As David Neal surveys the view from the Fox Sports 2019 Women’s World Cup studio, he sees a thunderstorm raging over the Eiffel Tower.
The studio, located in a palatial Parisian restaurant bought out by the network for the duration of the tournament, affords its analyst occupants and viewers at home a head-to-toe view of the iconic landmark.
“Whenever an American viewer watches our studio coverage, they will be in no doubt of where we are,” says Neal, vice president of production and executive producer of the World Cup on Fox. “I have been in this business 41 years, done nine Olympics at NBC and this is my third World Cup with Fox, and it is without a doubt the most spectacular setting for a broadcast set I have seen.”
After delivering the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history at the 2015 Women’s World Cup and a somewhat disappointing men’s World Cup sans U.S. representation in 2018, the pressure is on Fox Sports to produce something spectacular in France. However, the storm clouds gathering over the French capital could be an ominous sign, or they could symbolize the U.S. team as they prepare to bring the thunder.
After all, rain came pouring down on the French men’s team as they lifted the trophy in Russia last year. The U.S. women’s team hopes to be celebrating in similar fashion come the final on July 7.
The U.S. will get the ball rolling against Thailand on June 11, followed by a second group game against Chile on June 16. If those two games sounds like David versus Goliath contests, that’s because they are. Thailand is ranked number 34 in the world, while Chile is down at 39. For both countries, and arguably every other team in the tournament, a prospective matchup against the U.S. at a World Cup is the “biggest game of their careers.”
The U.S., headed by a trio of captains in Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, is entering the tournament as the defending champions and the number one ranked team in the world.
“That has been the standard for the women’s national team throughout our history,” says Heather O’Reilly, a U.S. team legend in her own right. “We’re the only country that has three stars and we’re going for a fourth. It’s win or bust.”
This World Cup will be the first in a long time for which O’Reilly won’t be “preparing on a physical level with the team.” Instead, the three-time Olympic Gold Medal winner, who announced in April that she is hanging up her boots at the end of the current National Women’s Soccer League season, is joining the Fox Sports team as an analyst for her World Cup broadcast debut.
O’Reilly remembers what it felt like to win a World Cup in 2015. But she also knows the pressure that comes with representing the U.S. on the biggest stage of women’s soccer and the devastation of defeat, after being part of the squad which lost the 2011 final on penalty kicks to Japan in heartbreaking fashion.
“Although we came back to the U.S. to a parade and as heroes, you could say, we felt like we didn’t get the job done,” she says. “I know the group of players and I know the program. Anything less than bringing home the trophy will be a disappointment.”
Given that O’Reilly comes into the analyst role as a close friend of many on the U.S. team, the temptation might be to drop them the occasional text to get an inside scoop. However, she also recognizes that her new position requires a balanced approach, and has tried to maintain a level of separation and “respectfully kept her distance” in the build up to the event.
But what if, in a hypothetical scenario, U.S. forward Alex Morgan were to smash a sensational long shot into the back of the net in the dying seconds to win the World Cup? In that case, O’Reilly is happy to admit that impartiality could be difficult to preserve.
“I think our loyalty is to the game and the tournament, but anybody who knows me knows that I’ve played for my country 231 times. I’ve been part of the team since I was a teenager, it’s part of my DNA, my existence. It’s no secret I want them to do really well and win,” she says. “As women’s soccer continues to evolve, I think the analysis needs to evolve as well and that means watching games with a critical eye and if something’s not good enough being able to say that it’s not. If I can be fun, fair and factual I think I’ve done a good job.”
On the other side of the experience spectrum on the Fox Sports team is lead analyst and former player Aly Wagner, who made history last year when she became the first woman to call a men’s World Cup on TV in the United States.
Wagner will once again be co-commentating on the action, and she anticipates this tournament will be the most hotly contested edition since the Women’s World Cup was founded in 1991.
“It’s always been the case where there’s maybe two challengers, other than the U.S., going into it. But this time around there are more teams that can go the distance. I could make a good case for eight teams who could go all the way, it’s wide open,” she says.
Among the other teams on Wagner’s list are England and Germany, both of whom will be represented in the Fox Sports studio. Ariane Hingst, a two-time world cup winner with Germany, will sit alongside legendary English goal-scorer Kelly Smith and striker Eniola Aluko, as well as a lineup of more regular Fox soccer pundits.
After setting a high coverage bar with the 2015 women’s World Cup in Canada, Neal says the main change Fox Sports has made for France is to bolster the number of women in the studio and on commentary.
“Over two thirds of the commentators we have working on the World Cup are women, and that’s because they’re excellent broadcasters. I think it’s reflective of the fact that this is the most important women’s sports event in the world,” Neal says.
That final in Vancouver four years ago delivered not only a famous victory for the U.S., but also 25.4 million total viewers and a ratings triumph for Fox. While last year’s men’s World Cup, though undeniably entertaining, painted a less pretty ratings picture for the network and was ultimately hampered by the national team’s dismal failure to qualify. This time around, both Fox and fans of the U.S. team are hoping for a repeat of the heroics of 2015 and a victorious ticker tape parade through the streets of New York come mid-July.
“All of us were out here in Russia a year ago preparing for what was arguably the greatest World Cup ever, but it still lacked the U.S.,” Neal recalls. “We went into the tournament knowing that we had 32 teams and none of them were called the USA. But coming into this tournament, there’s a different, heightened level of excitement and expectation for all of us. It feels bigger than ever.”