On Fox Sports, Viewers Get a World Cup Scrubbed of Controversy

Other broadcasters are questioning Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and its laws against homosexuality. Fox Sports’ coverage, heavily sponsored by Qatar, is focused on the matches.

Rob Stone, left, introduced Fox’s World Cup coverage team last month in New York. From left are Jenny Taft, Alexi Lalas, Stu Holden, the executive producer David Neal, Maurice Edu and John Strong.
Credit...Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

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Early in Fox Sports’ coverage on Sunday of the opening game of the World Cup, between Ecuador and the host nation of Qatar, the studio host Rob Stone introduced the network’s expert on Qatar: Khalifa Al Haroon, a social media influencer. Hardly a Qatar critic, he goes by Mr. Q and is the founder of the website I Love Qatar.

Later, Fox, which paid $425 million for the English-language rights to show the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in the United States, presented a feature on Al Bayt Stadium, which hosted the opening match. The segment was called Exploring Qatar, and it was sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, which is run by the country’s ruling family members.

It might have provided a natural segue into one of the biggest stories of this World Cup: the mass importation of workers from South Asia into Qatar to build much of the country’s infrastructure. The working and living conditions of these workers have been heavily criticized by international rights groups, which have said that thousands died building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, though the Qatari government disputes the total.

But Fox viewers heard about none of that, and most likely will not over the course of the tournament. In a stance that appears unique among World Cup broadcasters, Fox has opted to pay little to no attention to the controversies off the field that have trailed this event for over a decade.

Matches are being shown on Fox Sports 1, a cable channel, and Fox, an over-the-air channel. Along with Fox News and other television and entertainment assets, they are owned by Fox Corporation, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch.

“We believe that viewers come to Fox Sports during the World Cup to see the greatest sports event in the world,” David Neal, a Fox executive, said in an October interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“They don’t come to us expecting us to be ‘Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,’ or ‘E:60,’” Neal added, referring to HBO and ESPN’s investigative newsmagazine programs.

Fox will cover some of the World Cup’s thornier issues, Neal said, “if a story affects the field of play, if it affects the competition in the tournament.” Fox did not respond to an interview request from The New York Times.

At every World Cup and Olympics, television broadcasters grapple with how they will balance the promotional nature of airing a worldwide sporting event with the journalistic imperative to cover the darker side of sports. The question has grown in importance as the selection of hosts has regularly been tainted by accusations of bribery and bid-rigging and authoritarian nations, eager to burnish their images, have emerged as some of the fiercest, or only, bidders.

While most of the broadcasters consider themselves news organizations, they pay exorbitant sums for the rights to show the events, and they know that advertisers and some viewers, not to mention sports’ governing bodies, want nothing to do with stories about human rights abuses and corruption. But they usually make an attempt to cover larger issues, with varying degrees of commitment.

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

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

The Qatar World Cup provides plenty of reporting opportunities for Fox. The U.S. government has said that FIFA officials were bribed to award the World Cup to Qatar. Plagued by disorganization, the event was moved from the summer to the late fall five years after Qatar was awarded the tournament, and the start date was changed earlier this year. Homosexuality is a criminal offense in Qatar, leading to questions about how gay soccer fans will be treated. Just days before the tournament began, Qatari officials changed when and where fans would be allowed to drink alcohol.

“You are never just covering a soccer tournament in the World Cup,” said Bob Ley, who hosted ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. “You are never just covering a 90-minute match because the meaning of the World Cup is a meeting of cultures, governments, systems and ways of life.”

Broadcasters have plenty of incentive to roam far beyond the field, Ley said, because major sporting events attract millions of viewers who are not die-hard sports fans. “In your shoulder programming at World Cups, pregames, postgames, halftimes, you want more people in the tent than just football fans because you are still growing the sport,” Ley said.

But covering controversies may not sit well with Fox’s major sponsors. Qatar Airways, which is owned by the Qatari government, has spent $4.2 million on national television ads so far this year, according to iSpot.TV, $4 million of it on Fox channels. Visit Qatar, the state-owned tourism authority, has spent $10 million on advertisements, 99 percent of it on Fox’s presentation of N.F.L. games and the M.L.B. postseason. The Qatar Foundation has also aired ads on Fox News, all coming this month.

Other broadcasters are taking a much more confrontational approach to Qatar.

Gary Lineker, a former player who scored 48 goals for the English national team, gave a blistering introduction to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage.

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Credit...Reuters

“Ever since FIFA chose Qatar back in 2010, the smallest nation to have hosted football’s greatest competition has faced some big questions — from accusations of corruption in the bidding process to the treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums where many lost their lives,” Lineker told viewers.

Lineker concluded his comments by referring to the plea from FIFA President Gianni Infantino that World Cup teams not be dragged into politics. “Against that backdrop, there’s a tournament to be played, one that will be watched and enjoyed around the world,” Lineker said. “Stick to football, say FIFA. Well, we will. For a couple of minutes, at least.”

The BBC declined to show the opening ceremony of the World Cup, instead airing an interview with an official from Amnesty International and panel discussions in which the panelists eviscerated Qatar.

Similarly, on Telemundo, which is owned by NBCUniversal and has the Spanish-language rights to the World Cup in the United States, the host Miguel Gurwitz presented a four-minute segment that covered much of the same territory as the BBC.

Ray Warren, the president of Telemundo Deportes, wrote in an email from Qatar that Telemundo Deportes “will cover geopolitical and other issues that impact the actual tournament as they unfold.” Warren said that telling stories about athletes and matches was Telemundo’s “primary responsibility,” but he added that Telemundo’s reporters “won’t and haven’t shied away from reporting relevant off-the-field news as they happen.”

Telemundo averaged 2.06 million viewers for each game of the 2018 World Cup, while Fox’s channels averaged 2.98 million viewers.

Even when controversy entered the field Monday, Fox’s coverage stood out compared to its competitors’.

The captains of a number of European nations, including England, which defeated Iran, 6-2, on Monday, originally planned to wear rainbow-colored armbands to show support for L.G.B.T.Q. rights. But at the last minute, those plans were shelved after FIFA said referees would issue a yellow card to any player wearing an armband.

The BBC commentator Alex Scott wore one of the armbands, which say “One Love” and have a rainbow heart, while talking on air about the England-Iran match. On Telemundo, the announcer Sammy Sadovnik discussed the armband issue early in the match, during a lengthy stoppage of play when the Iranian goalkeeper was injured. The Telemundo halftime show also addressed it. Fox Sports 1 did not.

“FIFA are anxious that the game is portrayed in the right way,” the announcer Ian Darke said late in the match. He was talking about stoppage time and when the referee would blow his whistle to end England’s blowout.