Fox soccer executive producer Jonty Whitehead steps down after five years in charge
He has been in charge of Fox's coverage of MLS, the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, Germany's Bundesliga and England's FA Cup, and will help from afar with planning for the World Cup.
After spending five years in charge of some of Fox's highest-profile soccer broadcasts, Jonty Whitehead is leaving the network to return to his native England.
Whitehead is departing for personal reasons, and not of the bad kind. He and his wife simply wanted to return to England. They have lived abroad not only during Whitehead's time at Fox, but also for three years before that when he was in charge of Al-Jazeera's soccer coverage.
That is eight years of globetrotting in all, from Qatar to California and all manner of other places along the way.
"I think it's the right time to move back, and catch up with things back in the U.K.," Whitehead said.
Whitehead isn't entirely done at Fox yet. He will work from abroad as an editorial consultant through next summer's men's World Cup in Russia, helping the network prepare for its first presentation of the planet's most famous sporting event.
But he is done with his day-to-day role overseeing Fox's coverage of a wide range of soccer properties, including MLS, the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, Germany's Bundesliga and England's FA Cup.
"It's pretty intense," Whitehead said.
Now he will be able to take a broader view of things.
"That consultancy agreement basically allows me to take a view of our programming and pass some thoughts if necessary down the line to the guys who will take over and take it forward," he said.
In the time that Whitehead has been at the helm, Fox has grown its soccer coverage not just in terms of quantity, but quality as well. The network has its critics, and has for a long time. It probably always will. But even those critics would probably have to concede that Fox's broadcasts are better than they used to be, with hires such as John Strong and Kate Abdo. Alexi Lalas also moved to Fox during Whitehead's tenure.
"I think we've raised the level, and raised the bar," Whitehead said.
He is especially proud of having helped Fox boost its longstanding reputation as a particularly American voice for the game. He knows there are critics, but he also knows there are also plenty of people who like it.
"What Fox has managed to do — and, you know, I'd like to think I've played a small part in that — is found a real identity in the way that it covers the sport in America," Whitehead said. "It's authentic, it's an American voice, and it has no insecurities — as I think soccer perhaps in the past has had — and we do things in an American way. And people like John Strong, people like Rob Stone, Alexi [Lalas] … they've grown and developed, and understand where we should position the sport, and how to speak to our biggest possible audience."
What happens next at Fox? Whitehead said there likely won't be an appointment to his position for a while. Instead, duties will be split between vice president of production Jason Wormser and coordinating producer Maleek Ndile. Domestic game production will continue to be overseen by Shaw Brown and Wayne Wilson, veterans of American soccer who have reputations across the game as being among the best in the business.
Whitehead's departure comes at a time of change for the network. While the 2018 World Cup is coming, the UEFA Champions League and Europa League are going after this season.
Fox is also losing another of its most important soccer people, head of business operations David Nathanson. He was in charge of negotiating Fox's soccer rights deals, including the crown jewel contract with FIFA. As the Sports Business Journal reported Thursday, Nathanson will leave the network when his contract expires in early October.
Multiple sources made it clear that the timing of the two departures is coincidental and neither move has anything to do with the other. It's also worth noting that Whitehead's decision was known within the industry for a while before it became public Thursday.
Whitehead and Nathanson are leaving behind a strong foundation. And they have made sure that Fox is ready and willing to help continue soccer's growth in this country — especially when it comes to the domestic game.
"The facility that we've provided, getting Shaw Brown across to head up the production side of it, using the expert technical facilities that Fox have always been renowned for, but putting their focus on soccer games, has been great," Whitehead said. "And the growth of the league [MLS] — they have been such a good partner to deal with. … We're in constant conversation with them, and looking to grow the league hand in hand. It's not a broadcaster and a league working separately."
Viewership figures haven't risen as quickly as anyone would like. According to figures compiled by World Soccer Talk, there has been a healthy rise in the per-game average on FS1 this year, but a decrease in the average for games on Fox's broadcast network. That comes on the heels of an impressive 37 percent increase in viewership on all Fox channels combined from 2015 to 2016.
National team ratings have also been strong. Every U.S. game at the Copa América Centenario last year cleared 1 million viewers, as did every U.S. knockout-round game at this summer's Gold Cup. The U.S.' World Cup qualifier at Mexico in June cleared 2 million viewers.
There has even been an increase in Fox's Bundesliga viewership early this season, thanks in part to national team star Christian Pulisic's key role at Borussia Dortmund.
"Seeing the ratings bump that Dortmund now receives is down to the fact that people understand who he is, and the league that he's playing in, and they're interested," Whitehead said. "And that level of interest all around has grown considerably in the five years that I've been associated with the growth of the sport in this country."
Whitehead has had an important role in that growth. It is a fine legacy to leave behind.