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Checking in on the Gus Johnson Soccer Experiment

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GusExactly one week ago today, Gus Johnson announced his first big soccer game broadcast on the Fox Soccer Network, part of a long term plan to prepare him to be the primary announcer for the 2018 World Cup, the first one which Fox will have the rights to.

The beloved play by play man now has two European soccer games under his belt, the massive Manchester United versus Real Madrid Champions League match from a week ago as well as another Champions League game between Arsenal and Bayern Munich which took place yesterday. So, how is this latest experiment in trying to make soccer a truly mainstream American sport faring so far?

I should admit up front that I’m in the (annoying, contrarian) minority of avid soccer fans in the United States who were skeptical of the idea of Johnson calling European and international soccer matches to begin with. I understood the logic of the move. Having a likable, familiar voice calling games could bring the sport to a whole new audience of casual fans and even non-fans in America. But, at the risk of confirming every stereotype about American soccer fans, the move to me just seemed like a dumbing down to please people who weren’t real fans like me, man. This was confirmed by a lot of chatter I saw on Facebook and Twitter, where people who had never posted anything soccer-related before were saying things of the “I hate/don’t really like/don’t watch much soccer, but Gus Johnson!” variety.

There’s no question that Johnson is a skilled play by play man and a consummate professional, as best exemplified by his stellar work announcing NCAA “March Madness” basketball games, which is mostly where he established himself as one of the handful of sports announcers who has an avid fan base. But part of the fun of watching European soccer games is the deep knowledge and different announcing style of the mostly English match callers who grew up with the sport, played in it etc. as opposed to it being something that only entered their consciousness in the last decade or so. The different terminology (“run of form” etc.) and, let’s face it, the accents are part of the fun of listening to these guys, at least for me. And they give you the feeling that you’re being introduced to a whole other world by people who are actually of that world, not just listening to another American dude figuring things out by reading soccer blogs etc. like you.

Having said that, there was no question that a man of Johnson’s intelligence, skill,  and work ethic would be anything but more than well prepared for his first roll out on a big stage. And the reaction to his announcing of the big Manchester United/Real Madrid game last Wednesday was mixed, though largely positive, even from the most hardcore soccer snobs. I was most impressed by the degree to which Johnson appeared to have done his homework and then some, particularly in having command of the back stories of all the players and coaches, what clubs they’d previously been involved with etc. His work was solid and competent, if unspectacular and, crucially, he avoided any embarrassing errors in terminology or rule understanding.

This assessment in a “mailbag” column by Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated seems fair:

I work for Fox Soccer, so keep that in mind, but I thought Johnson made a solid debut Wednesday. Was he perfect? No. (Ryan Giggs isn’t English; goaltending isn’t a soccer term; he needs to anticipate plays a bit better.) But Johnson didn’t make any colossal errors, and there were times he got the call just right as a scoring chance was building. He was also better than soccer newbie Dave O’Brien ever was during his ill-fated foray into ESPN’s play-by-play calling during World Cup 2006. Simply put, Wednesday’s game was something Johnson can build on as he does more and more games.

So Johnson has five years to figure this thing out in preparation for the 2018 World Cup, and the Man U/Real Madrid game, as well as the Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich game, give him a solid foundation to build on. As this post on The Big Lead says if Fox’s ultimate goal is “to make a soccer a mainstream “American” product” by World Cup 2018, using Johnson this way will likely help them achieve that goal. The trick will be to avoid alienating viewers who are already huge fans of the sport and enjoy the accents, terminology, and perspective of English and other foreign announcers.

Thus far Johnson has avoided that pitfall as well. I just hope that Fox can also carve out a spot for great seasoned soccer commentary teams like Ian Darke and Steve McManaman, who as I previously asserted, are the best working in any sport today.

 

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  • rich

    He used the expression ‘hanging the line’ and at one point said ‘Ronaldo. . . . crosses’ assuming he was about to cross the ball when in fact he didn’t. Its the first time I’d heard this guy commentate and I thought it was embarrassing.

  • Eric Deamer

    I largely agree with you rich. One thing that annoys me about American announcers in general is that they use expressions and turns of phrase that I never hear English announcers use and I find it distracting. And, like Grant Wahl said in his piece, he wasn’t able to stay a step ahead of the action and make more a fluid call the way the English (and other) announcers can. However, in my opinion it’s an exaggeration to say he was “embarrassing.” He didn’t make any truly glaring errors or anything like that, but there is a lot of room for improvement.

