When the U.S. men’s national team had its hopes of qualifying for the World Cup dashed by a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago last October, the despondency stretched from the Caribbean to the Fox Sports board rooms.
Fox Sports paid dearly – up to a reported $425 million - for the rights to broadcast the next two World Cups, including this summer’s spectacle from Russia. But, as Fox Sports executive producer David Neal said at a panel called “The World Becomes the World Cup” Sunday during the South By Southwest Interactive festival at the JW Marriott, the show must go on, even without the American Outlaws and other U.S. supporters.
“I was getting calls and messages from folks of almost a funeral nature,” Neal said during a panel discussion that also included broadcaster and former U.S. player Alexi Lalas as well as sponsor representatives Aaron Maines of Adidas and Jason White of Beats by Dr. Dre. “But it’s an opportunity. Now we will focus on all 32 teams (competing in the World Cup).”
Neal said Fox Sports will produce more than 100 “robust features” on players from various teams as well as a daily collaboration with National Geographic over the course of the 30-day tournament that will focus on the culture and people of Russia.
Calling Russia the “33rd character in World Cup,” Neal said the interest generated by news cycles has helped American tourism grow by 12 percent over the past year.
“There’s something about Russia that intrigues Americans,” he said.
Of course, no soccer conversation in Austin can take place these days without mentioning the intrigue involving the potential move of Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew to Austin. Lalas, one of the most prominent voices in American soccer, rarely shies from opining on any given topic involving the beautiful game. On Sunday, however, he admitted having mixed feelings about the Crew’s potential relocation.
“I’m seeing firsthand that Austin is a dynamic soccer city that has a lot of elements that MLS likes; a Hispanic market, a healthy tech industry and a young population,” he said after the panel. “Millennials are soccer fans.”
But Lalas, one of the most prominent American players in the inaugural MLS season of 1996, also lamented the possibility of Columbus, an original MLS team, losing its beloved squad.
“I sympathize because they are great fans,” he said. “But they have an owner (Anthony Precourt) that has been open about wanting to leave.”