Starting this week, Aly Wagner will be the first woman to call a men’s World Cup match on U.S. television. But she’ll be doing so from thousands of miles away.

Eight of the 12 broadcasters calling games for Fox will be in a studio on the company’s lot in Los Angeles, no closer to the action than viewers on their couches at home. It’s the first time a U.S. TV network has declined to send its full announcing team to the host country in more than decade, an unusual move considering how committed Fox is to soccer.

“It’s indicative of the fact that you’re missing the straw that stirs the drink -- the U.S. team,” said Lee Berke, a sports media consultant. “It’s the one team that can truly drive ratings.”

Fox paid more than $400 million for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup rights several years ago and grabbed the 2026 games in February 2015. But the network’s maiden World Cup broadcast starting in Russia next week is confronting several challenges -- chiefly the absence of the U.S. men’s team -- that have forced management to look at costs and take steps to ensure its coverage isn’t a financial failure.

Fox is pushing back against the idea that it is cutting costs, while acknowledging the financial realities.

“Russia is the size of the U.S., and we have 64 matches across the entirety of the country,” Brian Sullivan, president of Fox’s TV network group, said in an interview. “Moving people and production resources around a country that large in that short a time frame would have been an unbelievable undertaking.”

Live Games
Viewership of the monthlong event that begins June 14 is expected to drop from four years ago because the games will be broadcast while many Americans are asleep. Fox will air all 64 games live, including 38 on its flagship broadcast network.

The absence of the U.S. team has forced Fox to lower the audience it guaranteed advertisers by as much as 20 percent, according to an ad buyer with knowledge of the matter. Fox also cut its projections for advertising sales by about $20 million, Bloomberg reported in October.

Fox had already sold about 75 percent of its World Cup advertising before the U.S. men’s team faltered last year. So the company offered advertisers free air time in late-round matches or during other programming to account for the expected slip in viewership, said the buyer, who asked not to be identified because the terms aren’t public.

Near Sellout
Sullivan said the ad inventory is almost sold out, though the network is holding onto spots during the later rounds in case ratings are better or worse than expected.

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