Rob Stone and Alexi Lalas want to prove Fox's soccer critics wrong
NEW YORK - Whether you are a grizzled veteran of the American soccer scene or a newly-minted idealist, you are likely quite familiar with Rob Stone and Alexi Lalas.
Both men have been part of the American soccer media landscape for almost the entire modern era of the sport in this country. When it comes to television personalities, they're in a rare class of veteran observers of the game's growth, up there with names like Bob Ley, Phil Schoen and Andrés Cantor.
Stone has chronicled soccer's rise in America as a reporter, studio host and play-by-play announcer (and a varsity athlete at Colgate University). Lalas was the first American to play in Serie A, then came home to MLS to play and later work as a club executive.
The two men have known each other for almost as long as you have known them, and worked together for years until Stone jumped from ESPN to Fox in 2012. When ESPN's FIFA contract ended last year, Lalas became the network's first big soccer voice to move to the new World Cup rights-holder.
Now Hambone and Big Red are back together, and their chemistry is as natural as it has ever been. Lalas has also fit well with Warren Barton and former U.S. national team colleague Eric Wynalda on Fox's studio set.
Fox has a long history of bringing soccer to America, from the earliest days of Major League Soccer to broadcasting the English Premier League way before it was popular. This year will be the company's biggest ever year with the global game. In addition to the properties I noted above, Fox will start broadcasting Germany's Bundesliga in August, freeing one of Europe's most entertaining leagues from its longtime purgatory on lesser networks.
But the spotlight won't come without controversy. Fox's soccer broadcasts over the years have drawn as much criticism as praise (if not more) for putting too much hype and sizzle in its broadcasts, instead of letting the game speak for itself. The network also didn't always commit the financial resources to putting together broadcasts of the same quality as ESPN and NBC.
Over the next few months, Fox has a huge opportunity to change those perceptions. To its credit, the network has not been deaf to the criticism, and has been quite clear publicly about wanting to do right by soccer fans.
We have already seen some moves, not just in rights acquisitions but in hires such as Lalas, John Strong and producer Shaw Brown. This coming Sunday will bring a major measuring stick, as Fox Sports 1 airs a prime time MLS doubleheader on the season's opening weekend (if there isn't a strike, of course). And when the lights go on at the network's Women's World Cup set in Vancouver, the pressure will rise again.
Last Friday, Fox hosted a gathering of its soccer executives and on-air talent to set the stage for the network's big year. I sat down to chat with Stone and Lalas about hopes, goals and expectations - not just for the network, but for the two of them personally. And as you'll see, we touched on some of the hot-button issues that everyone in American soccer is talking about these days.
I can't think of two better people to put in perspective the pressure and the privilege that Fox faces in the months to come.
Rob, this is going to be the eighth World Cup between the men and women combined that you've helped broadcast in the U.S., dating back to 1998 in France. For the readers who don't know, take them through your history with the tournament.
Stone: I was a roving reporter, and I was really with the U.S. team, in '98 in France. I covered [Alexi] at the airport as they were departing France. One of my most memorable interviews was with a very angry and surly Alexi Lalas at the end of France '98, and I had never seen that side of him. I wasn't tight with him at that moment, and the unleashing of the emotions really caught me off-guard.
Lalas: Yeah, that was not my finest moment. [He also laughed heartily as Stone started to tell the story.]
Stone: That was crazy stuff. So, yeah, World Cup '98 was my first one employed. In '94 I was a fan. In 2002 [South Korea/Japan] I was a studio host. In 2006 [Germany] I was over there calling games and reporting. In 2010 [South Africa] I was reporting. In 2014 [Brazil] I was not an employee [of ESPN]. In 2014 I was a fan.
Let's go to the 1999 Women's World Cup - I was a reporter [on the field during games and at other times]. We were talking about this last night. 2003 was back in the U.S. because of SARS [it was originally awarded to China, but was relocated in May of that year because of the disease], and I did some studio stuff for that. In 2007, I was a studio host, because it was in China, so I was living on China time in Connecticut. And then the last one, 2011 [Germany], I don't think I touched.
I ask about your history not just to explain it to those who don't know, but because you would probably be more qualified than anyone else I could think of to answer this question: What has Fox gotten itself into by becoming the home of all FIFA tournaments through 2026?
Stone: That had been a concern of mine for sure - not only on the World Cup level, but when we started the 24-hour network [launching Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 in August of 2013]. I had been in that "world net" mentality. The adaptation that the network has made on both fronts has been seamless.
