Writing about soccer often gives me opportunities to freak the f*ck out over seemingly inconsequential things. I try to let these opportunities go by, though, in keeping with my credo that discretion is the better part of valour. I find it isn’t too hard to keep a level head and analyse a situation from many angles… usually. One thing riles my ire to cataclysmic levels without fail, however: watching soccer on any Fox network.
From the commentators (who range from mildly condescending to aggressively hapless) to the studio coverage (looking at you, Alexi Lalas) to the production itself, Fox never fails to put every foot wrong when it comes to delivering the world’s game to the richest sports markets in the world.
Since the nascent days of my soccer fandom watching Fox soccer coverage was a thorn in my side. The dedicated Fox Soccer 1 and Fox Soccer 2 were erratic at best. Fox Soccer 2, in fact, seemed like it very well might not exist. No matter who I called at my cable company, which bars I reached out to, or what soccer fans I conversed with, nobody had ever actually watched the channel. Much the same as Finland not existing, maps displayed the illusion, conventional wisdom dictated it was likely there, but when it came to actually watching a game the TV Guide said was on FS2, the channel was gone like a wraith into the fog.
A Rogue’s Gallery Without the Rogues
The issues with Fox’s coverage don’t end with the logistically fitful, though. The tone of broadcasts sits steadily at “offensive”. It’s clear their studio crew contains members who range from “offering nothing of substance” to “disinterested”. Rob Stone seems to have been anointed, in a stunningly nonsensical decision, Chief Fox Soccer personality. His off-the-wall carryings-on come across as forced and make him seem like he doesn’t understand the scope or gravity of the things he’s covering. I’m not sure Stone actually cares about soccer at all. Maybe I’m being harsh on him here in that he only seems vacuous, but actually sees what’s going on; it’s certainly hard to tell.
He’s often accompanied by the odious Alexi Lalas who appears to want to be the Soccer Stephan A. Smith, saying anything for the sake of being inflammatory. The “Set Piece Orgy” debacle comes to mind when thinking of Lalas’s completely inane effusions (an instance I gratefully cannot find a video of). He covers games as if he wants every sentence out of his mouth to be the next catch-phrase of American Soccer. He is an emblem of what is wrong with soccer in America, forcing a zany hot-take down our throats rather than acknowledging the hundreds of years of soccer coverage in which an informed and well-spoken man has dutifully relayed the happenings in a match. The difference between pith and platitudes, Mr. Lalas, is substance.
The supporting casts Fox trots out along these two insipid figures are equally tiresome. It seems Fernando Fiore is now here to stay. The Argentine analyst and commentator actually seems to know what he’s doing, but even he isn’t invincible to the ruination being perpetrated by Fox. It appears the figures behind the curtain at Fox have insisted he become a frankly offensive pastiche of “that zany Mexican soccer guy who says ‘goooaaalll’ really loud”. He is a tenured soccer personality with accolades galore, but the flanderization continues every time he appears on Fox. It’s hard to blame Fiore. He was doing this long before Fox, and I pray to every god that exists that he’ll continue after Fox gives up, but for now his over-the-top joviality is another brick in the wall of annoyance.
The Ballad of Gus Johnson
Perhaps the most egregious instance of Fox spoiling perfectly competent sports personalities is the ballad of Gus Johnson. Johnson, for those who don’t know, is a celebrated commentator in college basketball and football. He’s a natural. He brings enthusiasm and I genuinely like him. For a period of time, however, he was shoe-horned into being the voice of soccer on Fox. It was an unmitigated disaster. He started covering soccer for Fox in 2012 and ‘13 with a view towards him being the go-to-guy as Fox continued to acquire exclusive US broadcasting rights to the biggest events in world soccer (the UEFA Champion’s League and the FIFA World Cup, most notably).
Despite his general sports know-how and his hard work at bringing enthusiasm to the game, his unfamiliarity with soccer shined through. He regularly pronounced players’ names wrong and went into raptures at unimportant moments (like carrying the ball across the halfway line). He had no appreciation of the tension inherent in a big game, he didn’t understand the story-lines that sprout up during a season, and he struggled to strike up chemistry with any co-commentator. It was clear he didn’t know what he was doing and that’s never going to fly with passionate fans.
Eventually Johnson stepped down as the main soccer guy at Fox, but his initial appointment encapsulates the issue with Fox’s soccer coverage: it seems like nobody at Fox really understands or cares about soccer. Why do they keep bringing in people to “try to make it interesting”? Clearly millions around the world think soccer is interesting enough without the side-show of vapid stooges “spicing things up”. We like soccer fine. The problem is that we hate Fox.