Fox’s Neal: Women’s World Cup Is Hardly a Boutique Event

When FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 kicks off tomorrow, viewers will have myriad looks from across the pitches at the six stadiums hosting the 24-team, 52-match tournament. Fox Sports, in its FIFA debut, is providing unprecedented coverage — for men’s or women’s events — with 16 matches on the broadcast network, including five in primetime; Fox Sports 1 will air 29 matches, and FS2 will televise seven others.

Home Broadcasting Services is supplying the international feed to rightsholders, with action unspooling from 20 cameras.

“HBS is the gold standard for international soccer coverage,” says David Neal, executive producer, FIFA World Cup, Fox Sports, noting that a Major League Soccer match is typically shot with eight to 10 cameras.

He says Canada 2015 marks the first time HBS has been so hands-on with a Women’s World Cup: “As a producer, I’m very happy with HBS.”

Although the on-air linear look will be uniform across the Fox networks, the Fox Sports Go mobile app will offer three alternative views. Match 360 will show the players walking from the locker room to the pitch for pre-match warmups, in-progress highlights, and postgame press conferences. The Tactical Cam, available for 41 matches, will show how coaches watch the performance of all 22 players on the field. The Overhead Cam will be accessible for 23 contests.

‘Lazy Susan’ Set
Dedicated WWC watchers will be able to check out highlights, analysis, and studio fare, with FIFA Women’s World Cup Today and FIFA Women’s World Cup Tonight emanating from Fox’s media headquarters in Vancouver.

Located adjacent to the Convention Centre in Jack Poole Plaza, the 7,500-sq.-ft. compound houses offices, a control room, a green room, and a state-of-the-art, custom-built set constructed with help from Vancouver-based BC Event Management. The bi-level facility combines the city’s modern architecture and its natural beauty. The set sports a main stage, a day lounge with a water backdrop, an evening lounge with a cityscape, and a demonstration soccer surface.

Highly familiar with the area and its infrastructure from his work as EVP and executive producer for NBC Sports’ coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Neal described the multifaceted set as “a big lazy Susan. There is a natural tableau with the harbor and the mountains.” And then there’s the man-made: “a background with the Olympic cauldron that was lit by Wayne Gretzky for the 2010 Games and the steel and glass of downtown Vancouver.”

Neal says that, whereas the winters are inclement, during the summer months, the area is “spectacular.”

Arriving for the duration of the tourney on May 27, Neal had been up north at least a dozen times since joining Fox three years ago. He notes that coast-to-coast coverage, spanning 2,400 miles, is greater than any distance Fox will trek with the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Some 400 people are involved with the effort.

Neal played scout for two stadiums on opposite sides of the map. BC Place in Vancouver, home for the July 5 final, was the venue for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in 2010. “It now has a retractable that wasn’t fitted for the Winter Games,” he notes, adding, “The camera positions are excellent.”

Across the country in New Brunswick, the venue is much smaller. “There are 10,000 seats in Moncton. There are more intimate camera positions.”

Talent Call
Fox Sports has announced its five on-air teams: JP Dellacamera, Cat Whitehill, and Tony DiCicco are scheduled to call the U.S. group-stage matches against Australia June 8 on FS1, Sweden June 12 on Fox, and Nigeria June 16 also on the broadcast network, respectively. However, the programmer has yet to declare who will call the July 5 final.

Neal says the decision will be shaped in part on how viewers react to the talent and how the matches go: “The talent level is very deep. I have an idea in my mind how it plays out. We have options.”

Competition, Not Coronation for U.S.
World Cup and Olympics success, according to Neal, is judged to some extent on ratings and audience. The U.S. team’s performance in the competition will go a long way toward determining the WWC’s Nielsen ratings.

He describes FIFA Canada 2015 as “a competition, not a coronation” for the Americans. Despite their success in the Olympics and the Algarve Cup, Neal points out that the U.S. hasn’t hoisted the World Cup trophy since 1999, in Brandi Chastain’s midriff-baring, zeitgeist moment at the Rose Bowl.

“Nothing will be given to them. They have been ranked number one for a long time; now Germany’s on top,” he says. “But I think it’s better to be a slight underdog.”

And what if they come up short?

“I’m the biggest fan of the U.S. women’s team,” he says. “This is not a special but an event. If they lose, we will continue to be there. We will provide full coverage.”

Features Aplenty
That coverage will include an array of 60-plus features that will run on Fox, FS1, and FS2, telling tales of the 24 teams, players — Neal touts the piece on U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe as top-notch — and the history of women’s soccer. The efforts are led by Emmy Award-winner Jennifer Pransky, coordinator producer of the features division.

There will also be a segment depicting the motion-capture session of the U.S. team at videogame supplier EA Canada, which for the first time is including women in its soccer product. A dozen female sides will be featured in EA Sports’ FIFA 16 entry.

Linear features typically range from 2½ to three minutes, but longer versions will be available for digital viewing. “You know, nobody can bear to part with any of [the content],” Neal explains. The ‘director’s cuts’ run five to six minutes. The telecasts will point viewers to for the full cut.”

The segments are critical to providing a full perspective of the tourney. “There are 52 matches. The best case has the U.S. playing in seven; 45 will not involve the Americans,” he says. “The idea is to get the viewers engaged to know the players from Nigeria, Thailand, and Cambodia, as well as those who may be more familiar from England, Germany, and Japan.”

Fox’s Commitment
From the beginning, Neal says, Fox has been all in with the Women’s World Cup. “The commitment to FIFA, the time zone, and the strength of U.S. women’s team mandate that this is not a boutique event, not a laboratory for the 2018 World Cup in Russia,” he explains. “We’re fully staffed and have all the resources we’ve asked for.

“I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and everything that was talked about has been 100% true,’ he continues. “The commitment from 21st Century Fox has been terrific.”

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