FIFA President Gianni Infantino with fans in Qatar. (Yara Abi Nader/Reuters)
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In recent weeks, the American TV rights holders for the upcoming World Cup held news conferences ahead of this most unusual tournament in Qatar. At each, executives from Fox, which holds the English-language rights, and Telemundo, which has the Spanish-language rights, were asked how they planned to cover the human rights record of the host country.

Fox’s executive producer, David Neal, said his network would not be looking to do the work of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” or ESPN’s “E:60,” newsmagazine-style shows known for tackling thorny off-the-field issues. “We really believe viewers come to us at Fox Sports for the World Cup to see the World Cup,” he said.

Telemundo Deportes President Ray Warren responded differently. He said the network’s news division and that of sister network NBC would cover events in Qatar, adding that on the sports side: “I do think we have to talk about the legacy we leave. By the time the tournament’s over, we [won’t have been] ignoring the geopolitical issues that might arise.”

A spokeswoman for Telemundo, which is owned by Comcast, later said the network would follow the lead of NBC Sports’s approach to the Winter Olympics this year in China; hosts discussed the alleged Uyghur genocide during coverage of the Opening Ceremonies. The network expects to touch on the human rights situation in Qatar as part of its opening day coverage Sunday and throughout the tournament as needed.

The differing strategies of the two broadcasters responsible for bringing the World Cup to American audiences will be under scrutiny for the next month as Western journalists, fans and soccer players arrive in Qatar, a country governed strictly by Islamic laws and customs. The American team unveiled a new rainbow crest that will be on display at its hotel in response to laws prohibiting homosexuality in Qatar. The Australian team released a video in support of the LGBTQ community and workers’ rights.

Top U.K. diplomat tells LGBT World Cup fans to ‘be respectful’ in Qatar

For Fox, the strategy is identical to the way it handled the World Cup in Russia four years ago. But there is another dynamic at play in Qatar: Qatar Airways, the state-owned airline, will serve as a major sponsor of the network’s coverage, which means Fox’s production in Qatar is essentially being underwritten by the Qatari government.

In June, Neal told Sports Business Journal that Fox will send a “little army” of 150 staffers and announcers to Qatar and that Fox would be the first American network to have announcers in stadiums for all World Cup games, in part because the venues are so close together.

But according to three people familiar with Fox’s plans, the network was initially planning to use mostly remote production and send a minimal contingent of staffers and talent to Qatar. The strategy only shifted after the deal with Qatar Airways was finalized; that agreement included comped flights to Qatar, said those people, speaking on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions.

The relationship between the airline and network dates from last year, when Qatar Airways announced a partnership with Concacaf and was the primary sponsor for Fox’s Gold Cup coverage, including signage on its studio set.

The Telemundo spokeswoman said Qatar Airways is not a sponsor of its coverage.

The Qataris are hoping to use the World Cup to showcase their country to a wider global audience. An important piece of that is to have the American broadcaster in the country, said two of the people who were told about the deal. They described Fox executives as celebrating the deal because the network can deliver a more robust broadcast to viewers but won’t have to pay for it.

Fox has unveiled an elaborate studio on the Doha waterfront that includes four stages and more than 20 LED screens.

In a statement, Fox said: “Qatar Airways is a major sponsor of FIFA World Cup 2022 and will have significant presence across our entire coverage of the tournament. They, along with our portfolio of blue-chip sponsors, allow us the opportunity to present unrivaled coverage of what arguably stands to be one of the best World Cups ever with the long-awaited return of the U.S. Men’s National Team.”

Asked whether the Qatar Airways sponsorship had any impact on its coverage, a Fox spokesman said: “Absolutely not.”

After this story was published, a Fox spokeswoman sent an additional statement to The Washington Post, denying the network’s deal with Qatar Airways included comped flights.

Today's WorldView: The political debate swirling around the World Cup in Qatar

The change in schedule from the usual summer World Cup was made to accommodate the extreme heat in Qatar and would be a headache for any American broadcaster. Instead of sharing the summer with baseball alone, this tournament will compete for viewers with the NFL and college football. Fox reportedly paid more than $400 million for the four men’s and women’s World Cups between 2015 and 2022. Telemundo is reportedly paying around $600 million.

How the tournament is covered — and how the Qataris react to that coverage — will be closely watched. In an 11th-hour decision, Qatar reversed course and banned alcohol sales in stadiums. It was a leading story for many news outlets Friday morning and was noted in the latest news section of Telemundo Deportes’s website but not on Fox Sports. Before the tournament began, a Danish cameraman this week had a run-in with Qatari officials who threatened to smash his camera for filming a live report in a public place.

The Athletic published a piece this week by soccer editor Alex Kay-Jelski detailing his mixed feelings, as a gay man and a sports journalist, about covering the tournament.

“Some [reporters] will write about great games and goals, others will break stories about line-ups or fallouts,” he wrote. “But also many will focus on what’s happening off the pitch, on the fact that some LGBT+ fans are having to stay in safe houses, on the families of the workers who died building the stadiums, on the absurd politics that brought the tournament to Qatar, on the reality of the lives of women who live there, and still will once the circus has packed up and left.”

Qatar Airways has been a visible brand in international soccer for several years. It was the front-of-jersey sponsor for Spanish powerhouse Barcelona from 2013 to 2017 before the club ended the agreement for “social issues.” Today, Qatar Airways is a jersey sleeve sponsor for Germany’s Bayern Munich, though club members have pressured directors not to renew the deal when it expires in 2023.

At the team’s annual general meeting last month, Oliver Kahn, the team’s chief executive, said: “There has been progress in Qatar on labor rights and human rights. Nobody suggested that Qatar is a country that meets European standards. But if you want to change and initiate something, you have to meet people, talk to them and exchange ideas instead of excluding them.”

Steven Goff contributed to this report.