FOX Grooms Basketball Commentator to be its New Voice of Soccer

FOX Soccer today announced that basketball announcer Gus Johnson will be the lead commentator for several high profile Premier League and Champions League matches over the next few months. Plus, Sports Illustrated have revealed that Johnson is being groomed by FOX to be the voice of FOX’s World Cup coverage for 2018 and 2022.

The former CBS Sports announcer, best known for his work as the energetic commentator for March Madness games, will call his first-ever match for FOX Soccer on Wednesday February 13 when he’ll get behind the mic for Real Madrid against Manchester United alongside co-commentator Warren Barton.

Not only that, but FOX has decided that Gus Johnson will also commentate on Arsenal vs Bayern Munich (February 19 with co-commentator Ray Clemence), Manchester City vs Chelsea (February 24 with co-commentator Lee Dixon), the FA Cup Final (May 11), Champions League Final (May 25), as well as several other Premier League matches.

“This is not something that is temporary,” Fox Sports president Eric Shanks told Sports Illustrated. “This is something we are going to work at. It isn’t an Olympic assignment where he does the luge for two weeks and then we don’t hear from that announcer for the next four years. This is something we are serious about and something we will continue to work at. Based on the radio games and the practice games Gus has done, I think this is going to work.”

FOX Soccer’s own press release admits that Johnson calling soccer is “a relatively new undertaking.”

Executive Vice President and General Manager of FOX Soccer David Nathanson said, “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.”

According to FOX, Johnson has called over a dozen MLS games on radio, played pick-up soccer games in a park, spent several weeks in Europe last season attending games and conversing at length with Sky Sports executives and announcer Martin Tyler.

“In Madrid, Johnson is partnering with FOX Soccer analyst Warren Barton,” said the FOX statement. “Barton, along with former players Eric Wynalda and Cobi Jones have aided Johnson tremendously in his soccer broadcasting education, collaborating with him on numerous practice telecasts under the tutelage of FOX Soccer Executive Producer Jonty Whitehead.”

“No doubt that the followers of this sport are among the most passionate, knowledgeable fans in the world, and I’m a newcomer,” said Johnson. “The effort to learn the sport and absorb its nuance has been a humbling experience. While I’ve put a lot of time into my preparation thus far, it’s definitely going to take a lot of reps before I’ve mastered soccer’s rhythm and pace, but I am determined to do so, and with all the support I’m receiving I have no doubt that I will.”

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. I understand FOX’s vision to add an American voice behind the mic, but FOX Soccer loses instant credibility by putting someone in there who knows very little about the game. He has the voice. He has the energy. But he doesn’t know the history or the intricacies of the game. This will come over time, but he should use training wheels on broadcasts of Europa League games or SPL games before being thrown in the deep end for such high profile matches featuring Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal and the FA Cup Final.

One plus to be drawn from the announcement is that Johnson will be on-site at the games. But even the co-commentators that FOX Soccer have selected for a couple of the games are not up to the standards of what we’re used to hearing on television. Ray Clemence and Lee Dixon were excellent players in their day, but their quality as co-commentators is pretty weak.

In 2011, when FOX Sports announced that they had won the TV rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments, many soccer fans raised concerns about what FOX would do with the coverage. I reassured them that FOX had 7 years to get it right and build a team that would be world-class. While I don’t doubt that Gus Johnson is an excellent basketball announcer, my concern here is that this will be another shambolic World Cup experience similar to how ABC/ESPN screwed up in 2006 when they turned baseball commentator Dave O’Brien into a soccer expert.

It’s not just a new announcer that will cause shockwaves through the soccer viewing experience in the United States. The fact that FOX Soccer has decided to switch its strategy by having its own voice commentate games instead of using the world feed from TWI/IMG is massive. It changes everything. ESPN did it a few years ago, but they put their own two men behind the mic that they knew would rival some of the best commentators in the game — Ian Darke and pundit Steve McManaman.

It’s not so much the new talent that FOX has hired, but it’s their decision to place its own talent in the gantry to commentate on games that is misguided. Who is FOX pandering to? The advertisers?? If it’s the TV viewer, instead, you would think they would pick the best person to do the commentating — i.e. a Martin Tyler, Alan Parry, Jon Champion or whoever the person would be doing the commentary for the world feed. These are men who have spent decades, not weeks, commentating on the game and researching and interviewing the footballers. Maybe by FIFA World Cup 2018 (or the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup), Johnson will be much better behind the mic to provide a commentary that would rival some of the up-and-coming commentators. But I find it unconscionable that FOX Sports and FOX Soccer have decided that they’re going to give a basketball announcer his experience in such high profile matches as the Premier League and Champions League this season. Thank heavens that FOX Soccer doesn’t have the rights to the Premier League after May, 2013.

The fact that Johnson is American doesn’t bother me. If FOX wanted to change their strategy to put their own man behind the mic, I’m OK with that as long as the talent is top notch, especially given the high profile games that FOX has. But to choose someone who has essentially little to no experience and who defines himself as a soccer “novice,” this is an absolutely awful decision by FOX and one that dirties their affiliation with the Premier League and UEFA Champions League.

I wish Gus Johnson the best of luck. I’m optimistic that he’ll work as hard as he possibly can to learn and improve, and to be the best that he can be. I’ll most certainly give him a chance, but he — and FOX Sports and FOX Soccer — must realize that this is an incredibly risky decision and one that could come back to haunt them if it doesn’t go well.

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