Oh my goodness—Gus Johnson is about to start calling soccer matches.
Johnson, the American sportscaster best known for his over-the-top brand of March Madness, is set for a switch to soccer. The prevailing opinion about the news so far has been mixed, but until we see what Johnson can do, patience might be the best course.
Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch reports:
The radical idea was hatched in October 2011, shortly after FIFA awarded the U.S. broadcast rights to Fox Sports for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Fox Sports president Eric Shanks wanted to do something bold with his soccer coverage. Most importantly, he wanted to brand it with something unique to Fox. So he called up broadcaster Gus Johnson, who had joined Fox only five months earlier, and asked him a question: Would you be willing to work for the next six years to become the American voice of soccer?
Johnson was stunned. But he was also interested.
Fourteen months later, after an immersion in the sport that has included calling a dozen games on the radio for the San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS and a series of practice soccer broadcasts from Fox studios across the country, Johnson begins the long road to becoming the voice of the 2018 World Cup for Fox.
The experiment begins soon. Johnson, 45, will be on-site at Madrid's Estadio Bernabeu when Real Madrid host Manchester United in a high-profile UEFA Champions League match on Feb. 13.
He is scheduled to call Arsenal's home match against Bayern Munich on Feb. 19 and Manchester City's home match against Chelsea on Feb. 24 in the English Premier League.
Johnson will also call the FA Cup final and Champions League final for Fox. It all leads to 2018, when he will be Fox's American voice of the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
"This is something we are serious about and something we will continue to work at," Shanks told SI. "Based on the radio games and the practice games Gus has done, I think this is going to work."
According to Deitsch, Johnson began his soccer education last March, when he and a soccer-loving friend toured Europe for a "three-week soccer excursion." He also called 12 games on the radio for the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer last year.
USA Today's Mike Foss praised Fox's decision, writing in an article headlined "Gus Johnson will make you want to watch soccer" that "there is absolutely no doubt that Johnson calling a soccer match will be entertaining, regardless of your fandom."
At EPL Talk, The Gaffer wasn't quite so sure. "This is a smack in the face by FOX Soccer at the die-hard soccer fans who have subscribed and supported the network for years," The Gaffer wrote, arguing that using a novice lessens Fox's credibility.
That might be the case, and American broadcasting outlets do have a history of rushing commentators into soccer unprepared (remember Dave O'Brien at the 2006 World Cup?). Johnson, however, will have five years to figure it out before his World Cup gig arrives. In five years, he could and should be fluent in the sport.
Besides, why must all the good commentators be British? Aren't Americans knowledgeable about the sport here in the year 2013? This is not, after all, the 1990 World Cup. The U.S. has qualified regularly for the world's most prestigious sporting event since then, and it's time for American sportscasters to catch up.
As Brian Phillips writes at Grantland:
Commentators are either good or they're not; they can either speak in complete sentences or they can't; they've either got a feel for the ebb and flow of a game or they’re Phil Simms. Gus Johnson is a good commentator.
Obviously, British commentators are well-versed in the sport and offer a wealth of knowledge to both dedicated and casual fans. But casual American fans might be attracted to the sport by a voice they recognize, especially an energetic figure with a pop-culture following.
By 2018, it's realistic to think Johnson could appeal to both die-hard and casual fans.
For me, it's an intriguing move by Fox. I'm willing to give Johnson a chance to figure it out, and I'm willing to see how he fares in the role.
Five years from now, he might just be a natural.