- Associated Press - Thursday, July 23, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) - David Neal looks ahead to the World Cup in less than three years and envisions Fox broadcasting from its own studio in the middle of Moscow’s Red Square.

“I think for an American audience, you really have got to have something from Red Square. That says Russia,” said Neal, the executive producer of Fox’s World Cup coverage for both the men’s and women’s tournaments.

Neal is on his second trip to Russia, where soccer officials have gathered for the World Cup qualifying draw Saturday. He wants to follow the backdrops of ESPN’s set overlooking Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach and Fox’s open-air studio by Vancouver’s harbor with another dramatic vista.

“Between the Kremlin on one side, St. Basil’s on another and then the big GUM department store, there’s a big, flat empty space in the middle there, and it really lends itself to being able to set up a facility,” he said Thursday during an interview at FIFA’s headquarters hotel. “I’m glad we have three years to work on it because I can only imagine the amount of red tape.”

Fox took over World Cup U.S. broadcast rights this year from ESPN, which had them since 1994. Fox has made a huge commitment to soccer and has deals with FIFA running through 2026, the site of which hasn’t even been chosen.

After producing nine Olympics at NBC and running his own production company, Neal joined Fox three years ago. He led coverage of this year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada, where America’s first title in 16 years built a record U.S. television audience for soccer.

When he returned after the final to his Los Angeles office, he literally wiped the slate clean - erased everything on the large white board.

Fox planned 200 hours of coverage in Canada in and around the 52 games and expanded it to 250. For the 64-match men’s tournament, the early estimates are 450-600 hours.

While ESPN used British play-by-play commentators for the last two men’s World Cups, Fox went with Americans at the women’s tournament.

“I think the past sort of default place, which was we’ll have to have British announcers to somehow make it seem authentic, I think we’ve grown past that now,” Neal said. “Just as the game is gaining momentum in the U.S., so, too, are the broadcasters that are growing up with the game and have got real ability.”

While he used a three-broadcaster team for some matches in Canada, he plans for only two in Russia.

“The speed of the game is just different enough that it allows room for three voices,” he said of the women. “The men’s game is so fast-paced that three voices would tend to get in the way.”

The Women’s World Cup, which stretched from Moncton, New Brunswick, to Vancouver, British Colombia, was even more spread out than the 2018 men’s tournament will be in 12 stadiums and 11 cities ranging from Kaliningrad in the west to Yekaterinburg in the east. Neal still expects to use at least six commentary teams.

Even with the drop in the value of the ruble versus the dollar, he expects “the cost of being in Russia is going to be inordinately high.”

“I’m just comparing it frankly to my experience when we did the Olympics in China.” he said. “Part of it is just moving people halfway around the world.”

Because a large percentage of the women’s games were in prime time in the U.S., Fox put 16 of the 52 matches on the main network as opposed to its cable outlets. Kickoffs for the men’s tournament will be in the morning and early afternoon in the Eastern time zone, likely limiting the main network to weekend games.

Fox drew 25.4 million for the United States’ win over Japan in the women’s final, plus about 5 million who watched digitally. Fox’s coverage won praise from critics.

“I always believed going into the Women’s World Cup that the difference between us being a solid success and a hit would be if we became sort of a part of pop culture,” Neal said. “You could argue that it became a hit because people who would not necessarily describe themselves as soccer fans but even sports fans, they started hearing their friends talk about it. We got 31 million people because people didn’t want to be left out.

“If they’re standing in the line at Starbucks and their friends are saying, ‘Did you see what Abby Wambach did?’ and they don’t know what that is, then they wanted to be part of the conversation.”

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