The FA Cup final between Manchester City and Wigan will be live on Saturday, May 11, with coverage in America on Fox—not the soon-to-be-rebranded Fox Soccer Channel, and not on FX, which the network often uses for big soccer matches. This match will be on Fox's mother ship, and Gus Johnson will be doing the play-by-play.
Johnson is good at calling a lot of things*. Soccer is not one of them.
Fox either doesn't agree or doesn't care. Either way, the network is wrong, and the attempt to grow an American audience by using Johnson as its lead voice has so fabulously backfired, it's actually driving viewers away.
Johnson has been calling a growing number of big games—mostly top English Premier League matches and a selection of noteworthy UEFA Champions League knockout-stage matches—since Fox's big announcement in February that he would be joining their footy coverage in a play-by-play capacity.
A seasoned veteran in the booth, Johnson has been adeptly calling college and professional basketball games for years, making a name for himself with his excitability during close games. Before he moved to Fox, Johnson called mostly college basketball and NFL games for CBS, while supplementing his heavy workload with college and pro hoops games for regional cable networks.
(*Note: Per my MMA friends, that sport isn't one of the things Johnson is good at calling either, but that's another column for another day.)
THE FOX PROMOTION OF JOHNSON
When Fox announced that Johnson would be calling soccer matches for the network, the press release was loaded with caveats, almost in an effort to preemptively apologize to the viewers.
Like this, quoted from David Nathanson, executive vice president and general manager of Fox Soccer (via foxsports.com):
Over the past 20 years Gus has cemented himself as an iconic American sports broadcaster, and we’re thrilled to welcome his style to the world soccer stage. Gus has spent the last year-and-a-half getting ready to call what is a new sport for him, and I applaud the work, study and time he’s devoted to his preparation. He respects how passionate and knowledgeable the soccer fan is, and while his education continues, he’s ready to lend his classic American voice to the world’s biggest sport.
Fox has tried to sell its audience that Johnson spent 18 months preparing for his soccer coverage, applauding his devotion and preparation to learn the game. Nathanson pointed out how Johnson respects the soccer audience, and yet it's Nathanson and the higher-ups at Fox who are showing a complete and utter lack of respect for the audience by continuing to put Johnson on television when there are other, more seasoned options available.
In most cases, Fox takes the video and audio feed from one of its European partners. For many big matches, the audio features Martin Tyler, one of the most esteemed soccer broadcasters in the world. Fox has decided to put the mute button on Tyler in favor of their own brand of "learn-on-the-job" work by Johnson.
How does that, exactly, respect the audience?
A WORK IN PROGRESS
After his first few matches, many soccer viewers (and media) saw Johnson as a work in progress. In order for that to be true, Johnson would have to show progress. Inexplicably, Johnson has gotten worse.
The experiment for Fox has been a disaster. Johnson has been exposed as an overmatched, amateurish soccer announcer with very little indication he will get better, and still Fox continues to put him in the booth for big matches. What's worse, Fox is doing Johnson no favors with his booth partner, recently pairing him with Ian Wright, who somehow manages to make Johnson sound like the most seasoned announcer on the call.
At least when Fox paired Johnson with a top analyst there was some ability to salvage that part of the telecast. When Johnson is paired with a broken record who can only talk about a team's width for 90 minutes, the product is an unmitigated disaster.
Back to the Fox press release: Let's see how they explained Johnson's 18 months of preparation for the biggest matches in the world:
Since accepting this new challenge, Johnson has tapped several resources in his effort to learn as much as possible in such a short period of time. He called over a dozen MLS games on radio, mostly those of the San Jose Earthquakes; he has played pick-up soccer games in a park near his Manhattan home; spent several weeks in Europe last season attending games and conversing at length with Sky Sports executives and world-class football play-by-play announcer Martin Tyler.
Pickup games? Pickup games?!?!
Johnson was so underqualified to call matches for the network that Fox felt the need to mention in its press release that he played pickup games in the park near his house to learn the game?
