Close your eyes for a second, and imagine you’re watching your favorite team play on the television. It’s a Saturday, midday kickoff. The players have lined up on the field, and are just about to shake hands with one another before the match. You’ve just plopped down on your couch/bar stool as the players begin to exchange formalities.
Now, tell me about the voice that you hear talking about the scene on display.
If you’re in the United States, odds are you’re hearing a British accented voice reading off the names on team sheets and then rehashing the recent furor that inevitably surrounds each club week in and week out. Martin Tyler, Ian Darke, Rob Hawthorne or Adrian Healey likely come to mind, waxing poetic about the scene unfolding before them. You know, proper English commentators for proper English football. It’s something we’ve become rather accustomed to over the last few years here. And if for some reason you’re not hearing an accented voice, I’d be willing to wager it was someone’s like Taylor Twellman or Kyle Martino, familiar American names who know soccer’s landscape in States.
However, I’d more than willing to hazard a guess that FOX Sports’ Gus Johnson — known predominantly for his work, um, enthusiastic commentating in college basketball and football — wasn’t a voice filling your mind.
Which is odd, because Johnson was just handed the lead commentating gig for all FOX-aired soccer matches moving forward. Not only that, but FOX are “grooming” him to be the head of their commentating team for the 2018 World Cup… the first one to be broadcast by FOX in the US.
The announcement predictably caused a few eyebrows to be raised. After all, Gus isn’t exactly your average soccer announcer. He’s the quintessential play-by-play announcer here in the US; he’s best known for the overly excited catchphrases that spout from his mouth every March. WSOTP idol Bill Simmons even went as far as to say that many memorable ends to games can be attributed not to the play itself, but rather to Johnson’s reactions to them… or the “Law of Gus” as the Sports Guy calls it.
Given his lack of “traditional” soccer commentating pedigree, I can sympathize with the outcry against the decision from the fans across the land. Within hours of the news, Twitter and Facebook were practically ablaze with fury. How dare FOX appoint a non-English announcer!?!?! This is the EPL, not the NFL! He’s only good for high-intensity American sports!
All those complaints hold water. Johnson is gimmicky, and the verbal seizure announcing that he provides seems a much better fit for the sporadic, action-packed play of basketball than it does for the gradual ebb and flow of a soccer match. And while you have to admire his enthusiasm, you do wonder if he’ll be screaming to us about midfield tiki taka the same way he does about a slam dunk. Oh, and he is in fact not English. It seemed enough to crucify the network and Gus, at least as far as the Twitter-sphere was concerned.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give Gus a chance.
First, it’s important to remember that all that bubbled to the surface yesterday in social media were the extreme voices. Most of the sane thoughts were muffled out in the hysteria. Secondly, it’s not like he has no experience calling soccer games: he is currently the announcer for the San Jose Earthquake’s radio broadcasts. That experience has to count for something.
What I’m getting at is, let’s not judge Gus Johnson before he’s even had a chance to fall on his face. Nor should we rush to judge him on his first gig in the limelight — the upcoming Real Madrid vs Manchester United Champions League tie. Instead, let’s remember that installing Gus as FOX’s lead soccer call guy is a long-term project for the network. They’re aiming for him to be one of the best in the field by the time the 2018 rolls around. That’s five whole years to get his game tuned in a fashion that will both please Euro-snobs and keep soccer novices informed and entertained. And by all accounts, Gus is a professional who takes his job seriously. He has ample time to learn the subtleties and flow of the game, as well as how to adjust his announcing to suit them.
Yes, he’s not English. No, he won’t have use all of those clever euphemisms that Anglican announcers are want to use. Yes, he’ll probably slip in his trademarked American celebration in exciting moments from time to time. What Johnson will bring won’t be the same as what we’re used to, and we need get used to that.
To be honest, it’s about time we had a paradigm shift in soccer announcing here in the US. Why do we have to have a British announcer? And if he’s not British, why must he be a former American soccer player? It’s awfully naive of us to think that it’s an either or scenario.
Honestly, it could have been far, far worse. We could have been stuck with the NBA’s Hubie Brown or NCAA’s Dick Vitale or MLB’s Tim McCarver calling the action between Spain and Poland in five years time. Could you imagine any one of them trying to pronounce the names of Chelsea’s César Azpilicueta or Poland’s Wojciech Szczęsny? What about a halftime show hosted by Ryan Seacrest and featuring panelists such as Shannon Sharpe, Deion Sanders and Eric Wynalda… shudder.
Now, I do think FOX is throwing Gus into the fire a little too early with the Madrid-Manchester match. Sure, he had a six-week shadowing of Martin Tyler to help him learn the ropes. But giving him the marquee match up of the Champions League round on national TV might not be the wisest move. A little more grooming wouldn’t hurt him, but I also understand the need for FOX to maintain the momentum with the announcement and get him out there. Let’s just hope he doesn’t alienate the viewer base before he’s even gotten his feet wet.
Johnson will also have to navigate around the pitfalls experienced by some of his predecessors. Though he’s being rushed in for these upcoming EPL and Champions League matches, FOX are taking their time with him… which is already ahead of people like Curt Menefee, Dave O’Brien or Kat Whitehill who were all rushed in before they were ready. He also needs to grapple with the idea of silence, and allowing more of it into his commentating. It’s important in soccer to occasionally allow the crowd and the action do the talking for you; after all, we’re seeing it all go down in front of us anyway. There’s no need to tell us everything that’s happening on the pitch at all times. This is tv, not radio. And too, he has to try to match the excitement that he’s known for, with the rise and fall of the game’s tempo.
But like I said before, Gus has five years to get all of that down. Which is a long, long time. So with all of that in mind, let’s all stop freaking out for a minute.
Look, I know that there are some American fans out there that are such Anglophiles that they’re actually more excited for England’s friendly with Brazil than they are for their own country’s first World Cup Qualifier. They’re the ones that need that British play caller. But most of us diehard fans are okay with our fellow compatriots calling games because, well, we’re more interested in the game itself than we are the person commentating it.
And if all goes to plan, Gus Johnson could be the first in a long line of American announcers known and respected for their commentary on the world’s game. I’m pulling for him. You should be too.
And if he sucks in Russia in five years time… feel free to skewer him all you want.