oversee during the first World Cup in the Arab world: editorial operations, logistics, digital, talent acquisition and programming. With all those responsibilities, you'd think the guy might be stressing a bit.
"And yet I still manage to smile," says the youthful-looking Velázquez.
For the first time in its history, Telemundo will have on-camera talent covering the games from inside the stadiums at all sixty-four matches (at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it had fewer than forty). Velázquez says the unique footprint of the Qatar event — where the eight soccer venues are either in Doha or a less than an hour's drive away — made the question of covering all sixty-four games from inside the venues "a no-brainer."
"When you have your talent calling the matches in the venue, it's contagious," he says. "The energy in the venue, it's reflected in their performance as well. It just raises it to another level."
Network-wide, the energy is up to the max. Telemundo will manage five locations in Qatar and use more than thirty-five on-air experts for pre- and postgame analysis and for topical and debate shows from Doha, with another ten or so back at the network's Miami headquarters. Velázquez says he and his team are prepared to deliver "the most complete experience for a World Cup ever."
And it's not just about the ninety minutes of each match, says Velázquez, who's covered five Olympics and a Super Bowl. "It's going to be a lot about the ambience, the culture, the storytelling and the experience around the matches. We're hoping to transport people from here to there without their having to get a plane ticket."
Telemundo will carry fifty-six matches live, and sister network Universo will air eight. Plus, every game will stream in Spanish on Peacock. With a potential audience of 60 million Spanish speakers in the U.S. and its territories, Velázquez says to expect collaborations with Telemundo's entertainment and news divisions, in addition to the sports editorial side.
"I've asked our teams to remember that we're providing this entertainment and action to a broader audience," he says. Thus, the goal is to "balance the tactical and the analytical with the social narrative."
"The World Cup Is Everything" (El Mundial lo es todo) will be Telemundo's marketing theme, as well as an internal company-wide mantra. "So the strategy is to make sure that our coverage is reflective of that belief," Velázquez says. "And for that to occur, you don't leave any stone unturned." —Bob Makela
TV production trucks are ubiquitous at sporting events, but you won't see Fox trucks at the World Cup in Qatar. Network personnel will be using an innovative mobile system called a flypack, which can be folded up and flown from event to event.
"At Qatar, you'll see a temporary building outside the stage location housing what you'd normally find in a production truck," says Kevin Callahan, vice-president, field operations and engineering at Fox Sports. "It will house a control room and audio room. On the second floor we'll have hair, makeup, wardrobe and a green room. Our graphics and playback will be in L.A."
With all that accounted for, what could possibly go wrong during the month-long event? "Power and transmission are two things that are showstoppers," Callahan says. "If nobody knows that I exist, that means that I'll have done my job well." —G.F.
Fox Sports Team Photo Credits: Mark Clattenburg, rules analyst; Derek Rae, play-by-play/match analyst; Joe Machnik, rules analyst; Rodolfo Landeros, reporter, JP Dellacamera, play-by-play/match analyst; Maurice Edu, studio analyst; Jenny Taft, reporter; Chad Johnson, studio analyst; Clint Dempsey, studio analyst; Jacqui Oatley, play-by-play/match analyst; Ian Darke, play-by-play/match analyst; Geoff Shreeves, reporter; (front) Kelly Smith, studio analyst; Warren Barton, play-by-play/match analyst; Kate Abdo, studio host; Cobi Jones, play-by-play, match analyst; Rob Stone, studio host; John Strong, play-by-play/match analyst; Stu Holden, play-by-play/match analyst; Alexi Lalas, studio analyst; Tom Rinaldi, feature correspondent; Landon Donovan, play-by-play/match analyst; Aly Wagner, play-by-play; match analyst; Eni Aluko, studio analyst.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #12, 2022, under the title, "Flipping the Script."