When I read that Gus Johnson would be the voice of yesterday’s Champions League match between Manchester United and Real Madrid, I wondered why. When I heard that he would be the voice of soccer in the United States on FOX for the next nine years (through at least the 2022 World Cup) I nearly cried.
I’ve never liked Johnson’s “style” of shouting, shouting, and shouting some more. I have grudgingly accepted the fact that the percentage of the American sports-viewing population that does not immediately hate all sportscasters responds to Johnson’s all-action “this one goes up to eleven” milieu. Actually, comparing Johnson to Nigel Tufnel is an understatement. Whereas Tufnel’s amp goes up to 11, Johnson’s voice starts at a 35 and never comes down. Listening to Johnson call his more comfortable sports of college basketball and NFL football is less a broadcast than a 2-3 hour assault on one’s auditory canal.
So it was with a morbid, scientific curiosity that I tuned in to yesterdays game. I felt that I could have written this article three days ago, and the underlying message would be the same, but I decided to wait. Recognizing that Wednesday was Johnson’s first step on a decade-long journey towards becoming a tried-and-true soccer broadcaster, I wanted to give Gus the faintest of chances to prove to me that he could tone down his act and call a soccer match with the precise amount of controlled intensity required. As a “non-traditional” (read: British) soccer voice I wanted to see if Johnson was in-tune with the players and the culture of the game in Europe. I wanted to give him a fighting chance to prove to me that he may be a good appointment, eventually, by the FOX network. He did not.
Picking on Johnson’s in-game performance is a little reductive and not necessarily the overall point of this piece, so I will get it out of the way early. Overall, I thought he was out of tune with the game and the players in it. Beyond mis-identifying players on several occasions, making a special note that Robin Van Persie crossed the ball with his left foot, which is of course Van Persie’s dominant appendage, or generally sounding like he had a glossary of soccer terms sitting on the table in front of him for easy reference, Johnson never gave me a sense that he knew anything about the players in the game. I never got the sense that he knew that Diego Lopes, the Real goalkeeper, was signed as a January stop-gap for the injured Iker Casillas, or that Fabio Coentrao and Luka Modric have both struggled to make their way with the Real squad this campaign. On the Manchester United side, there was no note of David De Gea’s struggles to be a complete goalkeeper, or Phil Jones’ special assignment as an extremely deep-lying midfielder to counteract the dangers of Madrid’s attacking quintet of Ronaldo, Ozil, Di Maria, Benzema and Higuain. Sure, he knew, and spoke at length about, Cristiano Ronaldo, but people who never watch soccer know what Ronaldo looks like in hot pants, so that doesn’t really count. An announcer needs to dig deeper, and acquire the knowledge that only comes from being around a sport, any sport, as much as possible. Johnson clearly hasn’t done that.
Of course, every issue I mentioned above can be corrected over time, and with a virtual guarantee that he will be on the job until Cristiano is 37 years old, Johnson has time to grow and gain knowledge. The main issue with Johnson was, is, and in the case of soccer, always will be, one of style. The man simply does not fit the sport.
I had the fortune of watching the match twice. For some odd reason, while Johnson and Warren Barton were picked up on the over-the-air FOX soccer feed, the online feed on FOXSoccer.tv carried the call of English legend Martin Tyler (whom you may remember from ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup final, if you aren’t a regular viewer of Champions League or EPL matches), and former Manchester United defender Gary Neville. Like most of the U.S., I was at work when the game was being played, so I kept the online feed on in the background. Comparing Tyler to Johnson is patently unfair to Johnson, but it did provide a first-hand look at exactly why Johnson is the wrong man for the job.
What makes Tyler, and others, so good, is that they recognize what soccer is not, which is an action sport. In the U.S. those that present the sport to us seem hell-bent on bringing the sport to air with the idea that its comparable games are basketball and hockey. Beyond the nets and to some extent, the shape, hockey and soccer are little alike. Beyond the level of athleticism, ditto for Basketball. Soccer’s rhythm lies somewhere in between the stop-start of football and the operatic structure of baseball. The game has its natural breaks. An attack is made, successful or otherwise, and after every repelled charge the game re-sets. The disguise of soccer is that while these re-sets are taking place, the players are still in motion. It is easy to look at the movement and think that more should be happening. This attitude is where, I believe, many newcomers to the sport become hung up on soccer. They see something that isn’t there, which is an “action” sport, and they expect the game to be something that it is not.
