In exclusive report by Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, word dropped yesterday that Fox, winners of the U.S. broadcast rights for the World Cup in 2018 and 2022 and current broadcaster of the Premier League and UEFA Champions League, has tapped decibel-dependent sports commentator Gus Johnson to be its lead voice in Russia in the first of their World Cup. The world proceeded to melt down. Or, rather, the process of melt down began in earnest.
Gus is a basketball guy, mostly, and is most famous for his over-the-top calls of NCAA basketball games during the annual championship tournament (which is also called “March Madness”, a sobriquet Gus seems to take literally). He’s either truly passionate or simply performing, depending on how adept your brain is at detecting subterfuge, and he’s not noted for subtlety. As anyone who watch soccer on television knows, subtlety can often be the lion’s share of calling a game; most commentators can handle a goal call, or ratchet up the drama in a big moment, but can they navigate us through long stretches of pass-pass-pass?
Some American soccer fans think he can, or at least that his brand of bombastic commentary could transfer well to soccer. Many American soccer fans (among them many British expats maybe, perhaps) think otherwise, convinced that his lack of understanding of the sport could doom us to a World Cup mangled by exhortations about “rising” and “firing.”
But it’s worse, for the haters. Even though he has five and a half years to prepare for his World Cup, Gus has already been handed Champions League duties and will call Madrid’s showdown with Manchester United at the Bernebeu on February 13th. As far as we know, the only experience Gus has calling a live soccer match is limited to a few games doing San Jose Earthquakes radio broadcasts early last year. Has he been practicing? Does he know not to use an “S” when he says “offside”? Can he pronounced “Xabi Alonso” without choking himself?
The issue of Gus is somewhat about his lack of experience/iconic American sports broadcaster status and somewhat about the larger issue of what type of broadcaster Americans want describing their footy action. If you’re inclined to use the word “football” at any and all costs despite the fact that you grew up in Aurora playing soccer at the Y, you’re not likely to be thrilled with Fox’s choice. If you call the shoes used to play the game “cleats”, the expanse it’s played on a “field”, and you think Americans who says they’re “gutted” are hilarious, maybe Gus is right up your alley. You’re certainly more likely to give him a chance.
Here’s a peek at how the split is playing out in that bastion of rational thought and hilarious joke, Twitter.
Give Gus credit for not taking the possibility of being the lead voice for the world’s biggest sporting event lightly. He expresses hesitation over the assignment, as you would hope someone at his stage of education would. He’s taking trips to Europe. He’s even playing pickup in Manhattan.
Asked directly whether he was interested in being Fox’s lead voice for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Johnson said, “I don’t know. That’s too big right now for me, too big to think about and digest. I am interested in getting a little better every day. I want to learn this game. I am humbled by this game and their fans, and I am a little intimidated by the travel. I’ll be in multiple countries and I don’t speak a second language so I am going to have to become comfortable being an international traveler. But I am excited about it.”
Before his discussions with Shanks about the possibility of calling world soccer, Johnson admits he had little exposure to the sport. He played baseball, basketball and football in high school in Detroit and his broadcasting career has involved those sports along with MMA. Johnson says he has been playing pickup soccer since last summer on the West Side of Manhattan to “feel and learn the game.” He said he’s been playing right-center back “because I’m not in shape to be a midfielder.”
This isn’t Dave O’Brien, the American baseball announcer pulled in at the last minute to handle ESPN’s World Cup duties back in 2006. Johnson has the time to learn that O’Brien did not. That doesn’t mean he’ll be successful, but coupled with his apparent enthusiasm, it does mean he’ll have a chance.
Unless you just don’t like his particular style of broadcasting, or his stupid American accent, or his apparent Chelsea fandom.
Asked what message he wanted to pass along for soccer fans prior to his initial broadcast, Johnson thought about his answer for a good 30 seconds. Finally, he said, “What would I say to them? I would probably say just give me a minute and I’m going to become a convert, and once I do, I am going to give you the passion and the commitment to your sport that I do for every other sport that I’m part of. I see this as a great opportunity for my life, and I’m down with it and I want to get in there.