Oh, and instead of actually giving us Martin Tyler on these telecasts, Fox admitted it is giving us a man who had lengthy conversations with Tyler. Golly, thanks.
Yes, Johnson did do some work with MLS on radio—a completely different medium than television, especially for soccer. Still, that work was not for Fox Soccer, which could have easily nurtured Johnson along doing midlevel EPL matches on Saturday mornings to become more comfortable with the style and pace of an unfamiliar game.
Instead, Fox has repeatedly thrown him into the deep end. It's no wonder he keeps sinking.
"MAN U," REAL, CRISTIANO, LEO…
One of the biggest issues with Johnson's work on Fox's soccer coverage is that he continues to make simple mistakes the network should be able to fix. Johnson has called several Manchester United matches this year, and he constantly refers to the club as "Man U," which not only sounds amateurish just by the nature of the name, but actually comes off as offensive to some United fans.
When used by rival fans, "Man U" is a reference to an awful song about the men who died in the Munich air disaster of 1958.
Now, maybe Johnson didn't know that before his first match, but it was a big topic on social media during that call. One might think Fox would point that out to him, considering that calling a Manchester United match would likely mean talking directly to a large part of that team's fans.
If it did, that didn't stop him.
Johnson consistently uses casual terms to reference the players and teams he announces, using "Barca" and "Real" to define the Spanish super clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid. On several occasions, Johnson called Lionel Messi "Leo," which is a truncation most fans use in casual conversations—say, at a New York City pickup game—but, to my knowledge, very few announcers would find the need to use. Johnson habitually calls Cristiano Ronaldo "Cristiano," despite the fact that everyone else on the planet calls him, simply, "Ronaldo."
Individually, Johnson's casual references aren't much to complain about, but collectively they make it sound like he's the guy at the end of the bar who got a Messi jersey because it was cool and now feels like he has to go to soccer bars on the weekends to fit in.
Come to think of it, that's the broadcasting equivalent of what Johnson is.
His soccer terminology—using phrases like "in the six," commenting on how well a player "traps" the ball and, my favorite, remarking how a player "handles" the ball in the midfield —makes it seem like he picked up his terminology playing soccer as a kid, forgot about the game for 30 years, then showed up ready to call these matches.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE BLOWOUT
During the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League, Fox gave Johnson the assignment of calling the second leg of Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich.
It was a disaster.
Johnson has a reputation for being great in close games, and heading into the second leg of that semifinal, Bayern Munich had such a huge lead it was highly unlikely that Barcelona—even if Messi was healthy—would get back into the tie.
With just a week between matches, it may have been too late after the first leg for Fox to pull the plug on Johnson calling the game, but they had a responsibility to prepare him for 90 minutes where the result was obvious and the larger picture needed to be addressed.
Johnson is not suited for that role. The situation exposed him.
Fox failed by deciding to pair Johnson with Wright, giving the audience nobody in the booth who was suited for that much-needed bigger-picture role.
Instead, Johnson provided a bland, paint-by-numbers call of the match, clearly reading prepared notes at times, showcasing how unprepared he was to do an event of that magnitude.
IT'S INIESTA. "IN. EE. EST. A."
There was a rumor going around that Johnson was away from Fox's soccer coverage after his early games because the network was trying to steer him to matches involving EPL teams, allowing him a better chance to pronounce the players names correctly.
Let's be honest: It's awkward to hear any American accent say some of the more European-sounding names, especially when the American announcer isn't very familiar with the players in the first place. If Johnson was being protected from that situation early on, it was hard to maintain once all the English clubs fell out of the Champions League.
Fox made the call to put Johnson on Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich and not Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund, likely because that was the more high-profile event, but with a nice byproduct of having more recognizable players on both teams.
Johnson butchered the names, including players like Arjen Robben, whose name Johnson likened to a red metal bird; or Franck Ribery, whose name Johnson made sound like he was ordering a plate of baby backs; or Thomas Muller, whose name Johnson made sound like he was a "Fabulous" female wrestler from the 1980s.
