SOCHI, Russia — At this point, it all feels familiar for John Strong and Stuart Holden.
The lead broadcasters for Fox's English-language coverage of the World Cup in the United States are starting their Russian adventure in Sochi, where they spent time a year ago calling the Confederations Cup. The teams in their opening game — Portugal and Spain — are well known and have obvious story lines.
It's a gentle entry into the first World Cup for the broadcast team, which faces a daunting itinerary.
"I think it's the best job in the world, and now I think about covering the biggest sporting event in the world and my first game being Portugal vs. Spain, that's where it starts to kick in how cool this is," Holden said.
Whether this World Cup will resonate with American viewers is one of the big questions facing Strong, Holden and the entire Fox production. The United States' failure to qualify for Russia was a huge blow for Fox after it reportedly paid more than $400 million to acquire the rights to broadcast the tournament in America. That leaves Strong, Holden and other broadcasters facing the challenge of drawing in casual fans who would watch the World Cup if the U.S. was playing, but now may not be as interested in the tournament.
The burden isn't directly on Strong and Holden, and ratings are the last thing they're worried about while in Russia. Their job is to give their broadcasts enough context to satisfy hardcore fans without confusing novices who don't know all the backstories.
"If they're hearing our voice, they're already there. But you are acutely aware there are going to be people watching these games that have not watched much soccer in the preceding year, perhaps the preceding four years," Strong said. "There are going to be fans who, as well-known as Cristiano Ronaldo is, haven't followed the saga of his season and the fact that within minutes of his third consecutive Champions League crown is asking out and all of these things. And that's not an American thing. That's true of any broadcaster at this World Cup."
Landing the prime broadcasting slot for the World Cup is just part of the rapid rise for Strong and Holden, who are both 32. Strong will celebrate his 33rd birthday later this month in Nizhny Novgorod, where he'll call Argentina vs. Croatia. That's just one stop on a wild ride through Russia for the duo and the rest of their crew. It begins with the Group B showdown between Spain and Portugal and doesn't take a break until the completion of the group stage. The pair will be calling a match, traveling via plane, or both for every day of the group stage. The ambitious start includes Friday's game in Sochi, returning to Moscow to call Argentina vs. Iceland on Saturday, and then heading to Rostov-on-Don for Sunday's match between Brazil and Switzerland.
All told, they will see 17 different teams during the group stage. Or as Strong described it, "You're at the stadium but you're filming a Russian remake of 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' with me in the John Candy role."
Joking aside, having Strong and Holden call so many matches in the group stage is part of how Fox is maximizing its resources. Fox has faced criticism for its decision to have just two announce crews in Russia, with the rest calling games off monitors in Los Angeles. Along with Strong and Holden, the duo of veteran announcer J.P. Dellacamera and former U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola will be in Russia.
Strong believes the pushback is overblown, noting the many games he's called in the past off a monitor, including the Champions League final last month. He said even when in the stadium he's usually got one eye on the monitor to make sure what he's saying corresponds with what's being shown.
"Obviously it is our job, as well as J.P. and Tony's, to make sure we are adding as much as we possibly can, as much of the color and as much of the flavor, and taking as much advantage of it," Strong said.
Then there's Telemundo and the challenge being presented by the Spanish-language network broadcasting games in the U.S. Telemundo has been aggressively promoting its telecast, calling it more authentic and taking shots Fox's presentation. Some Telemundo broadcasts will also be livestreamed on NBC Sports Network beginning with Sunday's Brazil-Switzerland match, another encroachment on Fox's territory.
"I haven't been paying much attention to it, and I hope when people tune in they enjoy what we have to say and don't change the channel," Holden said. "I have confidence in our own work."