Fox Sports may have paid $425 million for the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, but they’re treating this summer’s soccer mega-event like a Division II volleyball tournament. Fox sent just four of its 12 commentators to Russia, with the remaining crews providing game calls from a studio in Los Angeles. It’s a blatant cost-cutting measure, as was the decision to hire a crew of mostly American broadcasters to call the matches—a departure from the princely stable of established Commonwealth-based commentators ESPN relied on for its coverage of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
Fox’s J.P. Dellacamera and Tony Meola were in Moscow for the tournament’s opening contest, and so the first matches to be called by remote crews came Friday. Was it a distraction? Has the network’s miserly and lazy broadcasting approach cheapened the beautiful game?
Not really. (So far.)
Mark Followill and Englishman Warren Barton called Friday’s first match, between Egypt and Uruguay, from the Fox soundstage in Westwood. The early start time—5 a.m. Pacific—may have fogged my faculties, but I had no idea they weren’t live in Yekaterinburg. (And I know what Yekaterinburg sounds like!) Whoever’s responsible for mixing the audio is doing a great job, because bad remote commentary is extremely hard to ignore.
Remote commentators have been commonplace in American soccer broadcasts for decades. The old Fox Soccer Channel relied heavily on the practice, as does current La Liga carrier beIN Sports, whose studio is in Florida. In most cases, you can hear every inch of the ocean-size gulf between the commentators and the pitch. When beIN’s famously excitable color man Ray Hudson goes into hysterics over a “magisterial” play by Leo Messi, it often sounds like he’s screaming from inside an airplane lavatory.
However, when Egyptian goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy dove at full stretch to save a blistering shot from Edinson Cavani on Friday, Followill’s call didn’t sound like it was coming from inside the bathroom of a 767. Nor did you get the sense that Barton’s accompanying gasp was made 6,100 miles away from the action.
Also, give Fox credit for not pretending these crews are at the game, like they did during the 2017 Champions League. For that tournament, they made commentators stand in front of green screens with soft-focus footage of the stadiums superimposed behind them. The effect was about as convincing as the outer-space scenes in a Battlestar Galactica porn parody (which I can only assume are unconvincing).
Derek Rae and Aly Wagner were on the call for Friday’s second match, Iran’s 1–0 win over Morocco. Wagner, a longtime standout for the U.S. women’s national team, is the first woman to provide World Cup provide commentary on an American broadcast, and she had excellent rapport with the Scottish Rae.
If anything, the worst-called game of the tournament thus far was the opening contest, and that’s all thanks to its Moscow-based crew. Being close to the pitch didn’t make former U.S. goalkeeper Meola any more insightful or Dellacamera’s sonorous cadence any less game show–like, yet Fox felt they were worth the airfare.
In-stadium commentators can bring attention to events occurring off-screen, like on Saturday when John Strong noted Lionel Messi standing with his hands on his hips 40 yards away from the ball. It will be interesting to see whether Fox’s Russia-based broadcasters provide more of these kinds of insights as the tournament progresses, but they have been relatively rare during the early matches. (I reached out to Fox Sports PR to ask if its Los Angeles crews have access to more camera angles than the standard broadcast feed, but they have not yet responded.)
It’s probably not a coincidence that each of Friday’s successful remote crews had one of Fox’s two U.K. broadcasters. (It turns out that ESPN doesn’t have a total monopoly on commentators from Great Britain.) Sure, it’s simple-minded, but I’m not too proud to admit that the accents make a difference. Stuart Holden, part of the lead broadcast crew that will be covering the tournament’s biggest matches in person, disagrees. He told the AP before the World Cup that ”[i]t’s become a lazy comparison and people judging the voices just purely on an accent. American voices should be seen as normal.”
Clearly, Holden has never heard Derek Rae say that a team has “run out of petrol.”
If the first few matches are any indication, the Rae-Wagner and Followill-Barton duos should have gotten the nod to make the trip to Russia. Thankfully, having them broadcast remotely won’t be too much of a loss. If you close your eyes, Westwood sounds a lot like the Urals.