FOX’s decision to throw Gus Johnson into the deep end next week with the Champions League match between Real Madrid and Manchester United sends a strong message to its hardcore soccer base who have been watching the Premier League on FOX Soccer for 15 consecutive years — we don’t care about you anymore. We’ve lost the EPL rights for the next 3 years so instead of Martin Tyler, let’s put Johnson into the pressure cooker and sees how he copes with one of the biggest matches of the European season.
FOX’s move is a kick in the teeth to Premier League soccer fans who have watched this sport religiously week-in week-out for years, or — for some — decades. What FOX fails to recognize is that the role of the soccer commentator is the most important bond between the broadcaster and viewer. Many of us enjoy some of the great commentators just as much as some of the games. We’ve grown up listening to commentators such as Tyler, Ian Darke, Jonathan Pearce, Alan Parry, Clive Tyldesley, Peter Drury and many others. I would argue that they are one of the reasons why we love watching the Premier League so much.
While there’s no argument that Johnson is a skilled commentator on American sports such as basketball and American football, the leap from those sports to soccer is immense. The role of a soccer commentator is to act as our window to the game. Pulling us closer into the experience. Enhancing our excitement, and pointing out the nuances that delight us.
We find ourselves in a transitional period in the history of soccer games on US television. There are two forces colliding against each other. The first is FOX Sports realizing that they can’t grow its hardcore soccer fanbase any more than what it is, so it needs to make changes to cater to the American mainstream. At the same time, you have the second force, which are the hardcore soccer fans who expect the very best and know the difference between quality commentating and talent that are not schooled in the game.
ESPN went through the same situation in 2006 when they decided to cater to the American mainstream by hiring baseball announcer Dave O’Brien to be the lead commentator for World Cup games on US television. The move backfired, and ESPN quickly learned that the path forward was to hire the best in the business and the mainstream would follow. Based on ESPN’s record breaking TV ratings for Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, the formula worked.
The soccer commentator is the heart and soul of a broadcaster’s coverage. Spoil that and you ruin the entire broadcast. FOX can mess with the pre-show analysis, half-time show and post-match interviews. They can change the name of their network. Change the graphics. Whatever else. But do not mess with the commentating.
Some readers believe I’m overreacting over this whole situation. FOX’s contract with the Premier League will end in a few months anyway, but the fact of the matter is that the record needs to be straight that the hardcore soccer fan base do not want to have non-soccer talent commentating on the game. It’s insulting to soccer fans.
While I would much prefer to have the British commentators bringing the game to us via the world-feed, I’m not against Americans moving into the commentary seat. My opinion is that the best talent should be commentating on the game. If that happens to be an American (and there are a few very well respected ones who are far more skilled than Johnson; people like Phil Schoen and Glenn Davis), more power to them. But do not give us a basketball play-by-play announcer who has never commentated a major soccer game.
I’m all for giving Johnson a chance, but my biggest concern here is that FOX Soccer is breaking the rules. They’re ditching proven world-class commentators in their Premier League coverage in favor of an inexperienced soccer novice. Instead of hearing Martin Tyler, Gary Neville, Alan Smith or Stewart Robson commentate on the massive matches over the next few months including Chelsea-Manchester City, we’re getting Johnson and Warren Barton. While Barton’s professional soccer career is impressive, how much experience has he had as a co-commentator? As a pundit, he’s mediocre. As a co-commentator, I shudder at the thought of hearing him on the airwaves.
Johnson is also scheduled to commentate on other Premier League games this season, according to Sports Illustrated.
I understand that FOX wants to give Johnson real-world experience in a major game, and it’s their decision. But by doing so, they’re causing a massive rift with their loyal soccer core. They risk damaging all of the hard work they’ve done since FOX Sports World began showing the Premier League in 1998.
Thankfully, FOX’s coverage of the Premier League will end in a few months. They’ve given NBC Sports an opportunity to look like geniuses by hopefully making the right decision to focus on talented soccer commentators for their Premier League coverage beginning in August instead of this FOX Soccer train wreck where they’ve picked a basketball announcer for ratings or branding (or whatever reason FOX is thinking).
FOX may argue that it’s only a handful of games, so what’s the big deal? It’s not the quantity of games that is the issue. It’s the principle of the matter. FOX is moving into dangerous territory with its viewer base who will go where the games are. If the quality of the commentators is sub-standard, we’ll still watch the games but we may choose other methods to pipe in higher quality commentating to make our experience the best that is possible.
FOX Soccer has managed to take the English out of the English Premier League. We tune in because it’s a uniquely English experience enjoyed by Americans and other nationalities from around the world. By substituting an excitable American into the broadcast, they have the potential of destroying the experience. If an American behind the mic is ultimately their business decision, then choose the best American. Don’t get someone just because you think you’ll strike a ratings bonanza. Go with quality and experience.
Gus Johnson will make his debut next Wednesday on FOX Soccer at 2pm ET in the game between Real Madrid and Manchester United. FOX Soccer 2Go will also be broadcasting the game live (they typically use the world feed).