Fox was in Russia last summer for its first men’s soccer World Cup, but another important group of Americans did not make the trip, and it inevitably impacted interest among casual fans of the sport.
There will be no such concerns when the Women’s World Cup is contested in France starting June 7. Unlike last year, the U.S. qualified. And unlike in any men’s World Cup, the U.S. is a favorite.
“It’s a totally different feel, absolutely,” Aly Wagner, Fox’s lead game analyst, said last week at a send-off event at the French Consulate in Manhattan. “The energy going into this World Cup versus last year is way different.
“You see it . . . Everyone knows this World Cup is coming because the U.S. is in it and we have a very good chance of winning.”
Said Fox host Rob Stone, “I think there are lot of story lines. But in the end, I think it’s a hell of a lot easier doing the job when the U.S. is involved.”
And this, from studio analyst Alexi Lalas: “I mean, you can spin it any way you want, but not having a home team is not a good thing.”
The Americans not only are the defending champions, but also they inherit a legacy of big names and big victories that date to the 1990s. The trick has been keeping the generations rolling with new stars to replace the old.
For example: Those who do not follow the sport closely likely will be surprised to learn that Carli Lloyd, star of the 2015 World Cup, no longer is a starter.
“The person who was the legend, the MVP, less than four years ago is now reduced to this bench role, and she’s attacking it,” Stone said. “This is what happens in every sport, but we forget it because the women’s game isn’t in our daily consciousness.”
Another change since 2015 is that the rest of the world has continued to improve. That means heavy pressure for a team expected to excel.
“For the men, first you hope they qualify, and if they do you hope they get out of group stage and make it to the quarterfinals,” Fox executive producer David Neal said. “With the women, it’s much different.
“I think not only for us as broadcasters, but as fans and supporters, anyone would be disappointed if the U.S. didn’t make it to the final. So the expectation level is dramatically higher than it is for the men.”
Said Stone, “For years with the men you know you’re getting three games, and you are essentially hoping for a bonus game. And if you’re really greedy, you’re thinking maybe two [in the knockout round].
“On the flip side for the women you’re saying, we’re going to get at least five games, otherwise it is an absolute disaster.”
Again, that could be imperiled by the rising tide behind the traditional powers, often in countries that historically have been skeptical about women playing soccer but lately have come around.
“It’s about saying, ‘Wow, they play beautiful football and we like that!’” Wagner said. “Football is their soul, it’s their art, it’s what they love, and now they can enjoy it on the women’s side, too. That’s double the fun.”
Stone went “Game of Thrones” on the subject.
“Europe has entirely closed the gap," Stone said. "Winter is coming after the U.S. women’s team, and they need to protect Winterfell. They’ve got one alive dragon who’s trying to fend off Europe and everybody else.”
Like Russia last year, France presents scheduling challenges for Fox because prime time in Europe is in the middle of the day in North America.
Neal said organizers tried to help by scheduling the United States’ group stage games as late as possible. Two of the three will be at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. “That’s not terrible,” he said.
JP Dellacamera and Wagner are the lead game announcers. All 52 matches will be carried live, with 22 on Fox, 27 on FS1 and three on FS2.
The tournament begins June 7 and concludes on July 7 in Lyon, a hotbed of French women’s soccer. Fox’s main set will be in Paris.
Neal said that compared to 2015, Fox’s roster is full of “returning veterans,” including Wagner, a former women’s national team member.
“Four years ago, Aly Wagner was somebody that I found doing Santa Clara [University] games online,” Neal said. “God bless her, she took the initiative and now four years later not only is she our lead analyst for the women, she just did a tremendous job in Russia [on men’s games].”
Lalas announced during the 2015 World Cup that he had come around on women’s soccer after being exposed to it at the highest level.
“It forced me to really just mine it and understand it and appreciate it,” he said. “Yes, it’s the same game, and ultimately if it’s men’s, women’s or co-ed naked, I don’t really care, as long as people are kicking a soccer ball . . . It was great.”
The American women largely have outshone the men in star power over the past two decades, which TV executives love.
“These players are rock stars,” Neal said. “The really cool thing is the frenzy around mostly young boys and young girls. You see barely teenagers who are so excited to see this team. There’s something heartwarming about that. It’s very family oriented. You see 7-year-old boys wearing Alex Morgan No. 13 jerseys. They are a phenomenon.”
Wagner said, “The beauty of this national team and the program is that we cross over. It’s because we’re accessible, and we’re interesting human beings. They really are special people, and people gravitate toward that and they’re humble and open and honest.
“And oh, by the way, they’re fantastic athletes and are pretty remarkable in their craft. That all comes together and people gravitate toward that. They love it and want to go with them on this ride.”