NEW YORK — Fernando Fiore is happy. He’s always happy, but he’s extra happy right now because a vendor in Times Square just recognized him and gave him a free churro. Because he’s Fernando Fiore, El Presidente. And then he walked down the street of his Midtown hotel anonymously. This is the duality of life for an icon beloved by almost 60 million Hispanic-Americans who is mostly unknown to white America.
If you watch the upcoming World Cup, you’ll know Fiore soon enough. You’ll hardly be able to miss his outsized personality and comedy routine on the wall-to-wall FOX Sports broadcasts.
But now he sits in a coffee shop, dressed in a sharp navy suit with a mauve shirt and a tie of pink and purple swirls. His signature salt-and-pepper mustache is groomed just so. His right wrist is adorned by a black and red string, representing this year on the Chinese calendar. “It’s a little bit of protection,” he explains. “Good vibes.” Fiore is ready to go to FOX upfronts in Central Park. But first, one of the great characters on American television dissects his own act with a disarming self-awareness.
“If anybody says, ‘You’re like a clown,’ I say, ‘Listen, guys, I love clowns,’” Fiore tells Yahoo Sports. “It’s not insulting me. Clowns make people happy.”
Fiore is sui generis in sports broadcasting. He invented a new kind of TV personality, so very different from all the others. He is known to break into song during live shows, while his colleagues pick apart plays and stats. He dances. He wears funny hats. He mimics. He demonstratively rolls his eyes. He brings props on set, like a red card to show the other pundits. He’s bombastic and a tad eccentric. And at 57, his vigor commands a set of younger men.
“For me, sports television is entertainment,” Fiore says. “Entertainment has different components. That’s why people want to hear an ex-player give their point of view. They want to hear the host, who takes care of the whole movement of the show. And they want to hear people like me, who bring a memory, who bring a song. I’m looking at the games in a different way, from a fan’s perspective. That combination makes it a good broadcast.”
So Fiore has carefully cultivated his persona, consciously setting himself apart from your milquetoast, dime-a-dozen soccer analyst. He takes pains to lay out his soccer bona fides during our interview, but also explains why that never makes it into the broadcast. “There are so many people who are doing that. Why am I going to go the same route as everybody else?” Fiore says. So instead, he opts for the class cutup gambit. “There’s not a lot of people who dare to do that. So for me, it’s better.”
And there’s nobody quite like him. But that also means he doesn’t appeal to everyone.
— FS1 (@FS1) June 4, 2016
“I love that he doesn’t give a crap what anybody else thinks,” says Alexi Lalas, a FOX soccer analyst who often plays the part of Fiore’s foe on set. “I think he would be the first person to tell you, and I can confirm, that he’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But none of us are. And in that sense I think he fits into a strategy and pattern of doing things differently and being proudly disruptive at times, veering away from tradition. He understands his job and his role, his character.”
“He’s a force of nature,” adds David Neal, executive producer of the World Cup at FOX Sports. “What makes him unique is his ability to openly be a fan of the sport and there’s something so refreshing and so absolutely genuine about that. The man doesn’t portray himself as anybody but what he is.”
FOX hopes that Fiore’s appeal will help to draw American viewers to the first World Cup played without the USA since 1986. When FOX snagged the rights away from ESPN in 2011, also beating out NBC with a fee of a reported $400 million for two editions of the world’s most popular sporting event, it was considered a coup. But the driver of interest stateside has always been the attendant jingoism to the U.S. taking on the rest of the planet. With the Yanks, so nicknamed, failing to qualify, this World Cup becomes a referendum of sorts on how far the sport has really come stateside. It doesn’t help that the games will mostly be held during American working hours.
FOX, then, needs all the appeal it can muster. It needs Fiore to cross over.
Fiore was born in Buenos Aires and joined his divorced mother in New Jersey in 1980, after finishing his mandatory year of military service for Argentina’s junta at 19. He didn’t speak English, but at Montclair State University he could earn a communications degree and learn the language along the way. So he did.
After graduating, he worked odd jobs as a chauffeur and a tour guide, even painting fire escapes in New York City for a while. He became an actor. And then he learned that Telemundo was looking for young talent. He flew to Miami on his own dime and tried out. When a job wasn’t forthcoming, he showed up at the offices every day until an assignment finally materialized.
Soon enough, Fiore was the host of Lente Loco, a hit candid camera show on Univision. Next, he had a travel show with Sofia Vergara, now of Modern Family fame, shooting 200 episodes all over the world in just four years. In 1999, he became the face of Univision’s new weekly sports show, Republica Deportiva, which made him a star to Hispanic-Americans. The Republica, some marketing person at Univision decided, needed a president. The nickname stuck.