Nothing—not just in that match, but in the history of Johnson's career—was as bad as the way he pronounced the name of Andres Iniesta.
That's how Johnson pronounced Iniesta, an honest mistake once in a telecast but utterly inexcusable time and time again over the course of more than an hour of play.
Johnson even tried to grind some excitement out of the match with his trademark vigor, completely exposing his lack of knowledge with a guttural yell of "ee-YA-NEST-a" when the dynamic midfielder took a second-half shot.
The shot was easily blocked by a defender. There was no need to yell.
Why is this his worst offense? Well, it was not some obscure bench player on a club Johnson may not have known before the assignment came down. Malaga, this was not.
Iniesta is the reigning UEFA Player of the Year. He is the top playmaker for one of the most famous clubs in the world and the best player on the reigning World Cup and European champions.
He is universally recognized as one of the five greatest players in the world.
YOU SHOULD KNOW HOW TO SAY THIS MAN'S NAME.
Fox can spew all it wants about Johnson's dedication and respect of the game, but if it allows him to continue calling matches when he can't even pronounce the names of the game's top stars, its lack of respect to the audience—let alone the game—is shameful.
I know that calling a game can feel like being on an island, and it's hard to get inside a play-by-play announcer's ear during the match, especially when there are no commercial breaks in soccer.
That is precisely why Johnson should never have been in that situation in the first place.
If he is calling Sunderland at West Brom on an EPL Saturday morning, would anyone even notice if he mispronounced, say, Romelu Lukaku's name? It would be a nonissue, excused away by the audience's understanding that he is still learning the game.
Making that mistake on the stage Johnson did was inexcusable. Putting him out there for the FA Cup final and UEFA Champions League final says all it needs to say about what Fox thinks of its audience.
PRIDE VS. PROGRAMMING
Johnson's time at Fox has been curious so far. He was hired at Fox after negotiations with CBS did not go the way he had hoped, and he came in with much fanfare to be one of Fox's lead announcers.
Only, the network didn't put Johnson on any major NFL games, instead relegating him to regional college football games until late in the season when a few big games are televised on Fox. Johnson does call Fox's limited bowl schedule and, near the end of the NFL season, hops in when other announcers are off doing baseball or other non-NFL events.
The NFL and MLB are Fox's big-ticket sports, and Johnson has not been a major part of its plans. Yet with the expansion of Fox's cable network platform, Johnson is in the position to be the voice of its college sports programming, a task for which he is perfectly suited.
Maybe this soccer gig just gives him something to do in the offseason to justify the network paying him as much as it is.
Fox should find something else.
Johnson's work on soccer is so bad that it could begin to impact the level of respect he has garnered in his other sports. Again, Johnson is great on basketball and solid with football—especially games that are late and close—but he has proven to be such a fraud with his soccer work that he may become a bit of a laughingstock within the industry, even on events in which he usually thrives.
Fox either doesn't see it or doesn't care, and the fact they continue to put Johnson on bigger and bigger matches—in addition to the FA Cup, he is scheduled to call the UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund on May 25—the less it seems Fox cares about its soccer audience.
And maybe Fox shouldn't care. It recently lost the bid to televise EPL matches to NBC Sports, a crushing blow to its soccer programming, especially after losing La Liga and Serie A to beIN Sport the year before.
Fox will be rebranding its soccer-only network, incorporating its remaining soccer coverage into a new all-sports network called Fox Sports 1.
Who really cares what the soccer fans think if it will all be gone in August anyway, right?
Wrong. Fox won the rights to the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, and per reports, this Johnson experiment was the beginning of Fox's plan to have him be the voice of those World Cups.
Granted, five years is a long time, and Johnson could develop into a more seasoned soccer announcer in those years, but Fox has already ruined him for soccer fans in America by putting him on high-profile matches for which he was so blatantly unprepared.
Had Fox built Johnson's work slowly over the next five years, the experiment may have worked. Now, Johnson is proving to be the network's next big sports failure—the glowing puck, Digger the Gopher and Cleatus the Robot of the soccer world.