Fox unveiled a deep roster of announcers and analysts for its women’s World Cup coverage on Thursday. After the news broke, executive producer David Neal gave The Inquirer some insight into his hiring decisions.
Let's start with the game-callers. There will be five crews, of which two will be based in France: JP Dellacamera and Aly Wagner, and Derek Rae and Danielle Slaton. Dellacamera and Wagner are the A team, set for all the U.S. games and other broadcasts.
The other three crews will call games off monitors in Los Angeles: Jenn Hildreth and Kyndra de St. Aubin, Glenn Davis and Angela Hucles, and Lisa Byington and Cat Whitehill.
"We're following the same blueprint that we did last summer in Russia," Neal said, referring to the 2018 men's World Cup. Two of Fox's six crews last summer spent the entire tournament abroad.
The original 2018 blueprint had only two crews in Russia all summer, but Neal sent a third overseas from the Round of 16 on. He did not rule out doing the same for one of his crews this summer. Neal didn't pick names, but the favorites are likely Hildreth and de St. Aubin, who won much acclaim as a pair during Fox's 2015 World Cup coverage.
Neal has also assembled a team of nine studio analysts, all of whom are former players. Returning from the 2015 cast are Ariane Hingst (Germany), Leslie Osborne (United States), Kelly Smith (England), and of course Alexi Lalas (United States). The newcomers are Heather O'Reilly (United States), Christie Pearce Rampone (United States), Eniola Aluko, Kate Gill (Australia) and Karina LeBlanc (Canada).
Osborne and Pearce Rampone will be with Kate Abdo in Los Angeles for a nightly show that will wrap up not just the day’s World Cup action, but also the men’s Concacaf Gold Cup that Fox will air in prime time. (Yes, there will be a few male analysts on that show too.)
Though the nightly show will encompass the whole day of soccer, all of the World Cup game-callers will be dedicated solely to that event. The Gold Cup will also have its own crews. Fox will confirm them in the next few weeks. (One is no secret: John Strong and Stu Holden will be the A team.)
"It's a challenge, but it's also a nice problem to have," he said. "It stretches us a bit, that's for sure, to have two operations, one in Paris, one in L.A. But I'm happy to have two really strong properties at the same time."
Fox's biggest new hires are O'Reilly and Aluko. O'Reilly has been a TV star in the making for years, bringing charisma and humor to the U.S. women's national team and many clubs. The only surprise is that she'll go to France while still an active player with the NWSL's North Carolina Courage.
"I've really left the details of working out her schedule to her, but she has made it clear that she is going to be able to be available," Neal said. "I have been a fan of Heather's literally for six years, and we finally got the opportunity. … I think she's a natural, and I think she's going to be terrific for us."
Aluko played 102 times for England from 2004-16, including at the 2012 Olympics and 2015 World Cup. Her international career ended in unfortunate fashion when she accused then-Lionesses coach Mark Sampson of making racist remarks toward her and another player. After a long inquiry that drew the British Parliament’s attention, Aluko was proven right last year.
Neal met Aluko in Moscow last summer when she was a World Cup studio analyst for England’s ITV.
"I was very impressed with her work," Neal said. "As soon as it became clear that she was available for the women's World Cup, you talk about an easy decision, that was one. She's going to be a really great addition for us."
Gill isn't a household name in the U.S. yet, but she might become one. A former Australia national team captain, she now works for the Matildas' players' union and does TV work for Australia's version of Fox Sports and national network SBS.
“We’ve had a couple of really terrific Skype conversations — obviously it’s a little harder to meet people when they live 10,000 miles away — but seeing her work on television, it’s been very clear to me that she’ll bring a nice, contemporary voice to our coverage,” Neal said. “The Matildas, I think you have to consider them in the top five contenders for this World Cup. So it’s great to not have not only a new, fresh, contemporary voice, but also somebody who can speak with knowledge of one of the teams that is certainly going to be contending.”
LeBlanc is known to American fans for her many years as a player in U.S. leagues and with Canada's national team. These days, she is the head of women's soccer at Concacaf. She has done plenty of TV work over the years, but her day job presents a potential conflict of interest. Neal said Fox will be transparent about that.
"Credibility is of supreme importance to us, and we will always disclose that she works for Concacaf," he said. "One of the things that I think is important for us is she's a goalkeeper. It's always good to have a goalkeeper as one of your voices."
Neal’s moves come at a significant time for Fox Sports as a whole. The company is a much smaller operation that it used to be in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of most of Fox’s entertainment assets. The new Fox — officially called Fox Corp. — is basically just the Fox broadcast network, Fox Sports and Fox News.
Will the smaller operation still have the resources to ensure a top-level production?
“Absolutely,” he answered. “The support that we are receiving has increased from four years ago. We all feel the weight of responsibility of being one of the first big events in the era of ‘New Fox,’ and I can tell you unequivocally we are getting great support from the company. So yes, we have the people and we have the resources.”