We just had kind of an all-hands-on-deck meeting two days ago, and we sat through a seminar, if you will. Taking in the information and seeing the visuals, they're prepared. They're ready.
Alexi and I have seen what it takes to be prepared, and also what it takes to go through this grind of a marathon. Everything I've seen and everything I've heard - this is not just the company line - shows they're ready for it.
This is not a Women's World Cup, this is a World Cup. Don't get the sexes confused. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is - if Russia [host of the 2018 World Cup] was happening now, this is probably the way it would be going down.
Does the fact that the tournament is taking place in Canada make it easier? You certainly won't have to wake up at 2 a.m. like you did in 2007. But then again, is it harder because of the size of the spotlight, with so many games on network television in prime time?
Stone: It's going to be easier with the time zone.
Lalas: Language. You don't have to learn a language.
Stone: Food. I know the beers in Canada already, which is good. But I think the big challenge is that there might be some expectations for what Fox is going to be, because of what they have done, maybe years, years, years ago.
And I think we're all really kind of excited to show people that this is something we are more than welcome to embrace, and are prepared for - and to give it a Fox feel, but also to truly show it in the sporting light that it deserves.
You've alluded to it twice now, before I could even bring it up. So let's go right to the question that so many people in the American soccer community have. There are a lot of critics of Fox out there, fair or not.
You've had the UEFA Champions League, obviously, and the FA Cup, and CONCACAF competitions. But the World Cup audience, and I'd even say the MLS audience, are different. How much of an opportunity do you have now to prove the critics wrong?
Stone: I think it's a massive opportunity to quiet a lot of the critics. I think a lot of people just attack Fox because they just see the name Fox, and that automatically opens things up for them, and we become vulnerable somehow.
I think if you look back at our broadcasts over the course of the last three years or so, what we've done with the Champions League and the FA Cup; and what we did with the Premier League [which Fox held for many years before NBC bought the rights in 2013]; and what we've done with the U.S. national team already - these are productions that are on par with what the expectations should be from American soccer fans out there.
And they are going to be surpassed this summer. I'm confident in that.
Lalas: I would just say that it's going to be uniquely Fox, and I'm not going to apologize for that, nor should we apologize for that.
Which means what?
Lalas: Which means we get the benefit of seeing what has been done in the past, the good and the bad, and we do it in a way that is not trying to reinvent the wheel, but is also trying to move it along and evolve it to hopefully a higher and a better level.
Constantly running around trying to please everybody, in anything in life, it's never going to get you very far. But having said all that, there is an ultimate responsibility that I think all of us feel, no matter who you're working for, to the game, and this case, to the tournament. To make sure that it's done in a way that's entertaining, that's informative, that is progressive, but with that added point of being who we are, not trying to be something that we're not.
That's a good thing. I think that's a positive. I think that's the way it's going to go, and I think that's the way it should go.
I have to ask this because you have both worked for multiple networks before. What are we going to see from Fox that will be different from what we've seen from ESPN, NBC and others?
Stone: I don't know how much different it's going to be, because your hands are tied for a large part of it. You're taking the world feed. You can't really supplement that feed too terribly much. In essence, I think with the games, the visuals at least are going to be what everybody gets.
I think the sound is going to be a little bit more American than maybe the viewers of past World Cups have grown accustomed to. That would probably be one of the more different elements that would probably stand out.
But again, to Alexi's point, we're not afraid to [stand by] who we are. Not that other networks have, at all, but we are warm, energetic, happy people. We smile, we laugh, we hit each other on air. That's who we are. This is not how we've been asked to do it. And I don't think there's anything wrong with presenting soccer in that atmosphere.
You don't have to sit there and have a frown on and question everything and almost be dour at times. We're positive people. But I'll tell you, we're going to call people out when they deserve it.
Lalas: It will be a conversation. The technical side of it, it'll be as good as anything you've seen. And we are limited, as Rob said, to what we get from FIFA.
But the conversation, the discourse, the discussion and the debate that has now become a part of soccer - it's been a part of other sports, but now it's starting to become more and more a part of how the tournaments, how the players, how the games are looked at - it's going to continue on.
We're going to have what amounts to the bar chats that people associated with sports, in a television format. We will continue to do that, and in particular we will do that with the Women's World Cup, which I think is something that's important, and something that's new.
I'll be talking about it in the same way I talk about the men's game or a men's World Cup. If I see something I like, I'll point it out, and if I see something I don't like, I'll point it out. We'll talk about all the stories that develop throughout the tournament.
