Fox Sports hopes gam­ble pays off

The net­work will show all 52 games of the Women’s World Cup from Canada.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter kevin.bax­ter@la­

‘This could be a sem­i­nal mo­ment for the devel­op­ment of soc­cer in the U.S. We want to make a state­ment.’ — David Neal, who is in charge of Fox Sports’ cov­er­age of the World Cup

When David Neal was di­rect­ing NBC’s broad­casts of the 2008 Olympics, he de­cided to build the cov­er­age around swim­mer Michael Phelps’ quest to win eight gold medals.

It was a gam­ble, given the $894 mil­lion NBC had paid for the rights to the Games. So when the U.S. fell be­hind late in Phelps’ sec­ond race, the 400-me­ter freestyle re­lay, it looked as if Neal’s wa­ger was about to go down the drain.

In­stead, the Amer­i­cans ral­lied to win by a fin­ger­nail, and when Phelps won his eighth and fi­nal race a week later, nearly 40 mil­lion view­ers watched it on NBC.

This month, Neal is su­per­vis­ing an­other ex­pen­sive long­shot bet. As the man in charge of Fox Sports’ team at the Women’s World Cup in Canada, he will over­see the live broad­casts of all 52 games from the month-long tour­na­ment, the long­est and largest in women’s soc­cer his­tory.

And just as in Bei­jing, Neal will be root­ing for the U.S. to make it pay off. “It’s no se­cret that Amer­i­can view­ers want to see Amer­i­can ath­letes suc­ceed,” he said. “[But] there are things that are com­pletely out of our con­trol.”

Un­like NBC, Fox is gam­bling more with its air­time than its check­book. It ba­si­cally got the U.S. broad­cast rights to the women’s tour­na­ment — al­most as a throw-in — af­ter agree­ing to pay FIFA $425 mil­lion to tele­vise the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cups.

But the 200 hours the net­work will de­vote to the women’s event is sig­nif­i­cant, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the U.S. will play no more than seven times in the tour­na­ment. Fox will air nearly twice that many games fea­tur­ing Thai­land, Nige­ria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast.

“This is like the Olympics,” said Robert Got­tlieb, Fox Sports ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and head of mar­ket­ing. “If you have Olympic fenc­ing on a Wed­nes­day at 3 in the af­ter­noon, yeah, it may not be the most at­trac­tive event of the day. But you want the host broad­caster to have re­porters there.

“Even if it’s 70 peo­ple in Lubbock, Texas, who want to see Nige­ria ver­sus what­ever, for them not to be able to see it on tele­vi­sion would re­ally re­flect poorly on us as the ste­wards of the tour­na­ment.”

Nige­ria ver­sus what­ever won’t move the rat­ings nee­dle. Nor will women’s soc­cer alone — only two of the nine teams in the Na­tional Women’s Soc­cer League av­er­aged more than 3,700 fans a game last sea­son.

But the rock-star pop­u­lar­ity of the U.S. women’s team might. The Amer­i­cans drew big au­di­ences in their last two ma­jor in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ments, with 13.5 mil- lion view­ers watch­ing their 2011 World Cup fi­nal against Ja­pan on ESPN and a net­work-record 4.35 mil­lion turn­ing into NBCSN for the 2012 Olympic gold-medal game, also against Ja­pan.

Then last month, the U.S. played be­fore sell­out crowds in its three-game send-off se­ries — although Fox of­fi­cials, wor­ried about an early U.S. exit, pri­vately ex­pressed con­cern over how poorly the team played at times.

“It is ab­so­lutely a gam­ble,” said Paul Swan­gard of the War­saw Sports Mar­ket­ing Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon. “How­ever, live sports re­mains a valu­able as­set in what will be some­what of a lull in the sports cal­en­dar. That be­ing said, the U.S. team needs to per­form well to mit­i­gate the risk. Na­tion­al­ism would take hold, and the rat­ings would fol­low.”

De­spite the risk, Fox is spend­ing big, dis­patch­ing broad­cast­ers to each of the six World Cup venues and build­ing a two-story stu­dio for its an­chor team at scenic Coal Har­bor in Van­cou­ver, where its nearly 400 work­ers have filled more than two ho­tels.

And with the tour­na­ment in Canada, the net­work will ben­e­fit from fa­vor­able start times with more than half of the 52 matches kick­ing off af­ter 6 p.m. EDT. Six­teen of those games will air on Fox’s broad­cast chan­nel, with the oth­ers sched­uled for the com­pany’s rat­ing-chal­lenged ca­ble out­lets, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. (Ten games will also air in Span­ish on Tele­mu­ndo, with an­other 21 on NBC Universo.)

“We’re all in,” Got­tlieb said. “The way we see it, we’re sit­ting on some­thing that’s go­ing to ex­plode this sum­mer.”

Maybe. But Fox is also keep­ing its fin­gers crossed there will be a carry-over in soc­cer in­ter­est from last year’s men’s World Cup, when 18.2 mil­lion view­ers tuned in for the group-play game be­tween the U.S. and Por­tu­gal on ESPN. That’s the largest au­di­ence ever for soc­cer on U.S. tele­vi­sion, nar­rowly beat­ing the 17.9 mil­lion ABC draw for the fi­nal of the 1999 World Cup.

The 1999 Women’s World Cup.

“This could be a sem­i­nal mo­ment for the devel­op­ment of soc­cer in the U.S.,” said Neal, who will also di­rect Fox’s cov­er­age of the next three men’s World Cups. “We want to make a state­ment.”

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