Fox to broadcast 'more than half' of 2018 World Cup games on free-to-air television network

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Fox Sports soccer broadcasters (from left to right) Alexi Lalas, Fernando Fiore, Kate Abdo, Landon Donovan and Rob Stone.

You won’t need a cable or satellite television subscription to watch the majority of the games at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. All you’ll need is an antenna.

David Neal, the executive producer of Fox’s World Cup coverage, announced Tuesday that “more than half” of the 64 games to be played at next summer’s tournament will be shown on the network’s flagship over-the-air broadcast channel. The rest will be shown on Fox Sports 1.

“It’s a huge commitment by our company,” Neal told the Inquirer and Daily News at a flashy presentation of Fox’s coverage plans held for advertisers and media in Manhattan.

Neal said that not only will more than half of the games in Russia be shown on Fox’s over-the-air channel, but the total number aired will be “more than the last four World Cups combined” on English-language TV. That means it will be more than 33. ABC carried 10 games each in 2014 and 2010, 12 in 2006 and one in 2002.

(At least, ABC only carried one live game in 2002. The channel aired six other games on tape delay and rebroadcast three more, which doesn’t really count.)

There will be a total of 350 hours of television coverage across Fox channels. There will also be a raft of online viewing alternatives, including broadcasts on virtual reality platforms and over 30 online streams of specific camera angles.

One of Neal’s jobs is picking the on-air talent that you’ll see on your televisions, not to mention your computer, phone, and tablet screens. He said he is “about 90 percent” through with that.

“There’s one or two slots that I still have some candidates [for], but we’re basically done,” he added.

We definitely know the hosts of Fox’s studio programming, as the network announced that Tuesday night. Kate Abdo will be in the chair to start each day, with broadcasts beginning at 6 a.m. Eastern time. Rob Stone will take viewers through game windows. Fernando Fiore will bring his wit and charisma to the nightly wrap-up show.

Abdo debuted with Fox at the 2015 Women’s World Cup. She joined the network full-time at the start of this year. Her resume includes CNN International, England’s Sky Sports and Germany’s Deutsche Welle — and fluency in French, German, and Spanish.

2018 will be the ninth World Cup of Stone’s broadcasting career, combining the men’s and women’s tournaments. He was a reporter in 1998, 1999 and 2010; a studio host in 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2015; and a play-by-play announcer and reporter in 2006.

Only the 2015 Women’s World Cup had him in as prominent a place as he’ll be in next year. And he didn’t hesitate to say that life in Russia will be far different than it was in Canada.

“The dynamics of being in a country like Russia, compared to Vancouver, where we did the Women’s World Cup [studio programming in Canada], or Germany and France, where I think you can control more of the variables — this is going to be probably the most challenging World Cup ever done,” he said.

Fiore is headed to his eighth World Cup, but his first working in English. The longtime Univision presenter admitted that he was planning to retire after the 2014 World Cup, until Neal invited him to join Fox.

“I came back, and now I’m having the time of my life,” he said. “It’s something I never expected.”

Fox will have a two-story studio in Moscow’s famed Red Square. Neal said he was in Russia last week to finalize some construction permits, all of which were approved.

Reporters at Fox’s event Tuesday got a quick glimpse of what the studio will look like, but the renderings haven’t been made public yet in a shareable form.

What did it take to get such a prime location?

“Relationship-building,” Neal said. “A lot of time spent. Even these days, with teleconferencing and all that, there’s no substitute for being there in person, for building a personal relationship, for explaining what you want, for listening to each other.”

Neal added that he has been working with Russian officials for over three years now to get everything set up.

It is impossible to separate soccer from politics, no matter how much anyone wants to and how hard anyone tries. Neal acknowledged that Fox will not shy away from political matters if necessary, but the network aims first to broadcast a sporting event.

“Our goal is to go over and cover the World Cup in the best way it’s ever been covered in the history of United States television,” he said. “There are geopolitics, you’re exactly right, but that’s not our focus. Our focus is the action on the field. … We’re going to cover games and we’re going to cover the host country, but we’re not going to focus on politics, that’s not what we’re there to do.”

Stone knows there will be politics on his docket, and he’s ready.

“You can’t put your head in the sand and avoid the politics of what’s going on,” he said. “If something arises, there’s no way we’re avoiding the conversation. I don’t think you can, right? It’s impossible. And it will be there from day one.”

He also believes that as often happens at the World Cup and Olympics, on-the-field matters will overtake off-the-field matters.

“Much like the Women’s World Cup [in 2015], with the FIFA scandal that was going on — let’s hit it early and move on, and enjoy the players and the games,” “he said. “Politics will eventually take a side seat, and frankly, I think both countries could use a nice break from the politics.”

As Neal noted, attempting to stay away from politics does not mean Fox will chronicle games and nothing else. The network’s is using a partnership with National Geographic — also owned by Fox’s corporate parent — to produce features on Russian life and culture. Some examples aired during Fox’s coverage of the Confederations Cup this summer.

The selection of World Cup play-by-play voices is always a talking point across the broad spectrum of soccer fans in America. At this point, there are more qualified Americans for the job than at any point in the sport’s history here. But there will still be plenty of fans who insist that only British accents can deliver an “authentic” viewing experience.

Neal knows all of that, and he knew the question was coming. Here’s his answer in full:

“We have the great benefit of John Strong, who I think has become the pre-eminent American soccer play-by-play man. We’ve got JP Dellacamera. We’ve got people like Glenn Davis. We’ve got an up-and-coming guy named Mark Followill. These are strong American voices. And you’re right, that’s been our trend. And I don’t see us deviating from that.”

As Neal works on the finishing touches to Fox’s World Cup puzzle, there remains one big piece that is out of his control. The United States still hasn’t qualified yet.

We’ll know in a few weeks whether that has happened. Until then, Neal is waiting just like the rest of us.

“There’s no question it’s better for us if the United States team qualifies,” he said. “If they don’t, we’ll still go to Russia and we’ll still cover the World Cup, but there’s no doubt that you always like to have the U.S. national team involved.”