21CF Chats: Executive Producer, FIFA World Cup on FOX, David Neal on Copa America and Soccer as a ‘Big 4’ Sport in the U.S.

Note: The following Q&A appears on the 21st Century Fox Blog.

It may have taken a while, but the strong viewership for the 2016 Copa America Centenario tournament, along with the record-setting viewership for the Women’s World Cup 2015, finally cements soccer as one of the “Big 4” sports in the U.S., according to David Neal, executive producer of FIFA World Cup for FOX Sports.

The 100-year-old Copa America tournament, the oldest international continental soccer competition, features 16 teams from the Americas playing 32 matches from June 3-26 in 10 U.S. cities. This year’s tournament marks the first time Copa America is being hosted outside of South America, and FOX Sports has already scored big viewership numbers: The U.S. team’s 1-0 win over Paraguay, which clinched its spot in the quarterfinals, averaged 2.06 million viewers on FS1, according to Nielsen Media Research, making it the most-watched men’s soccer match in the network’s history.

Of course, this kind of success doesn’t happen overnight. I spoke with David to get a better understanding of how FOX Sports got here and asked him about his thoughts on Copa America’s viewership so far this year, soccer’s ascension in the U.S. and what he thinks about when he assembles diverse teams to produce huge sports telecasts like this one, among other things.

It’s wonderful that the USA is advancing and that viewership numbers are so strong. What are your main takeaways from the Copa America tournament so far?

My main takeaways are that soccer continues its dramatic growth as a mainstream sport in the U.S. This morning on "The Herd," Colin Cowherd was talking about his belief that soccer is in the group of top four sports, having displaced hockey. And I agree with that. I think soccer is in that top four group with football, basketball and baseball. Its growth has been dramatic, and it’s certainly helped by the continuing success of the U.S. national teams.

With soccer established as one of the four major sports in the U.S., how do you think producing soccer events compares with producing other major, live sports telecasts, which I know you’ve had much experience with?

The most direct parallel is the experiences I’ve had with the Olympics because they’re big global events. Any time you can have an event with teams from around the world — particularly in our country, which is such a melting pot — that’s something that differentiates an event from other big sports events. The fact that you can cheer for the U.S. or any other country — that gives us the ability to attract large audiences by building on the fact that dedicated sports fans will be the core of your audiences. Then to really grow an audience, you need casual sports fans, and then you need people who don’t even describe themselves as sports fans.

How do you attract that audience?

You attract them to a global event, to something that perhaps sparks feelings of patriotism or pride. If you’re someone who lives here but grew up in Bolivia or Chile, the opportunity to see your original national team play is something that’s appealing. A strong second factor is giving fans a reason to care by introducing them to the athletes of these nations. We have an amazing features unit led by a brilliant producer named Jennifer Pransky. For our Women’s World Cup last year, our features unit produced more than 80 features on teams from around the world, and they’ll do a similar number for the World Cup in Russia in 2018. By introducing those characters, those athletes from other countries, it gives our viewers a reason to care about a team or game that they might not otherwise have an interest in.

Speaking of the Women’s World Cup: What key factors contributed to its success that may not be known or appreciated by most people?

On the television side, a big part of it was the way the entire FOX family came together to support us. Not only did we have FOX Sports and the people working in the different departments, but we had amazing support from FOX NEO (Networks Engineering Operations), which allowed us to base some of our operations here and some in Canada. We also had great support from the FOX Broadcasting Company family. Every one of our shows opened up with a feature narrated by Taraji P. Henson, the star of "Empire," and that gave them a big feel. It was the collective support of the entire FOX family that made us so well-positioned to be successful with the Women’s World Cup, and I know that we’ll enjoy the same level of support, if not more so, when we go to Russia for the World Cup in 2018.

With soccer on such a strong path thanks to the Women’s World Cup last year and Copa America this year, where do these two events stand on your long-term roadmap? Do you think you’re ahead of schedule or on schedule?

I think we’re ahead of schedule. The World Cup and big associated soccer events like Copa America are really a tribute to what happens when we combine resources here at FOX. Last year at the Women’s World Cup and this year at Copa America, our production teams came from various parts of FOX Sports. There are soccer production people, but there are also football production people, baseball production people and studio production people. This group of all-stars who bring their creative talent and expertise to the event puts us in a position where we’re ahead of schedule as we look ahead to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

What do you think the main lessons will be from the Copa America experience for this diverse group of talent that you’ve put together? And how do you think this experience will prepare them for Russia in 2018?

It’s real-world experience. It’s putting together a talented group. Between Rob Stone and Alexi Lalas and our newest member Fernando Fiore in the studio, and people like John Strong and JP Dellacamera on the game side, it’s safe to say these are all faces and voices that you will see and hear as integral parts of our coverage in 2018. Behind the scenes, we’re building a core of production people and technical people. We will be a larger group when we go to Russia in 2018 because the magnitude of 64 games over 30 days requires a substantial number of people. But the group that has now been together for two big events in the last year — in Vancouver for the Women’s World Cup and now in LA for Copa America — will be the core of the team that we build and take to Russia in 2018.

So the Women’s World Cup and Copa America have almost been like practice fields for the core team.

Yes. It’s vitally important that we have these events along the way that aren’t quite as big as the World Cup but still sufficiently large and complex so that they help us learn lessons and best practices that we can apply to the coverage of the really big event when we get to Russia.

What are the most important factors to you when you assemble these teams, whether it’s a core team like the current one you have for Copa America or one you expand and build from that core?

Number one is passion for television and big events. It’s an understanding that when you get to something as big as the World Cup, for 30-plus days, you’re going to eat, breathe and sleep nothing but the World Cup. There’s a certain level of dedication that it requires. More than anything, it’s talent, creativity and the ability to be a storyteller, which is so important in the coverage that we’ve been able to put together for these big events.

Where does FOX Sports’ coverage of soccer go from here? What do you think will be the biggest factors for continuing this energy and momentum?

For FOX Sports, there’s nothing but upside with soccer. We’ve aggregated a predominant collection of soccer rights in this country compared to our competitors. We have a more diverse range of properties, and that begins with the FIFA World Cup rights and goes through the Champions League, MLS, Bundesliga and other properties that we have. We are uniquely positioned for growth at a time when the sport is really catching fire and building forward momentum. I think the continued success of the men’s and women’s U.S. national teams is a positive to the equation. But really, I think the growth of the sport and the fact that we are uniquely positioned with a diverse collection of rights give us reason to be very bullish on the future of soccer as part of FOX Sports.

The USA will face off against Ecuador in the 2016 Copa America quarterfinals on Thursday, June 16, at 9:30 p.m. EDT. The match will air on FS1.