FOX Lowers The Bar On Televised Soccer Games With ‘American Voice’ Gus Johnson

While soccer fans in the United States were glued to their TV sets and Internet on Tuesday afternoon to watch Manchester United against Real Madrid on FOX Soccer, a major announcement was happening at the same time in New York City. At the Upfront Show in the Big Apple, FOX was pulling out all the stops to announce the forthcoming launch of FOX Sports 1, the new network launching in August that will cause a seismic shift in the US sports landscape.

While most of the media’s attention at the show was focused on what the announcement meant for traditional American sports, FOX Sports 1’s plans for soccer were unveiled albeit without mentioning a single word about what the outcome would mean for FOX Soccer, which will undoubtedly shut down as early as this summer.

For soccer fans, what was very revealing about FOX’s presentation on Tuesday was the man that was integral for the soccer portion was none other than FOX Soccer’s new lead commentator Gus Johnson.

At the same time that Johnson was in the gantry at Old Trafford in Manchester alongside Warren Barton on Tuesday afternoon, Johnson was included in a taped segment to promote FOX Sports 1 in front of the media, top brass and major advertisers.

FOX Sports has placed Gus Johnson on a pedestal as their new poster child for soccer in the United States.

That decision puts everything more clearly into perspective. The move to throw Johnson into the deep end to commentate four games thus far (both legs of Real Madrid-Man United, Arsenal-Bayern and Man City-Chelsea) makes sense from a business perspective. Create a buzz. Generate publicity. Give him experience. And set the stage for the future. In the mind of FOX Sports Co-President and COO Eric Shanks, Gus Johnson equals bigger revenue numbers (from a combination of greater advertising revenues and higher TV ratings as a result of the “Gus Factor”).

Putting Gus Johnson in the hot seat as FOX’s lead soccer commentator is a low risk game. All of the games that Johnson has and will commentate will be high-profile matches where there’ll be a lot of people tuning in (except for perhaps the Manchester City-Chelsea game, which — while high profile — kicked off at 8:30am ET on a Sunday morning, and FOX Soccer conveniently hasn’t shared the TV ratings). Plus, the bottom line, is that whether we love Gus Johnson’s commentaries or not, we’re going to be tuning into the games anyway because there are no other legal options to watch them other than some of the games on FOX Soccer 2Go, which has a subscriber base that is a minute percentage of the total US soccer community.

Out of everything that was announced on Tuesday, the most remarkable development was a tweet by a Sports Business Journal reporter:

I have massive issues with what Shanks said for two reasons. One, it undermines Gus Johnson’s ability as a talented commentator. Instead, he’s just a “voice.” And two, Shanks’s rationale for selecting Johnson is completely misguided.

In my opinion, which I’ve stressed all along, we soccer fans should expect to have a talented and experienced commentator announcing the games. We should expect the best of the best. If that person is American, I have no problem with that. Try to get Phil Schoen or Glenn Davis out of their contracts. Or promote John Strong. But if the American that was chosen is a self-acclaimed soccer novice who repeatedly makes mistakes in games and reduces the quality of the experience, then that’s an awful decision by FOX.

FOX is in the business of generating revenue, not pandering to soccer fans. But I feel we’ve been dealt a huge injustice by having Gus Johnson thrown on us. I don’t blame Johnson for this, but he certainly isn’t experienced enough to handle the biggest soccer games in the world. He’ll improve over time, but having Johnson announce games is a gigantic step down from the commentaries we were getting before Johnson made his soccer debut last month.

What the introduction of Gus Johnson to the US soccer community does bring is one, the shift of soccer on TV from a niche sport to the mainstream. And two, the shift from foreign accents to an American voice commentating European soccer games on FOX. These are two seismic shifts. However, FOX’s decision to have an American voice instead of focusing on experience flies right in the face of how NBC is planning to bring us the Premier League.

Philosophies aside, I’m really disappointed by FOX’s decision to transform Gus Johnson into a soccer commentator because it downgrades the quality of soccer coverage and sends a strong message to the soccer community that “We don’t care about you anymore.”

Others have noticed, too. BBC World Football Phone-In correspondent Sean Wheelock had this to say about Johnson:

“I found it painful to watch Manchester United playing in the Champions League on television commentated by someone who absolutely had no clue what they were watching. It’s a stunt, quite frankly.”

A member of the media who was in the TV area at the Manchester City-Chelsea game where Gus Johnson commentated alongside Lee Dixon, revealed to EPL Talk that Johnson “before kick-off was asking Dixon to pronounce Mancini” and that “some of the questions Dixon was asked showed an embarrassing ignorance.”

You would think that Johnson would have done his homework well before this match was ready to kick off.

I see potential in Gus Johnson but I honestly feel he’s in over his head. In the second leg of the Manchester United-Real Madrid match, he was much better overall and started strongly but both he and co-commentator Barton ran out of steam from about minute 75 on, and sapped the energy and excitement out of the match.

Johnson talked too much at inopportune times in the game. For example, when Manchester United were on the attack in Real Madrid’s half, Johnson was telling us that “the draw for the quarter-finals is on March 15.” Save that for after the game. Or when Real Madrid were attacking with Kaka in the penalty box, Johnson was talking about Alex Ferguson and how “[the ref] is going to get an earful,” only to be interrupted by the ball banging against the near post, which forced Gus into commentating on the action with a “What a shot” call.

Then there were the catalog of ‘Did he really say that?’ moments by Johnson in the game where he announced “Ronaldo fires” as the shot sailed harmlessly into the crowd, pronounced Sergio Ramos as “Sergio Romos,” and the annoying staccato commentary best illustrated by Johnson’s call of the Modric’s goal: “Modric. Step. Fires. Luka Modric. The former Spurs star comes in and delivers a huge blow and we are knotted up.”

Listening to a commentary with Gus Johnson isn’t as exciting or informative as when Martin Tyler, Phil Schoen, Alan Parry, Jon Champion or a host of many other names are calling a game. The biggest loser in all of this is the soccer fan. The person who has been watching and supporting soccer all these years only to have a switcheroo made for some apparent reason.

I’m still waiting for a good Gus call that makes me go, “Yes, that’s why FOX hired him.” But perhaps the reason why they hired him is only because of two things. He’s American and he’ll generate ratings.

Photo credit: Richard Deitsch.

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