When it comes to having that discussion, what is your stance going to be about criticizing the U.S. women's team? There may or may not be grounds for it depending on results, but as we've seen the last few months, those grounds seem to have been there.
Stone: I don't think we're shying away from anything. If we see a crack, a problem, an issue that develops, I think it's just in our nature, regardless of the sex or the sport, to go after it and question it.
Mario Balotelli takes the ball away ahead of that crucial penalty kick* - I don't care if it's Mario Balotelli or a woman on Thailand's national team, the War Elephants, we're going to question why you're doing that. I don't think it has anything to do with sex, I think it's about what is transpiring on the field. And off the field, quite frankly.
[* - Balotelli took the ball from Liverpool teammates Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge in a recent UEFA Europa League game against Beşiktaş.]
Fox has had a track record for many, many years of developing American broadcasting talent - going all the way back to Christian Miles, Christopher Sullivan and others in the 90s and early 2000s. But for many years, there was a lot of criticism from TV viewers whenever an American voice was given a prominent role in calling soccer.
That dynamic has changed a fair amount in recent months and years, thanks in no small part to people like the two of you and your Fox colleagues John Strong and J.P. Dellacamera. Is America ready now to have a World Cup called completely by Americans?
Stone: Correct me if I'm wrong, but what country are we in?
You've seen the dynamic plenty yourself.
Stone: I know, I know. But we're in America. Why is it so wrong to hear American voices call a sport? Why does that country or that continent own this sport? That's [expletive redacted*]. Absolute, and you know it.
There's nothing wrong with having an American voice call the World Cup final. I'm still pissed off that Taylor Twellman was not allowed to call the final last year in Brazil. And I'm pretty sure Taylor will tell you that he's pissed off too, whether he tells you on the record or not. I thought that was a disservice.
I think Ian Darke has done a wonderful job. I love listening to the Martin Tylers of the world. But I think more times than not, people have just been pushed into this direction of saying, "Well, if there's an accent associated with it, it has to right and it has to be original and it has to be authentic." I believe that. But why is the American voice punished?
Now I think the punishment has been taken away. You're going to hear other voices, you're going to hear other accents at the Women's World Cup - as you should. And you hear them on the UEFA Champions League, the FA Cup.
I don't think there's a rule book out there that says an American cannot call a World Cup. J.P. Dellacamera called the 1999 Women's World Cup final, arguably the biggest sporting event that ever went down in the United States. I don't hear anybody moaning about that. It pisses me off. It fires me up.
* - It's tempting to not redact that word, but the rules are the rules.
Lalas: Look, the ear wants what the ear wants, and this association with "The accent equals authenticity and credibility," it's just a perception. It's a perception that is changing. Generationally it's changing. It becomes more diluted as more and more - we call them American voices, but it's just accents.
If you've grown up watching soccer from overseas, chances are you've been hearing an English accent, so that's what you associate with the game. I can't change the fact that that's what people associate with quality in an instant. But in time, we can do that.
Look, I'm in a business where how you say something is as important is what you say, and we never forget that. We understand that, and I remind myself and others all the time.
Having said that, when you take out the text of what people say - with an accent, with an American accent, with a Midwestern accent, or something like that - and you actually look at the content, often times, if it was said with an English accent, it would be given this credibility and this authenticity.
And the opposite way is true. If I were to say something that people prop up there as the most incredibly insightful thing that's ever been said, and I were to say it in my Midwestern accent, there would be people that would hear it and and would throw it to the side because of that Midwestern accent. It's changing, but it's a slow process.
Where were you when the news broke that FIFA gave Fox an extension of its rights deal through 2026, and how did you find out about it?
Stone: I was in my bedroom, and what was I doing - there was something that I was doing earlier that day. I read a tweet from an ex-colleague of mine referencing me and 2026, and I didn't understand it. I didn't know what it meant. I was very confused. Then I got scared, and I started going into my timeline, and that's where I found out.
While that was going on, I had missed a phone call from one of my executives' offices. I texted [Fox Sports president] Eric Shanks and I texted [Fox Sports GM and COO] David Nathanson, and I said, "Is this true?" The answer: "Call me right now." That's how I found out.
Lalas: Twitter. I was in my house. I got a text from Rob that just said, "Wow!" I think that was the reaction we all had. From my perspective, now at Fox, my next reaction was, "Awesome."
