- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2015

For David Neal, the Executive Producer of FIFA World Cup on Fox Sports, the U.S. Women’s National Team’s win over Germany on Tuesday brought more than a trip to the finals. The ongoing event is his first World Cup with Fox, which owns the rights to broadcast the event from 2015 through 2026 and has delivered record ratings. The Washington Times spoke with Neal about designing Fox Sports‘ coverage, his interest in the sport and how the game is growing in America.

Question: Given that this was the first World Cup event that Fox has had the rights to cover, what was the first impression that you wanted to make with your coverage of this Women’s World Cup?
Neal: We wanted to make a clear statement that we are all in. This is a major event for us and we were going to commit every resource to it that we have, and I think that we’ve made a pretty emphatic statement about it, now a month in, that this is a priority for us and we’re going big with it.

Q: You were hired at Fox after the deal was originally signed but as the guy to assemble the team and make a finished product once Fox had the rights to broadcast the games in the U.S. How did you view that particular challenge?
A: It fascinated me from the very outset. I’ve produced nine Olympics at NBC, so I felt a lot of parallels between the way that you produce an Olympics and the way you produce a World Cup. They’re both global events, both obviously involving elements of national pride and patriotism, along with putting the greatest athletes in the world together, so those parallels were, to me, something that was very engaging from the outset. And the other thing that was particularly irresistible, for me, was that in my first meeting with David Hill, who is really the founder of Fox Sports, and Eric Shanks, who is our president, they both made it clear to me that this Women’s World Cup was meant to be given every resource, every bit of backing — that this was not some small boutique event, that this was not meant to be a laboratory for Russia in 2018, but that instead it was meant to be a stand-on-its-own major event and that the company was committed to giving it all the resources that it needed. And I have to tell you, three years down the road, without exception, that has been true. That has been the way that we’ve operated this event, the support that we’ve had, and I think you see that reflected on the screen and in the coverage that we put out there.

Q: You mentioned three years, but what has the timeline been like for assembling the team, organizing and finalizing the set and all the graphics you need to provide to make the most appealing coverage?
A: What you have to do when you’re preparing for an event of this magnitude, is recognizing that you can’t accomplish everything in one day, that you have to prioritize. You have to look at the production plan, you have to create the production plan, you have to look at the talent that you need to execute that plan, you have to look at logistics, you have to decide where your stage, where your set is going to be located, you have to decide where your base of operations is going to be, and those, for us, were very significant decisions. And early on, about two and a half years ago, we decided on this location here on the harbor in Vancouver and our host, which is the Vancouver Convention Centre, has been an ideal partner. They’ve made this possible for us. We also decided early on that we would split our technical operation between Canada and our home base in Los Angeles on the Fox block. That has worked perfectly. It’s worked seamlessly for us. So, a lot of those big-picture decisions get made fairly early in the process, and then you have to work the details to get from your plan of what you want to do to what you can actually accomplish, and so it takes a lot of time and it just takes patience to recognize that you can’t get it all done in one day.

Q: To what extent, when you’re making those decisions, are you sure that they’re going to work out as well as it seems they have, or to what extent do you feel like you’re gambling?
A: You know, this business, this is a business that’s inherently risky. You try to make calculated decisions, you try to not put yourself in a position where you’re unlikely to succeed but you’re right, when you’re dealing with an event, in this case, with more than 200 hours of television, more than 400 employees, millions of dollars of rights fees involved, millions of dollars of production, you try to be very calculated in your decision. You can never be 100 percent certain, obviously, of anything but you try to make informed choices and put yourself in the best position to succeed.

