John Strong is catching hell for his suit. Unaccustomed to such nice threads, he draws cat calls as he steps onto the soundstage where he and the rest of the Fox Sports men’s World Cup broadcast team are about to be photographed together. The 2018 Cup will be Fox’s first as the English-language U.S. broadcaster. To illustrate the change, Fox’s PR pros plotted a promotional photo shoot a bit different from what sports broadcasters are used to — with the men in high-end suits and the women in gowns. Most of the team seems into it. Strong doesn’t look unhappy, but he’s probably been more comfortable.
“I’m only on camera for 10 minutes every day,” he joke-complains to a publicity exec. A few feet away, former U.S. men’s national team midfielder Stu Holden is mocking Strong, walking around with his legs stiff and arms held out in front of him, as if distressed by his clothing.
Strong and Holden will serve together as the lead play-by-play announcer and analyst, respectively, for this year’s Cup in Russia, which begins June 14. On Wednesday, Fox announced its team of World Cup announcers, analysts, hosts, and reporters — a mix of American and international television veterans and newer voices. Back in 2011, Fox agreed to pay $400 million to wrest the rights for the 2018 and 2022 men’s Cups away from ESPN. Ever since, the company has been in prep for a moment that is about to arrive, and which has already subverted expectations.
One of the fruits of Fox’s labor is Strong. Soccer ascended from the U.S. TV sports gutter in 1994, when the United States hosted the men’s Cup. Before and since, the authoritative voices of soccer on U.S. TV have had British accents. But at 32 years old, Strong is part of a new generation of soccer announcers coming to the game with an American perspective rather than a European or Latin American one.
“I think it’s indicative of the growth of soccer in the United States,” says David Neal, World Cup executive producer. Of the six broadcast units covering games for Fox Sports in Russia this summer, four will be led by American play-by-play announcers. Strong, who if all goes according to plan will call the final in Moscow July 15, “has developed into the preeminent American soccer voice,” Neal says.
Already Fox’s lead Major League Soccer announcer, Strong joined the network in 2015 from NBC, where he called MLS and Premier League matches. Fox made it clear from the time that it acquired World Cup rights that it wanted an American as its lead soccer play-by-play person, and in 2012 began grooming the versatile Gus Johnson — a veteran basketball, football, hockey, and boxing announcer — for the role. But Johnson endured intense criticism and stepped down from his soccer duties in 2014, creating an opening.
Strong isn’t taking his seat for granted. “I’m not naive to the fact that if I’m terrible in the group stage, I’m not going to call the final,” Strong says. “We have five other accomplished broadcasters, a couple of whom have called World Cup finals.”
But if he succeeds, Strong will have an opportunity rare for any broadcaster in any sport.
“There is no defined American sound for what soccer is,” he says. “We are still developing our American soccer culture. The opportunity that’s in front of a lot of us who work in this is we get a chance to define what this is going to be. One of the fun things that I think about is I could do this for a couple decades. I’m young enough. So could I be a part of defining not just what the American style of calling soccer is, but also have my voice narrate soccer from what it has been to wherever the heck it’s going to end up? That’s exciting.”
There is a bitter irony, however, underscoring the enthusiasm of Strong and everyone else at Fox Sports. The U.S. men’s team will not be at this World Cup, having failed to qualify for the first time since 1986. Fox will be looking to put its own American stamp on the tournament at a historic nadir for American men’s soccer.
The day after the U.S. men’s national team lost to Trinidad last October, killing their World Cup hopes, Neal and Fox sports president Eric Shanks held a conference call to rally the troops. But the loss still stings.
“It sucks,” says Alexi Lalas, a longtime studio analyst and a star on the U.S. men’s team in the ’90s. “There’s really no way around that.” He uses words like “scar” and “failure” to describe the damage done to U.S. men’s soccer by the Trinidad loss. But he and others at Fox are attempting to find a silver lining.
“I’m interested to see how it impacts the stories we tell on the air,” Lalas says.
As with the Olympics or any international sports event, a typical American World Cup broadcast plan involves outsize attention paid to the U.S. team — despite the fact that, on the men’s side, the U.S. is at best a mid-tier soccer power.
“It’s a challenge and an opportunity at the same time,” says studio host Rob Stone. “It was absolute sorrow and heartache. We finally get this opportunity to do a World Cup the Fox way, and the U.S. national team’s not going to be there. For generations of World Cup coverage, that was always the crutch. You could build so much programming around the U.S. team and the ratings numbers that come with however many games they give you. But this country and our network are prepared now for a World Cup that doesn’t involve our home country.”
He adds, “Everybody has somehow lowered the bar on the expectations for this World Cup. We’re going to over-deliver. We’re going to crush it. This country wants to watch soccer.”
Lalas is hopeful that a U.S.-free men’s Cup will “show to the skeptics that remain that the popularity of soccer and the popularity of the World Cup goes beyond a blind patriotism.” He points to international stars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo as players who will drive narratives well into the final stages of the Cup, long past the point when the U.S. team could have been expected to still be alive.
Studio host Kate Abdo joined Fox last year from U.K. broadcaster Sky. She says that she is “super excited” to see whether the German team can repeat as champions after its dominating victory over Brazil in 2014.
Abdo broadcasts Champions League and Europa League for Fox and spent eight years covering soccer in Germany. A year into her Fox tenure, she has been impressed with the network’s approach to the game.
“I have really enjoyed that we remember to have fun with it,” she says. “We remember why people tune in to soccer in the first place, which I think can be a little bit lost in European broadcasts, where we tend to over-analyze and treat everything slightly more serious than it needs to be. I really enjoy the fact that you get a sense for how much everybody who’s involved in this really loves the game.”
She has also been pleasantly surprised by the soccer knowledge she has found in the U.S.
“I think Europeans, if I’m honest, tend to come in with a Euro-snobbery,” she says. “We assume that people with an American accent don’t necessarily understand the game the way that we do. And I’ve been proven massively wrong in that.”