So you both had no advance knowledge at all?
Stone: No clue. No clue. Completely caught off guard. I was in my bedroom hearing the news. And it's so far down the road that it's hard to even think about it, but I was shaking. I didn't know how to react. I called my wife down and was like,"We just got the 2026 World Cup. I don't know how, I don't know why, but we apparently now have this." That's a game-changer for a lot of people on a lot of fronts. I was completely stunned and caught off-guard by it. Not a lie.
Lalas: No. They wouldn't - that's not my department. It came completely out of the blue. And not even a whiff. There wasn't even an inkling. When it came through, I saw it on Twitter. And look, we get a lot of breaking news on Twitter, but sometimes we hear, "Hey, there are rumblings." There was nothing until that tweet.
Is the public right to be as bewildered as you were?
Stone: Yeah. Why shouldn't they be? I think people would look at me and say, "Well, Stone should be in the know somewhat - why wasn't he?" It caught me off guard. It's an amazing turn of events, and things like this only seem to happen with FIFA.
Should the public be willing to believe that because this deal happened, and then a few days later FIFA confirmed that the 2022 World Cup will be held in November and December, it increases the odds that the 2026 World Cup will take place in North America - specifically the United States or Canada?
Stone: I don't know if that has anything to do with it. I that in just natural conversation and logic, you'd say to yourself that it's time to get back here. It's time to get back to the U.S. I've been a big proponent of it. I don't think this conversation, this agreement, has anything to do with the future and 2026. But if anything, I think it brings more eyes and focus to the fact that it belongs here. It's time to come back, and do it.
Lalas: Do I think we have a chance? Yeah, absolutely. Even before this happened, it was fair to believe that this was going to happen. I mean, look, it's going to come back, and that's obviously the next one that's open.
The money is obvious. The reality is that when you put on one of, if not the most, successful World Cups ever in 1994, and now we'll be, what, 30 years later? With what the U.S. has become, it stands to reason that you extrapolate that out, and it would be out of this world.
Let's talk about Major League Soccer. What should viewers expect from Fox as MLS returns to the network after a three-year absence?
Stone: I think you should expect a stronger product on the screen than you've seen in the past. The preparations are in full gear right now despite the labor strife that's floating out there.
I think, again, it's this continued this drive, and Alexi and I have seen it, toward the authenticity of what this sport is, no matter what the league. We were involved in MLS in the early days, where the mantra was "Find fans, find young fans, and don't show all the empty seats at the Cotton Bowl." Now, it's the Seattle extreme, if you will, of this passionate fan base, which is really overtaking.
We appreciate that and want to embrace it. I love that we have some executives in our soccer world that are not from America, and have come in here and they find, "Oh, now I'm in charge of this MLS product," and they may not know a ton about it initially, but when they go to Seattle and Portland, they come back and are like, "Wow, this reminded me of 'X' stadium [and] this was more impressive than the club I used to cheer for."
This 20th anniversary number is so enticing. I think it's amazing to look from it where it was in '96 to where it's going to be on the field, off the field; off the field, with the marketing and the gear; and the television product has improved immensely.
But without those people before us - I mean, think about the major television steps that have been made in our country. If you look at a MLS product today compared to what it was 20 years ago: the visual of sitting back, the hearing, the technology, it's a completely different world.
So we know John Strong is going to be the play-by-play voice, though we don't know yet who the main color analyst will be. And we know that your MLS broadcast windows will be two and a half hours, with pregame and postgame studio elements. What else will we see from Fox? Will there be new things that we haven't seen from other MLS broadcasters?
Stone: We have some doubleheaders* that will be a different dynamic where we're doing the studio from L.A., but I know there's a lot of pregame and postgame coverage when there's just a single game. You'd know more about that than I would, Alexi.
Lalas: It's storytelling. It's telling people what has happened, what is going to happen, and what is happening in the moment, and how it relates to what's going on with MLS. And doing it, once again, in an entertaining and informative way, a uniquely Fox way.
Stone: You asked what's going to be different, what's going to be new. I don't know what groundbreaking thing has yet to be achieved in MLS.
Lalas: Well, it doesn't necessarily apply just to Fox, but the fact that there is a destination [schedule] now. You know when and where to go. We have to use that to our advantage.
We'll be the final game of the week, so making sure that we put it in the context of what has already happened in the weekend and the week is important. Being able to get those elements into the game I think is important, so that you are going to sleep and getting ready for your week having watched a game, but also having been filled with what has happened.