Q: And so having worked on the Olympics, the NBA Finals, the World Series, the Super Bowl, everything that you have been a producer for, why soccer now?
A: Part of it, and it may sound trite, but part of it is the culture of Fox Sports. When I left NBC, I decided I didn’t want to work in network television anymore, that I wanted to run my own production company. The only place that I would have ever considered coming back into the network world was Fox, and that’s because of people like David Hill and Eric Shanks. I have to say, I’ve been in this business 35 years, and without question this has been the most enjoyable professional experience of my career. Due a lot to the people, probably more than anything to the people, but also a lot due to the corporate culture and going back again to that commitment that they made early on to say that we’re going to treat this Women’s World Cup like the global event that it is and give it the prestige and the resources. All of that has made me, every day, thank my lucky stars I got the opportunity to come here and that I was smart enough to join when the position was offered.

Q: Did you have a strong pre-existing interest in soccer?
A: Yeah, I did. It’s interesting, I did a year and a half consulting job at Univision after I left NBC, and I went there to create Univision’s Deportes network, their full-time cable network, and that gave me a full immersion in soccer as you can imagine in Univision’s business soccer is far and away the most important and popular sport that they cover. So between doing a Copa America down in Argentina, which was really cool, to doing Gold Cup coverage in the United States in 2011, it gave me a real appreciation for the passion that soccer fans have for this sport. And the funny thing is that I’m married to an ex-Georgetown athlete. My wife [Jen Neal] played basketball at Georgetown, so the idea of empowered female athletes is something that is part of my daily existence, so the convergence of the two factors is something that really proved to be ideal.

Q: What are the particular challenges associated with broadcasting soccer, as opposed to other sports?
A: You know, it’s interesting. More than challenges, I find them appealing. I love that the game is so fast paced, I frankly love — my colleagues in sales probably won’t agree with me on this, but I love the fact that we can’t put commercials in during play. I love the fact that when a half starts, you’re going to play for 45 minutes plus maybe one or two and there’s no commercial breaks, it’s pure action. And then you get your commercials in at the top. The other interesting thing is that match coverage is produced by an entity that FIFA hires called HBS, and they do a fabulous job. HBS is a European-based company, and they have also treated this event with a level of magnitude that really is the gold standard. You know, every one of these games, from the very first game in group play, has had 20 cameras at it. Twenty cameras, multiple replay devices, aerial shots, overhead cameras, all of those things, and we benefit from those, but it’s also a challenge. As a TV producer, you always want to control everything, and with HBS, you can’t, because FIFA has this doctrine with their TV coverage that they want fans to see the same feed whether they’re watching in Duluth or Doha. They want it to be to see the same coverage. And obviously, what makes you different is you put your own voice in, your own commentators, so it’s in personalizing the coverage your own way but at the same time adhering to the restrictions that we have to work with.

Q: You’ve had historic ratings so far through this Women’s World Cup. Was that a surprise and has it told you anything about your coverage of the event or the event itself?
A: I can honestly say it doesn’t surprise me. I was talking to a colleague this morning, a guy named Robert Gottlieb, who runs all of our marketing for Fox Sports. And he and I were saying to each other, we were sort of the two lone voices out there for a while saying that this team, this event, this time zone, if the planets aligned, this was going to be a rocket ship. And it’s so gratifying for us to see the American public having attached themselves to this U.S. Women’s National Team and watching in record numbers like they’ve been doing.

Q: With soccer growing the way that it’s growing, what are you looking for from your host, Rob Stone, and from your studio analysts? What type of audience do you want them to broadcast to?
A: You know, it’s interesting what makes this different is that it’s become a cultural event. The difference between a good, solid number, a good rating, and a spectacular one is if you start drawing in fans who may not know anything about soccer, who have just heard their friends talking about it saying, “Wow, did you see that U.S.-Germany game yesterday? It was unbelievable!” And now they’re playing on Sunday, and what we remind ourselves every day in our production meeting is that we need to make every one of these shows accessible, because you’re going to have viewers coming in in exactly that mindset. They don’t know much about soccer but they’ve heard about it, so the analogy we use is that we never want viewers to come in and feel like they’ve stumbled onto some private club where they don’t know the secret handshake. Instead, we want to make them — when we talk about storylines, when we talk about the game, when we talk about the strategy — that we make it accessible and we make it easy to understand because we know this is a great opportunity we have where we’re going to be getting literally millions of viewers who probably haven’t watched one minute of the World Cup up until this one, but they’ve heard about it. And we want to be sure that we welcome them in and that we offer them engaging television.

