Spotlight: Interview with David Neal, Executive Producer, FIFA World Cup on FOX
Hi David, really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. Can you begin by telling us what your role at Fox Sports entails?
I’ve been at FOX since 2012. I was brought in specifically for the World Cup: the overall content, planning, and production of the FIFA World Cup. Now, obviously, we’ve had two: the first was the Women’s World Cup in 2015 and the 2018 World Cup, and now we are very well into preparation and closing in on 200 days for the Women’s World Cup next summer.
Before joining FOX Sports in 2012, you amassed a vast body of experience producing other sporting events such the Olympics, NBA Finals, The World Series and the Super Bowl. In terms of expertise and innovation, where do you feel the production of soccer in the US stands in comparison to some of these other more established sporting events and how has your experience of these events shaped your approach to soccer?
I think the quality of the production of soccer at the international level, particularly of the World Cup, is absolutely world class. It’s largely due in measure of two organizations: the HBS, which is the host broadcaster for the FIFA World Cup, they really are the gold standard in terms of covering soccer; and ESPN, who did a fabulous job. Before we acquired the rights, ESPN did a fabulous job of growing soccer’s clout in the United States. And here at FOX, our number one goal was to at least be at that level and I think now, as we head into our third World Cup, we have really taken the time to raise the bar to an even higher level. A lot of credit is due to the HBS for their coverage and what the world sees of the World Cup and ESPN for what they did here in the US.
This summer marked FOX Sports’ first coverage of the FIFA World Cup - three months on from the tournament, how do you assess Fox’s performance? What aspects were you most proud of and what do you feel your biggest learnings were?
I was most proud of the fact that we went into a tournament without the United States. The men failed to qualify and obviously that created a less-than-ideal situation and that made us more vulnerable. So, when we went into the tournament, we knew that we had 32 teams to focus on. We didn’t have the United States—we had 32 teams that we held equal expectations of. We couldn’t just focus on one. I think, as a result, over the course of the 30-day tournament it became an advantage for us. Instead of having just one home team, we focused on the world’s soccer power and the up-and-comers as well. I think the global approach that we adapted to was a plus and a very strong positive across all of our coverage.
When Fox Sports bought the US rights to the FIFA World Cup in 2011, social media was nothing like the force it is today’s sports media landscape. How did you look to use social media channels to enhance your World Cup offering?
I think that the execution of our Digital team, with specific regard to social media, was really ideal. If you look at the demographics—younger people, young adults who are consuming soccer at an ever-growing rate— social media is one of their preferred platforms to begin with. So all of our various digital extensions, were perfectly paired with the event and with our coverage of the event. They really were ‘extensions’. If you’re an avid soccer fan, at the end of the day you could then watch Rachel Bonnetta on Twitter—which was terrific. That was one of the great things about our coverage: it wasn’t linear, we had complete crossover. So it felt like if you were consuming FOX soccer on any of those platforms, it felt consistent and like you were watching a product from the same group of people.
Digital media and technology were clearly key parts of your strategy with FOX Sport’s World Cup Hub providing live streams and enhanced coverage options of all 64 matches including multi-angle virtual reality feeds. How did this approach enhance your proposition both for fans and for advertisers and sponsors?
I think our sales team did a tremendous job of interfacing with the sales community, and making them aware of the multi-faceted aspects of our digital coverage. The advertising community saw that potential and wanted to participate in a big way.
Looking forward to future tournaments such as the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, in which areas do you think technological innovation will have the biggest impact on your broadcast strategy and why?
Qatar is obviously a much smaller country than Russia, and I think that broadcast technology will allow us to cover all of the action in Qatar and it will particularly help us if FIFA does extend the tournament and create a larger overall World Cup as soon as 2022 instead of waiting for 2026. So with more teams and more matches, all within a smaller country, the advances in technology in terms of efficiency and creative story telling will allow us to really capture the experience.
While this summer marked your debut in broadcasting the men’s tournament, your first experience of working with FIFA tournaments at FOX Sports was the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada and you are now in planning for next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. How are preparations going and in what ways does your strategy differ between the men’s and women’s tournaments?
They’re much more alike than not. When I was first hired at FOX, David Hill and Eric Shanks made it very clear that they wanted the women’s tournaments treated with the exact same enthusiasm, effort, and resources. They wanted the men’s and women’s tournaments to be on an even playing field. So that has really been our mission statement from the time the World Cup became an entity here at FOX Sports. As a result, not many things will be different except for the fact that the women’s national team qualified and as the defending World Champions,they will be going in with a proverbial target on their backs.That creates a really pretty storyline for us. In terms of preparing for it, it really is a quick turnaround from the men’s to the women’s. It will be less than 12 months between the two, so there had to be a bit of concurrent planning throughout the summer. It’s has also been helpful that FIFA is the governing body of soccer and HBS is continuing in their broadcast efforts. We are able to reach out and say, “Hey, we have to talk about two things at once here.” And, at least France and Russia are relatively in the same part of the world, so that had made it logistically easier too. Ultimately, with 200 days to go, we are well underway into our preparations for the Women’s World Cup and we will certainly benefit from the fact that we covered the Women’s World Cup once already and the vast majority of people behind and in front of the camera today were part of our success back in 2015.
The 2015 tournament in Canada was a huge success for FOX Sports with the USA’s victory over Japan in the final reaching an audience of over 25 million viewers, making it the most watched soccer match in US history. Do you expect the interest levels to be the same next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France to be the same and what are you doing to attract new fans?
The interest level is there. I think that we build on what the team enjoyed and what we benefited from in 2015. But, at the same time, the simple fact is that that was four years ago. So, through our terrific features unit, led by Jennifer Pransky, we will introduce the women’s team to our viewers; we will reintroduce the current environment of women’s soccer around the world in terms of the strongest teams outside of the US. Another point is that the U.S. Women’s team is trying to repeat as Women’s World Cup Champions. Germany is the only team as of now, to do it. So there’s a lot of storylines here for us to work with.
Before the action kicked off in Moscow this summer, FIFA announced that 2026 FIFA World Cup had been awarded to the joint bid from Canada, Mexico and the United States sparking jubilant scenes, especially in the FOX Sports Studio! What do you think it will mean for soccer in the Americas to have a FIFA World Cup on home soil and, as the US TV rights holder for the tournament, what about the opportunity are you most looking forward to?
You cannot underestimate the value of having a global tournament at home. I was fortunate enough at NBC to produce the Olympics in the US—Atlanta in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002—and it is just indescribable the excitement that grows throughout the country, and around having the best athletes around the world in your country. The other good thing is that we will be in our own time zone. There really is nothing better than having a global event at home and I think we will enjoy the benefits of that in every aspect.
Finally, a bit of fun…you have over 30 years of sports broadcasting, taking countless events; in this time what has been your favourite sporting event, and why? Also which sporting event would you have liked to have worked on?
I produced Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 1998. That was the height of the NBA, it was the NBA on NBC primetime Sunday television, and more often than not it was Michael Jordan and The Bulls playing. So being around Michael and being around the team that year with Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen—it really was like being around The Beatles. I remember when The Bulls came to New York for one of their regular season games, it was absolutely electric. Even for Madison Square Garden which has seen everyone and everything! For me, personally, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be around greatness and will always be at the top of my list.
In terms of what I have always wanted to work on, I would have to say Wimbledon. I have always been fascinated with the mission of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and playing on grass, and the immense decorum the athletes have to follow in terms of attire, etc. Additionally, I have always enjoyed my trips to England. We had it at NBC for a minute before it moved on, but Wimbledon has always been an event I’ve found most fascinating.
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