On Fox Sports, viewers get a controversy-cleansed World Cup

While most broadcasters describe themselves as news agencies, they pay exorbitant sums for the rights to show the events, and they know that advertisers and some viewers, let alone sports governing bodies, want nothing to do with stories of human rights abuses and corruption. But they usually try to handle larger issues with varying degrees of commitment.

Hosting NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year, Mike Tirico drew attention to the US government’s conclusion that China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim population amounted to genocide. NBC also reported myriad issues related to the coronavirus during its broadcast of the Tokyo Olympics, tensions between North and South Korea during the PyeongChang 2018 Games, and water quality and other issues at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

NBC’s China expert was not a social media influencer but a Yale professor of East Asian Studies.

The World Cup in Qatar offers Fox many reporting opportunities. The US government has said FIFA officials were bribed to award the World Cup to Qatar. The disorganization-plagued event has been moved from summer to late autumn, five years after the tournament was awarded to Qatar, and the start date has been pushed back earlier this year. Homosexuality is a criminal offense in Qatar, raising questions about how gay football fans are treated. Just days before the start of the tournament, Qatar officials changed when and where fans can drink alcohol.

“They never just cover one football tournament at the World Cup,” said Bob Ley, who hosted ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. “You never just cover a 90-minute game because the meaning of the World Cup is a coming together of cultures, governments, systems and ways of life.”

Broadcasters have many incentives to go far beyond the field, Ley said, because major sporting events attract millions of viewers who aren’t die-hard sports fans. “In your shoulder programming at World Cups, auditions, sequels and halftimes, you want more people in the tent than just football fans because you’re still growing the sport,” Ley said.

But the coverage of controversy might not sit well with Fox’s main sponsors. Qatar Airways, owned by the Qatari government, has spent $4.2 million on national television advertising so far this year, including $4 million on Fox channels, according to iSpot.TV. Visit Qatar, the state tourism authority, has spent $10 million on advertising, 99 percent of it on Fox’s coverage of NFL games and the MLB postseason. The Qatar Foundation has also aired ads on Fox News, all coming this month.


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