  • JH

    Yes…the Gus experiment is going so well that Fox Soccer online has decided to start carrying two versions of the “big matches” that Gus does. One version with Gus, and the other version simply using the local UK feed.

    But hey, keep trying to Americanize everything Fox! Great work. F.

  • rich

    I’ll stick to the UK feed. I’m English and naturally I want someone commentating who understands the game and who uses proper phrases and terminology. When I lived in the UK I watched Sky TVs NFL coverage with US commentators. Can you imagine British commentators trying to commentate on the NFL? When I watch a ‘foreign’ game I want people commentating who understand it, so I can learn from them, not some random punter who adds no value.

  • Joel

    Gus, do me a favor…smoke a fuckin joint and have a pint or two before the Chelsea/City game this weekend and animate yourself a little bit. You’re making soccer as boring as the average American thinks it is, trying to sound like you know shit. just call the action. Tell a story, use some vocabulary. try speaking in complete sentences.

  • Chris

    The consummate professional? This is the same Gus Johnson that got suspended for fighting in a bar between NCAA tourney games and can’t ever conceal his small man syndrome?

    Dude is awful and in love with his own voice.

    Anyone watching the first 20 mins of City/Chelsea can see he’s already slipped back into “Gus mode” and getting way too excited before anything legitimately big is happening on the pitch. Again, typical Gus, caring more about his opportunity to show off rather than letting the play do the “talking”.

    I watch European soccer broadcasts to escape the American arrogance of broadcasting. This move makes me sick (though SO Fox).

  • Tim

    With all due respect to Mr. Johnson, it is clear that he has never been a soccer fan, and is not familiar with the sport. In my opinion, FOX has made a big mistake, along with many others in the last 6 months, in acquiring Mr. Johnson’s services as he is entirely out of his element when it comes to soccer. His work is neither “solid” nor is he “well-informed” – as most fans know more about the sport than he does.

    Mr. Johnson has not made a single analytical comment in any of the games that he has commentated on. For FOX to ask him to commentate on an EPL match between Manchester City and Chelsea is a tragic mistake, as FOX has been smart enough to have prominent English commentators up to this point. And for him to work on Champions League games is an insult to soccer fans. If he is going to be the main commentator at the 2018 World Cup, then we are looking at the same mistake ESPN made in its coverage of the 2006 World Cup, which they recognized by hiring Martin Tyler in 2010. Personally I would make plans to watch the World Cup in another country where I can enjoy the world’s biggest competition without being exposed to mediocre presentation.

    FOX should simply hire English commentators for any major tournaments and stick with relaying the feed with English commentators who have grown up watching and loving the beautiful game.

  • Eric Deamer

    Hey all. If anyone is still looking at this I just want to say that I’m flattered my little post has attracted such passionate and engaged commentary. I think I should make clear that I agree almost 100% with everything you guys have said here. I think my post made it seem like I’m more sanguine about the Gus Johnson calling soccer games thing than I actually am. Ultimately, I agree that it’s a mistake and I wish Fox hadn’t done it. Like you guys I’d rather watch games with the English commentators who are much much more knowledgeable and also have a more laid back, fluid style that’s more in keeping with the rhythms of the sport. I just wanted to give the guy the benefit of the doubt and didn’t want to be the stereotypical “soccer snob” who’s against anything that will make the sport more mainstream and/or more American. Also, this was written before the Man City vs. Chelsea game. I agree that game was a real step backwards. It was like he started to get bored and felt the need to add his usual theatrics to moments that don’t warrant it.

  • rich

    Piers Morgan is in the Fox studio today! What the hell is going on? Awful.

  • Roy

    I read somewhere earlier in the week gus johnson was goin to commentate on the arsenal / spurs game …i guess they yanked him …thank god ..its so annoying listening to him try ..cant even pronounce the players names ..or know nationality Pathetic fox ..jus to have an american ?? at least learn the game an dont put an amateur on the biggest games ..esp CL games

  • ETC

    Gus Johnson is an absolute embarrassment, I was wincing every time he spoke, he’s clueless. He needs to be fired before he makes it worse for Fox Soccer!!

  • Sarah-walz@gmail.com

    I am submitting this comment as an American who was not raised watching or playing soccer but came to it in my 30s. I hate Gus Johnson. I am no soccer expert but, even I can tell he doesn’t know the game and does not know how to call the came. It is simply dreadful having to listen to him–I turn off the volume.

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