Most of David Neal’s recent travels to Russia have been, in his estimation, “uneventful.” Which is good.
“Things are progressing as we’ve been told they would,” the executive producer of Fox Sports’ World Cup coverage said.
On Wednesday, Neal had a day that was far from uneventful — and it happened on the home front. Fox was battered by soccer fans across the U.S. for only sending two of its six World Cup commentary teams to Russia.
Neal was ready for the onslaught. Earlier this week, he spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News about why the network will have its other four crews call games off monitors in Fox’s Los Angeles studios.
“It’s fairly standard procedure these days to do [broadcasts] off tube and do them from home,” Neal said. “The technology is there, and it allows us to not have to travel everybody.”
He cited NBC’s history of having Olympics announcers call live events from studios in the U.S. It is a subject he has some experience with. Prior to joining Fox in September of 2012, he was the executive vice president of NBC’s Olympics division.
“ESPN similarly split their operations in Brazil in 2014” at the World Cup, he added.
There’s a big difference, though: ESPN had all of its broadcasters in Brazil. When they weren’t in stadiums, they called games off monitors in Rio de Janeiro. Fans forgave the network, understanding that not every broadcaster can fit in every stadium.
But at least they were able to experience the scene in Brazil in person. For Fox to not have announcers in the host nation is different. That hasn’t happened since 2006, when the World Cup was of far less importance to U.S. English-language television than it is now.
Neal said Fox considered flying everyone to Moscow, but decided to not. Why?
“Really, there’s no advantage if you’re doing a monitor call — it doesn’t matter where you are,” he said. “We’ve got the infrastructure here in L.A., so there’s really no reason not to avail ourselves of it.”
Left unsaid was that it also saves Fox some money.
Here is Fox’s full talent roster:
Reporters (all in Russia): Maria Komandnaya, Rodolfo Landeros, Geoff Shreeves (borrowed from England’s Sky Sports), Jenny Taft, Sergey Gordeev (producing features with National Geographic), Rachel Bonnetta (primarily doing online content)
Correspondent-at-Large (in Russia): Grant Wahl (also writing for Sports Illustrated)
Neal said there won’t be any attempts to hide the location of the Los Angeles-based commentators when they’re on air.
“We’re not trying to keep it a secret,” he said. “We will absolutely be forthcoming. If Aly and Derek are doing a game and there’s weather in Kazan, they will say, ‘Bad weather there in Kazan.’ We’re not going to try to pretend. … There’s no attempt at all to mislead anybody.”
Wagner told the Associated Press that “it’s not an advantage at all” to work off monitors.
“You’re limited in what you get to see,” she said. “I’m hoping that we’ll have maybe an extra cam, like a tactical-view cam. That will help. But sometimes you’re just limited to what the viewers at home see.”
Wagner will be the first woman to call a men’s World Cup game in U.S. TV history. She and Rae get Morocco vs. Iran on Friday, June 15, the second day of the tournament. Wagner will step aside from calling National Women’s Soccer League games while with Fox.
Smith made her Fox debut in 2015 as a studio analyst at the Women’s World Cup in Canada, and will be back next year for the Women’s World Cup in France.
Neal said “it’s absolutely important” for him to have women in on-air analysis roles at his men’s World Cup broadcasts.
“Our decision-making process, whether it’s having Aly calling games or Kelly in the studio, is gender-neutral,” Neal added. “What’s most important to us is having the best voices. And it just so happens that two of those best voices for us, as we go into the men’s World Cup, are women.”
“Through mutual friends, I learned that he was available and interested,” Neal said. “I’ve always been an admirer of Derek’s work, and the idea of Derek and Aly together became something that was irresistible for all of us here.”
Pérez-Navarro will get games featuring Spanish-speaking nations. That’s intentional. He’s been the English-language voice of Fox’s Mexican national team broadcasts in recent times. English is not the Mexico native’s first language, and he’s had some trials by fire. But he’s gotten better, and Neal is ready to give him a big stage.
“He is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever been around,” Neal said. “There’s no question that it’s quite a challenge. He has embraced it from the outset. There’s no doubt in my mind that he has improved with every game that he’s done, with every rep that he’s had.”