Where seasoned veteran broadcasters like Tyler succeed, and where Johnson is a failed appointment, is that Tyler and his brethren understand these rhythms, and know how to fill the time in between a game’s natural upswings. This is how soccer resembles its closest American counterpart, which is baseball. Both sports lull and wait, building to brief eruptions of action, most of which end up as anti-climaxes. The thirteen-pitch at-bat which ends in a ground out is akin to the 12 pass sequence which ends with a shot rifling over the bar. Where American broadcasters, including Johnson, have failed to rein in the sport is in this narrative. They insist on calling each individual pass between defenders as if it drives the narrative of the game, when this is time that could be spent building the games back story, thus informing that same narrative in useful way. By not doing this, and highlighting action that needs no description, broadcasters in this country unwittingly detract from the sport, which provides further fodder for the “soccer is dull” majority of this country.
This group is one of three main sections of the United States’ population vis-a-vis the sport. There are those that despise the game, those that casually watch the game (roughly every World Cup), and those that follow the sport with a passion that borders, and sometimes exceeds, Europhilia.
On a Venn diagram, those that despise the game are also those who would likely intersect with Johnson’s target audience. They are those that live for NFL Sunday, and consider even hockey too foreign for their liking. Having met more than my share of these fans in my lifetime, I can safely say that no matter what happens, these people will never come around to the sport. They also seem to be the very same audience that Network Executives are constantly trying to court. They are the majority, as well as the group that dominates advertising demographics. They are also the group that the more they are collectively forced to experience something they do not enjoy, the more they resist. If Johnson’s appointment is a calculated play to draw this group in, what makes them think it will work? Besides, if Wednesday’s game was any indication, Johnson was clearly trying to sound like a traditional soccer voice, thereby fighting his inner-Gus Johnson. If he completely tones down his act, will he have the same appeal?
Much of the same argument can be made for the casual fan. If this group’s main complaint when they tune in to the World Cup is the lack of American voices on the air (and I’m hard-pressed to believe that they care at all about this) and Johnson is meant to draw them into the world game, then FOX is setting them up for disappointment. For when the Jules Rimet trophy is handed out, and all the internationals go back to club games, I sincerely doubt that FOX is planning to send American broadcasters to cover every game each Saturday in The EPL (whose rights FOX is losing to NBC in any case, La Liga, or Serie A. When these fans tune in to those games and hear British, Spanish or Italian announcers, wouldn’t logic dictate that they turn off their set once again?
Which brings us to the third group of fans. This group may be the only part of the spectrum that actually cares who delivers their game to them. They want their voices to be knowledgeable, non-invasive, and not cartoonish. Most fans I know (native English speaking, in any case) don’t even like Spanish broadcasts because the commentators tend to take away from the game with their histrionics. At this point in time, the voices they want to hear are British. Furthermore, none of this group, whom I have spoken to, have expressed anything less than disgust for the appointment of Johnson. What no one seems to realize is that one of the main reasons that this group enjoys soccer in the first place is that is specifically NOT American. Hardcore soccer fans in this country appreciate the sport because it provides an alternative to the normal sporting experience. It exists, for the most part, away from canned Jock Jams at stadiums, bro culture, and useless cheerleaders. The more television tries to Americanize the sport, the more they will resist that culture shift. These people simply want the best product presented to them. They care little about what accent that presentation comes with.
It is to this end that the appointment of someone like Gus Johnson as the “voice” of soccer in America is just as likely to drive established fans away as it is to reign in new support. The time will come when someone who grew up in this country will be able to present the game up to the established standard, but I severely doubt that Gus Johnson will ever be that man. I understand that in the macr0-world of television, where quality is a distant second to quantity, the search for a wider audience will render my plea for the best product (read: imported) available, I make it anyway.
And since that won’t work, I’ll just implore Gus Johnson to surprise me and improve, because I can’t go through another nine-years of viewing experience like I received on Wednesday. Rise and Fire, Gus. The soccer community is, through gritted teeth, praying you get better, for their sake.