Fox Sports at SXSW 2018

AUSTIN — Rob Stone is looking forward to this summer’s World Cup with good reason. As FOX Sports’ lead studio host, he’ll have a prominent role in bringing the world’s biggest soccer tournament to American audiences. But the FOX team also can’t help looking back even as they prepare: Namely, to last October, when the United States men’s national teamfailed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

“It was a gut punch on every level,” said Stone, referring to both the personal as a fan and the professional who wondered how his network's coverage would be affected by the U.S.’s absence. “To take that element away hurts, and I think it makes it that much more challenging.”

But he also notes that FOX Sports — in part thanks to the American soccer audience they’ve cultivated with its MLS coverage — is up to the challenge of engaging both established and new fans with this summer’s tournament.

“I’ve mourned, and I’ve moved on, and I’ve accepted what this summer’s going to be and how we’re going to present it,” Stone said, noting that “our country has evolved into a soccer nation.”

“There are people out there who have lowered the expectation bar for this summer’s World Cup,” Stone said, pausing before adding, pointedly. “We’re going to crush it.”

Stone — along with Stuart Holden, Alexi Lalas and Rachel Bonnetta — were in Austin for SXSW this past weekend to promote FOX Sports’ upcoming World Cup coverage via panels and online broadcasts.

Stone contrasts the American soccer audience now with the one for his first broadcast involvement — the 1998 edition in France — in which “there was a great fear among our executives that once the U.S. was out, people were going to turn off the television,” adding, “We are at a point now where that is not the case.”

That owes in part to the soccer audience FOX Sports has attracted and cultivated toward its MLS coverage, and the network’s coverage will certainly incorporate the MLS players representing their home countries.

“There are going to be a bunch of MLS players over there who will be our focus,” Lalas promises. “Rather than be U.S.-centric, we’ll spread our view around, telling all the different stories.” Lalas also recognizes that some viewers won’t have familiarity with MLS, providing FOX an opportunity to act as ambassadors. “There are people who don’t follow soccer a whole lot coming into the tent here. When you give them that touchstone, that connection that says, ‘This guy plays in your community; you can watch him play every week in Major League Soccer,’ that’s important. We have to make sure we make those connections, and be proud of the fact that MLS is producing players who are playing in the World Cup.”

FOX Sports to bring MLS experience and global focus to U.S.-less World Cup -

Vancouver center back Kendall Waston is likely to feature for Costa Rica this summer | USA Today Sports Images

Stone added, “I think [MLS] succeeding helps the national team and helps US soccer as a whole. I want to see those players in MLS do well in the World Cup,” noting that some young international players, who now see MLS as a “bigger stage to play on,” could have performances at this World Cup that will propel them to MLS.

Holden — whose panel last Saturday explored the “24/7” coverage propelled in part by what Twitter and YouTube TV had planned—observed that the network’s MLS coverage this year is incorporating World Cup stories in their lead-in to the tournament. “MLS may have their largest-ever representation in a World Cup, which to me is a really great achievement considering there’s no United States, which normally accounts for a lot of the MLS players.”

Stone hints that the coverage will have “a slight Olympic feel, in that we’re going to sell the stars,” noting that Argentina, Portugal and Brazil — featuring Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar respectively — have group stage games that don’t overlap. Stone also notes that “Germany is a star,” with Die Mannschaft a favorite to be the first World Cup champions to repeat since Brazil completed the rare feat in 1962. The FOX Sports team expects Germany's June 17 date with Mexico — another squad the network will give ample attention to — as one of their most-watched group stage matches.

While the U.S. won’t physically be at the World Cup, FOX Sports will still include American storylines in their coverage — starting with the FIFA vote the day before the tournament starts which may bring the 2026 edition to North America.

“You recognize the biggest party in the world is happening this summer, and we have the responsibility and privilege to televise it,” Lalas said. “And the United States, with its incredible diversity, is maybe better equipped than any other country in the world to deal with a World Cup that doesn’t have the home nation in it.”