Q: So you feel like in doing that, you’re gearing your coverage towards the audience that you have, not the audience that you want?
A: I do. And, honestly, I think we all feel a shared responsibility here. Every one of us who works on the World Cup has a great love for this game and for what this event has become and we want to be true to that responsibility. We want to be sure that we do our part fully to make this into the historic moment for this sport in our country that it very well may be.

Q: What was the experience and the rush like Wednesday night, not just with the numbers but with the excitement of how the game went?
A: I think my right wrist is still strained from the high-fives we gave on the second goal Kelley O’Hara scored last night. It’s a euphoria that’s difficult to describe because every one of us in this business are professionals, we’re not fans, per se, we’re professionals. But when the planets align the way that they appear to have done in this event, and then you get a dramatic game that plays out the way it did [Tuesday] and gets you the results you’re personally hoping for, it’s indescribable.

Q: And what is that like, as a news or reporting entity where you want to maintain a sense of objectivity, covering something that becomes a patriotic event. How do you balance those things?
A: That’s a really good question and, as much as we were hi-fiving on Kelley O’Hara’s goal [Tuesday], regardless of the outcome, we were absolutely prepared and committed to being professional in our coverage, to not being cheerleaders because we don’t want to be that. I think, as you probably saw, we have a pretty good range of experience on our studio group. We have four-time Germany world cup player [Ariane Hingst] who, yesterday, obviously, she was feeling the other side of the emotion. We also have Kelly Smith, who is the greatest women’s footballer in English history. [Wednesday], she’ll be on edge as well. There’s no question that we allow ourselves to enjoy a moment of national pride, but the fact is that we are here and committed to covering this event in the way that it must be covered which is to show all sides, to do stores about both teams. We had a story on Hope Solo yesterday, but we also had a story on Nadine Angerer, so there is a responsibility that we take very seriously to covering all angles.

Q: Earlier this summer, what was your strategy for addressing FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s resignation amid a criminal investigation just a few days before this Women’s World Cup started?
A: The day of the resignation we were in a scheduled day-long production research meeting where, we have a fellow who literally spends his entire life doing research on soccer, so all of our talent were wearing various degrees of t-shirts and sweatpants sitting in a hotel meeting room reviewing the stories of all 24 teams coming in. And we got the call that this surprise announcement had taken place in Zurich, so we marshalled the forces in record time. Our stage was not even built yet. You may remember some of the images from that day — we got ourselves live cameras in front of what was still a construction zone at that time and went on for hours of sustaining coverage where we brought in journalists on phone interviews from The New York Times and others to describe the reporting they were doing on the scene in Zurich, but also the opinions of our various experts we had here. So, when news like that breaks, we absolutely are committed to covering it the best that we can. That was a memorable day, it required us to improvise a little bit, but I was very proud of the effort that we put in.

Q: With Fox Sports having invested heavily in broadcasting not just international soccer but MLS games as well, how do you see that investment in the future of the sport as one where more Americans will become fans?
A: At the risk of hyperbole, I think that this event in particular, the final on Sunday, this could be a landmark event as we look back. This could be one of those moments where you combine the enthusiasm and the viewership that the World Cup in Brazil started last year with the men’s run through a very difficult group play that they did emerge from, and then if you can combine that with a United States Women’s Team possibly winning the World Cup on Sunday, I really do think that this could be a watershed moment for this sport in our country. That this could be one of those moments where it’s the tipping point where it becomes more mainstream and it becomes popular in a sustained way, not just over the course of a 30-day event. So, we take very seriously our part in that possibility, and by covering this event the best we possibly can, that it may help build a long term popularity in the United States.

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