Gus Johnson Steps Aside from Soccer, Will Fox Learn From the Experiment?

By Mike Cardillo

Fox’s highly-talked about plan to use Gus Johnson as its lead voice for its soccer coverage is over. Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch spoke with both Johnson and Fox Sports president Eric Shanks Sunday about the development. Johnson cited his commitments calling college football and college basketball on Fox Sports 1 as key factors behind his decision to step away from the lead soccer chair at the network. Fox will broadcast the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Johnson said he didn’t want to be “unprepared” or do a “disservice” to the event.  Johnson also mentioned the death of his mother in June to ovarian cancer as a big influence behind the decision.

If nothing else, during the year-plus Johnson/soccer experiment, the usually bombastic announcer was honest about himself. When I met with Johnson 1-on-1 in New York earlier this year, however, I didn’t get the sense he would make this abrupt change of course a few months later. From our conversation I would have guessed the passion for soccer displayed across America during the World Cup in June and July would have only made Johnson more excited for calling the tournament come 2018.

But we move on. Frankly, it was a no-win situation for the veteran broadcaster. European soccer is a complex world of countless teams, players and storylines. Expecting anyone to immediately become well-versed in it is asking a lot. Many American-based soccer fans, at least the ones active on social media, took an immediate dislike to Johnson. They likely would have, had he sounded like anything but Martin Tyler with an American accent or had he been slightly less well versed in the intricacies of Borussia Dortmund’s lineup and tactics.

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Of course, whenever the subject of soccer broadcasting in United States comes up there is always the accent debate — British or American? ESPN used mostly British announcers for their lead play-by-play voices at the World Cup earlier this year in Brazil. For me, as someone who watches the EPL every weekend, it wasn’t even an issue, but I could see how it might stand out to casual viewers. Credit Fox for at least trying develop an American voice with Johnson, even if it ended up falling short of its intended goal.

Whatever you think of Johnson as a soccer announcer, we need to collectively acknowledge he was put into a difficult spot. As I wrote in April, his first major assignment — the 2013 Champions League final — was an all-German affair, which would have been difficult for a lot of people to accurately pronounce and cover. Johnson certainly improved and Fox didn’t do him any favors either with a revolving cast of analysts.

In spots — think Ben Watson’s winner for Wigan in the 2013 FA Cup final vs. Manchester City — Johnson’s trademark, one-of-a-kind enthusiasm radiated through the screen. (Can we just take a moment to pause and let it sink in that a) Wigan won an FA Cup and b) Gus Johnson called it live on American network television.) This sort of would-be viral moment that Johnson became famous for during the NCAA Tournament is probably a big reason Fox executives hatched their plan to have him ready by 2018 to call soccer’s signature event.

The problem with this logic? It’s 2014. Putting soccer on television in America doesn’t need a hook like Johnson calling a match to get people to watch it. We saw this summer, the World Cup put up astronomical numbers on ESPN. EPL broadcasters on NBCSN each week continue to draw healthy ratings. By any metric, soccer’s place in America continues to rise, although the television numbers for the tournament in Russia may suffer due to a time difference.

Soccer in 2014 and beyond should be treated — and broadcast — like any other sport in America. ESPN came to this conclusion post-2006 when it was widely panned for rushing Dave O’Brien, a very professional baseball/basketball broadcaster, into the lead soccer chair in Germany. Four years later ESPN responded with award-winning coverage in South Africa and followed it up with even better work from Brazil both in studio (anchored by Bob Ley) and during the games.

Fox still has plenty of time to figure out what it wants to do in 2018, much less so for the Women’s World Cup next year. For the time being it can continue to use the Sky Sports audio feed on Champions League matches and nobody will bat an eye. As we get closer to 2018 Fox could hire European-based broadcasters and or pundits who aren’t under contract for the World Cup, as ESPN did, for example, with Jon Champion this summer. Given Fox’s track record with sports broadcasting — remember this is the same network that once upon a time signed off on the idea that the only way Americans would watch hockey on television was via a glowing puck — there may not be reason to be optimistic Fox can avoid, well, being too much like Fox.

For all the beatings on social media guys like Joe Buck, Jim Nantz or, in this case, Johnson take, sports fans still watch. I find it hard to believe someone wouldn’t, say, tune in for an NFL playoff game because they don’t like the announcers calling it. Conversely how many casual sports fans over the last two years watched a soccer game on Fox because they heard Johnson’s voice?

The games the thing, not the broadcasters … how often we in the media forget that.

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