“I was lucky enough that pretty much every show that we did was a huge success,” Fiore says. “People who are now in their 30s, they come to me, ‘Oh, Fernando, I used to watch you with my grandma when I was 6.’ I love it – give me a kiss.”
He was colorful from the start. “When I started Spanish TV in 1988 and started to do sports in ’90, people thought I was completely crazy, completely wacko,” Fiore says. For a Tour de France segment, he rode into the studio on a bicycle live on air. Sometimes, not even the producers knew what kind of stunt he was going to pull.
“People would say, ‘Oh, your show is not going to last three weeks,’” Fiore says. “Even a lot of colleagues did. Twenty years later, everybody in Spanish TV is trying to be funny now. It worked. But you have to be smart enough to see if the reaction is good or bad. If the gags you’re doing put a smile on people’s face, or if they say, ‘This is an idiot and I don’t want to see him anymore.’”
After 15 years on the air, young executives at Univision had new ideas about where Republica Deportiva should go after the 2014 World Cup. Fiore had a year left on his contract but offered to leave amicably. Neal, who had briefly worked with Fiore at Univision, reached out in 2015 about joining the FOX Sports soccer broadcast team, in English, which he’d never done.
“Getting to know him off camera at Univision,” says Neal, “and understanding how completely fluent he is in English, there was never any question in my mind that, if given the opportunity, he’d be just as good as in Spanish.”
“I never imagined it and I never pursued it,” Fiore adds. “A lot of entertainers in the Spanish world always have the idea of crossing over. But I was happy with what I was doing.”
He saw a challenge though, and Fiore first went on air in English for a U.S. men’s national team game in late 2015 and then was fully integrated into the 2016 Copa America Centenario broadcasts, hosting the Copa Tonight wrap-up show.
Fiore stood out immediately.
He did a segment with the American Outlaws, the devoted U.S. fan group, wearing an eagle hat and jumping up and down with them. He cajoled and ribbed his colleagues on set, playing the antagonist to the permanently impassioned Lalas, deploying his particular brand of gesticulation and melodrama.
“He understands his job, his role, his character,” says Lalas. “And I don’t mean that as a negative and that it’s not authentic and genuine and truthful. He loves the performance and entertainment aspects of television. He takes what he does very seriously, but he doesn’t take himself very seriously, and that’s a trait that I really appreciate and respect about him.”
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 8, 2016
Fiore’s performance was quickly praised. SB Nation called him a Stephen Colbert of soccer TV and a “wind tunnel of fresh air.” The Guardian called him a “the lovable blowhard Argentinian uncle American football TV has been waiting for. We need to see more of this man.” Awful Announcing, which covers the sports media industry, was similarly enthused: “Here’s a note to FOX, the more Fernando Fiore, the better.”
Some soccer purists, who have been watching the same sort of talk heads for years, weren’t so sure, leading to mixed reactions on Twitter and elsewhere.
Fiore closely monitors how he’s received by viewers and responds to critics on Twitter. He figures about 80 percent of the audience gets and appreciates him.
Fiore sees himself as a kind of emotion correspondent. “The people love memories,” he says. He sees it as his job to rouse their nostalgia and impart the game’s mood. He’s a collector of memorabilia and a collector of memories. On the road, Fiore disappear into new cities on his own, racing through its museums and architectural landmarks, Lalas says: “He devours culture.” And that’s what he really traffics in.
Fiore has been to hundreds of rock concerts, owns closets full of signed soccer jerseys and has 15 soccer balls with over 400 signatures of World Cup participants on them. This is instructive to his broadcasting style. He plans on taking a large suitcase of props to Russia – balls, jerseys, books, scarves, trinkets. And there he’ll bring them out on set at just the right time.
On his phone, Fiore is writing a list of songs he might break into during live broadcasts, with lyrics that could apply. Because Fiore is as much off the cuff as he is prepared. That’s the tonic he’s painstakingly brewed during three decades on television. The mix that has, if nothing else, brought something different to sports broadcasting. And maybe even added a little merriment.
“I approach life as a good moment,” Fiore says. “I think God put me in this part of the cosmos to bring a little happiness to people, to bring a little smile.”
Fiore considers what he’s said and pauses for effect. “Please watch us,” he pleads in deadpan. And then he breaks into a deep belly-laugh.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• How Mexico is wooing another type of dual national: fans
• From Messi to Henderson, the top 100 players at the World Cup
• Group previews: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H