So you wake up on Monday and you know this is what happened last week in MLS, and you've got all of that in the window.
[*- Fox Sports 1 has Sunday night doubleheaders on three dates: March 8, April 26 and May 24.]
You guys know I've been writing for years on the subject of getting MLS' national TV games to be in exclusive broadcast windows, so that the audience isn't fragmented by having other games at the same time.
Stone: Yes. The MLS owners. Destination television. That's been lost on MLS. All the years that Alexi has played, or that I've covered, there have been days when I don't even know what day of the week our game is this week.
And not only the fact that we know Sunday is the day, but there's this synergy on Sunday between two networks [ESPN and Fox] that are coming together to really strengthen this brand and this league. I know the NFL is on CBS, NBC, ESPN and Fox, but there's not this tight love affair. This is handing it off - and these are guys that we've worked with that are handing it off to us. It's a very unique relationship.
Lalas: It's just like any business. You've got a product, and the worst thing you could possibly tell anyone that has a business is, "Yeah, I want to buy your product, but I don't know where to get it. I want to give you money, but I don't want to give you money." This product, now you know exactly where to get it.
When John Strong was announced as Fox's lead MLS voice, it got a lot of attention. But another hire at the same caught my eye: Shaw Brown, who has worked on MLS broadcast crews for a range of networks over the years. Most recently, he was NBCSN's lead producer for its MLS games.
He's a friend of mine, I admit, as I know he is of yours, and he doesn't like it when I write about him because he often prefers staying out of the spotlight.
Stone: Good. Keep writing about him.
Ha. Well, tell the readers how important he is.
Stone: I started working with Shaw back in the mid-'90s on a little show called Worldwide Soccer. That's where Shaw and I first met. We did a lot of features together and shows together. His passion for the game was never in question at that point, nor were his knowledge and his contacts.
So to find somebody who is that invested in this league, has that much knowledge and passion - and to be in that role of a guy who can lead a two- to two-and-a-half-hour soccer window each week, it's pretty unique. I think we all feel very fortunate that we were able to get him to come over to this side.
Lalas: He's like a DP signing.
Stone: He may not get maximum salary, but he is a DP signing.
What is the definition of success for Fox with MLS?
Stone: I think it depends who you ask. For us, more eyeballs is always a success - it doesn't matter who you talk to. I think people walking away from our product saying, "They got it right, they get it," and they can calm down - to me, that's success. But frankly, to me, I think we've already achieved that success. It's there.
Lalas: Just having people tune in on a consistent basis, and tune in because they are interested and excited to see what is going to be done in that window that we have. Even the inevitable compare-and-contrast that's going to be done between the two networks - they did this that way, and this was great here, and they sucked there - that's okay, as long as people are tuning in. That type of competition - you know who would love it? Jurgen Klinsmann. In that way, we're following Klinsmann in how we're doing things here.
Stone: Not enough German-Americans, though.
Lalas: The other window [on ESPN] coming before us is going to make us better, and we believe that what we're going to do is going to make them better. And I think if we do that, it's success.
Stone: And don't overlook the unity in the soccer world between the two companies.
You can take it to three companies, counting Univision.
Stone: We are one big family. The soccer television family is really small. We want them to succeed as much as they want us to succeed, and I truly feel we are partners. We talk to Taylor [Twellman] all the time. We know the guys and gals behind the scenes and in front of the camera over over there, and they know us. It's a very open dialogue and conversation between us.
I'll end with this: Will there be a strike, and should there be a strike?
Stone: I think not. I think both parties, very late over some Chinese food and coffee, come together and say, "This is too detrimental for everybody. We need to find a solution." Whether it's a Band-Aid or not, I think they come to some resolution: "Alright, let's put these parameters in effect for now and get going, and let's continue the conversation."
But that's also a very slippery slope, because then people start losing their bargaining power. I think in the end, both parties come together and realize, "We need each other - we need to be together rather than apart."
Lalas: Should there be a strike? No. People should be able to work this out beforehand for the good of the game.
There are times when you need to strike. Yeah, I think there will be a strike. And is it the worst thing in the world? No. We'll get through this.
These are big-boy problems. In a certain way, if you want to be "Major League," then you have to have major league moments - good and bad. I'm not advocating that there should be a strike for that to happen, but this is where we are. We're 20 years in. If we're going to celebrate 20 years - we're certainly not "there" yet, but we're not newborns and we've gotten out of adolescence. They'll be able to withstand it.