Exactly 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.
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.