21CF Chats: Jonty Whitehead, Executive Producer of Soccer for FOX Sports, on How to Tailor Soccer Coverage & Win New Fans in the U.S.

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

August is a huge month for soccer, particularly for FOX Sports. Between the UEFA Champions League, the Bundesliga, the FA Cup, MLS and more, FOX Sports has a robust slate of programming for soccer fans in the U.S.

To wrap my head around FOX Sports’ expansive soccer portfolio and schedule, I spoke with Jonty Whitehead, executive producer of soccer. During our discussion, he walked me through what this time of year means for him and his team, how FOX Sports caters its soccer coverage to a wide range of viewers, and how FOX Sports wins over American audiences.

What does this time of year entail for you? And how does it compare to other seasons of the year?
This is the time when we can get all our ducks in a row. The big summer tournaments are finished, teams are finalizing their new squads, their new managers and their new transfers. So it’s making sure that all our preparations are ready as we start up on another season of domestic football. By that I mean that the different graphics packages are prepared, the programming schedule completed and that my production teams and talent are in place. So there’s plenty of behind-the-scenes work, really — making sure that when the big kickoffs happen, we’re in the best possible position to put them on air and do justice to them.

FOX Sports has become a soccer powerhouse. How do you and your team make sure that each soccer property maintains its own identify, distinction and high level of production?
It’s something that the various leagues themselves work very hard with. To any part-time soccer fan, when a UEFA Champions League game is on the air, they understand that that’s what they’re looking at. It’s the music that goes around the event, the famous theme tune that is played throughout a broadcast, the blue graphics — all that signifies a Champions League night. The fact that it’s on at the same time on a Tuesday and a Wednesday — people just get used to tuning in at that time. Likewise, with say, the Bundesliga, that again has very strict graphics rules that we have to abide by. What that does is when that’s on our air, you know that it’s a Bundesliga product.

So it’s sort of like establishing distinct, easy-to-recognize visual identities?
Just in terms of your eye turning to a match in a bar, the more that this is on, the more that people get used to it, the more they understand what the league is and it’s our job then to brand our shows in a similar way, to make our post-match Bundesliga show look and feel like the game that we’ve just watched.

Bundesliga is coming back for its second season this time with four young Americans (Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson) expected to start for their teams. How do you think this benefits your productions and the profile of the league in the United States?
Last year, it was a league that hadn’t had much exposure. Of course, people that watched the Champions League would know about the big clubs — about the Bayern Munichs and about the Borussia Dortmunds. What we really tried hard to do in the games that we featured is give the viewer the story behind the story. I remember I called it the "Hinterland," a German word — that is, we wanted to give the Hinterland of the league to go into more depth. To make that resonate, we have to find stories and people that the U.S. audience is going to be interested in, and for that very reason Christian Pulisic and the like are going to resonate with the U.S. audience. So it makes our job a little bit easier. There’s sort of prior knowledge of these guys and people want to follow their stories.

MLS continues to make big strides in growing the league, and just this month you broadcasted three consecutive matches on FOX. What can you tell us about the company’s investment in that league?
It’s a long-term commitment. We’re invested in the product. We see soccer, as a whole, as a really important property for this company going forward, and for that to really work, the domestic league has to be healthy — it has to be attracting good-quality players, it has to have a competitive league, it has to have games that are good to watch on telly. And for that to be the case, it has to have people in the stands, people in the stadiums. So anything that we can do that helps to grow the game we will do, because we’ve made a serious commitment to the league.

Do you work closely with MLS?
We will, on a regular basis, talk about our productions, how they went over a weekend. But we will also do that in conjunction with the league so that we fine-tune things. Last week, for instance, we had cameras in the locker room and saw [Portland Timbers’ head coach] Caleb Porter’s pregame speech to his players. Now that is access that you would never get having worked in the U.K. for 20 years. You would never get that for a Premier League game. But in a different marketplace, the U.S., where those type of shots are much more prevalent, it’s absolutely right that we can provide the same access that the American sport fan is used to seeing.

UEFA Champions League, the most prestigious soccer tournament in Europe, is also coming back in August. What can we expect to see and why should fans be excited to watch?
It is the best club tournament in the world. It has the best players. You can talk about the guys you’re used to seeing year in, year out — the Ronaldos, the Messis. But this year, there’s a unique twist to it, I suppose, in that Leicester City, who ran away with the Premier League to unbelievable adulation from the world after overcoming 5,000-to-1 odds at the beginning of the season to pull off winning what is the biggest prize in world football, is now in this competition. That’s a unique difference the likes of which we’ve never seen. They’re going up against the powerhouses of Europe in Bayern Munich, Juventus, the Italian teams and the like. So that’s a new storyline that we’re going to feature heavily.

The audience for soccer matches, particularly in the U.S., is quite diverse: You have longtime diehards and you have newer fans. How do you cater FOX Sports’ coverage to satisfy this broad spectrum?
It’s a great question, and it’s a question I ask myself almost every single day. There’s a diehard soccer audience, sort of Europhiles, who are perhaps expats living in this country and have followed the game all their lives and have good knowledge and understanding. And you’ve got a whole host of new viewers who come in now and again. We did the Women’s World Cup last summer, and for the final, which the U.S. won, we had over 30 million viewers for that. So it’s a fine dividing line to not talk down to those experts, if you like, but still be inclusive to this huge, bigger potential audience that’s out there.

Seems like a tricky line to walk, but hopefully that line will get thinner and thinner and eventually go away.
Yeah, the two sides will sort of converge, and that’s why it’s important to position everything correctly. Occasionally we’ll get things wrong, and we’ll remember when we get things really right. It’s sort of finding out what works and what doesn’t work. But as long as we see growth of audience, I think that’s what’s really important — and we do. Year on year, soccer games are viewed by more people, and that’s not the case with all American sports. That’s why FOX Sports has made a big investment in this sport; it’s why I’m here and it’s why we work hard to cover every soccer game we do in the best possible way.

What does that entail?
I think if I had one takeaway about the way FOX Sports goes about covering the sport it’s that we really try hard to put an American voice on soccer. For so long in this country, soccer has been covered in essentially an English style, and that’s what’s resonated, that’s what’s kept the Europhiles happy. But every other country in the world covers soccer, which is the world game, in the culture of that country. For some reason, here that wasn’t the case. But I think that’s what we’re trying to do, and I think that’s what’s really important to really grow the game — to cover soccer in a style of culture that is American. That’s the change that’s happening; that’s the change we want to bring about, and by doing that I think we will grow the audience to a much bigger and larger place.

In an interview two months ago about Copa America, David Neal said he thought soccer can now be considered a "Big 4" sport in America, joining the ranks of football, basketball and baseball. Do you agree? How does someone in your position gauge this? And what does the future hold for soccer on FOX Sports?
I think David’s absolutely right. I’ve been here now for four years, and the coverage that soccer now receives from general sports shows tells you that it’s growing all the time. Just within our company and the daily shows that we have – “The Herd With Colin Cowherd” toward the end of last week featured soccer stories. SportsCenter, especially during the Euros and the World Cup, will open up with soccer stories. That tells you there’s an interest and that the sport is really going. Five, 10 years ago that wouldn’t have been the case. The feedback I get is incredible. I get so many applications if we have any available jobs come up. There’s a real interest within this country for the sport.

And hopefully that interest continues to climb.
Yeah, absolutely.