The Dumbing Down Of Soccer Announcing By Gus Johnson and FOX Sports

Last season, it was the Gus Johnson Experiment, with FOX Soccer throwing basketball announcer Gus Johnson into the deep end to announce several high-profile European soccer games for US television. The “car crash” was filled with numerous mistakes, with Johnson learning on the job as he fumbled his way through until the summer, where he raised his game for the commentary of Gold Cup games.

After an 8-month sabbatical away from soccer commentating, Johnson was dropped in to Old Trafford on Tuesday to commentate the UEFA Champions League quarter-final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Standing alongside Johnson in the gantry was FOX Sports analyst Eric Wynalda.

So how did Johnson do in his 2014 soccer debut?

Overall, he was tolerable, which by Gus Johnson’s standards is an improvement. There were fewer glaring mistakes than last year, but at the same time, he’s still a poor option compared to more experienced and listenable American announcers such as Phil Schoen and John Strong. Schoen and Strong may not have the “Gus Johnson Effect,” but both Schoen and Strong are better for it. Soccer commentary, after all, is an art form, not a bucket of catchphrases and shouting.

Still, there were mistakes. Johnson pronouncing David Moyes name as “Moyce,” referring to Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez as “Martinez,” describing a throw-in as a “sideline throw,” and so on.

But the main complaint I have with Gus Johnson is that he doesn’t use a soccer vernacular. His turn of phrase is incredibly awkward especially when he has to think on his feet when something spontaneous happens in a game. When he talks about “Man U with the nil-one lead,” as he did in the game today, he’s talking another language to soccer fans. He’s trying too hard to win credit with anglophiles by using a British expression for no goals (i.e. nil), which I don’t think he should even do, but then he gets stuck by saying that United are the away team.

Even when Bayern Munich scored their equalizer, Johnson’s awkward turn of phrase with “Schweinsteiger as he goes up high” doesn’t sound like anything a soccer announcer would say. He still seems to be stuck in basketball terminology, throwing in the occasional “dumps it inside” phrase, too.

Overall, Johnson handicaps games by dumbing down the commentary for mainstream America to better understand. He relies on the co-commentator, in this case Wynalda, to bail Johnson (and presumably the thinking goes, the mainstream American sports fan) out by taking the lead at times and explaining what’s happening — such as telling Johnson that the Welbeck goal was disallowed even though Johnson didn’t hear the referee’s whistle before the shot was taken, or explaining what Bayern Munich are trying to do while keeping possession and passing the ball around, waiting for United to make a mistake, etc.

Johnson’s MO to dumb down the overall broadcast may fit into FOX Sports’ philosophy, but as both ESPN and NBC Sports have shown, finding the perfect balance between speaking intelligently to its soccer viewers without talking down to the hardcore base is not only attainable, but also results in record TV ratings. By dumbing down its coverage of soccer to the US audience, FOX Sports not only infuriates sports fans but it also hurts the bottom line as viewers turn to alternative means of watching games, which ultimately hurts TV ratings and delivers weaker numbers to advertisers.

Gus Johnson will return to FOX Sports next week as the announcer for one of the second legs of the UEFA Champions League quarter-final games on April 8 or 9.

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