During the past two weeks, FOX Sports’ PR representatives have been busy at work securing interviews with top media outlets such as Esquire, Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, New York Post and, bizarrely, Rolling Stone. Their mission was to generate positive press about soccer commentator Gus Johnson in the lead-up to the UEFA Champions League Final in order to combat all of the negativity about the voice of FOX’s soccer coverage.
To FOX’s credit, the mainstream sports media bought the Gus Johnson story hook, line and sinker, taking the words of Johnson and FOX executives verbatim and, without any counterpoints or criticism, glorified the man that FOX Sports has groomed to be the voice of World Cup 2018 and 2022 (as well as Women’s World Cups 2015 and 2019).
But more importantly, the above-mentioned publications allowed FOX Sports to change the message. FOX’s new positioning about Gus Johnson is that he’s an “American voice” for American soccer fans instead of a British voice for hardcore soccer viewers.
In the Associated Press article, FOX Sports President Eric Shanks said it this way:
“I completely realize that Gus and Eric, having two American voices, is a change for the hard core, absolutely. It’s a change that I believe in.”
Obviously Shanks believes in the change since he championed it and rubber-stamped Johnson’s exorbitant contract. But the new positioning of Gus and Wynalda as “American voices” falls flat on its face because it’s not true. It’s not what soccer fans want.
Soccer fans want authenticity. Soccer fans want the best talent available to call a game, no matter what accent they speak with. The criticism of Gus Johnson has never focused on recommending English commentators. All along, the debate has focused on hiring the most authentic voices for the sport.
Soccer fans in the US don’t want just “American voices.” Soccer fans want the best voices for the job. If the decision is to hire American soccer voices, more power to FOX. But instead of hiring two American voices that are rookies when it comes to announcing soccer games, why not hire the best American talent available who are (1) more exciting than Gus Johnson, (2) qualified to do the job and (3) authentic — who know how to announce the game instead of the woefully weak combo of Johnson and Wynalda?
In my articles on the topic during the past 12 months, I’ve repeatedly made suggestions of better qualified commentators who could and should be hired full-time by FOX Sports — experienced American commentators such as John Strong, Phil Schoen, Glenn Davis and Steve Cangialosi. But the suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. Reason being is that FOX doesn’t care nor listen to the overwhelming majority of soccer fans in the US who are critical of the poor job that Gus has done calling games.
Instead of interacting with soccer fans and engaging with the soccer community, FOX is sticking to its guns with Gus Johnson and have gone to mainstream media to change the message, hoping that the trickle-down effect will influence sports fans. It won’t. Soccer fans are intelligent, well-educated and can see through FOX’s attempts to change the message.
Turning to the commentary of the UEFA Champions League Final today between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, it was honestly a painful experience having to listen to Johnson and Wynalda suck the excitement and drama out of the game. My chief criticism of Johnson is not his voice or accent. It’s his delivery. It still feels (and probably will always feel) like an alien plucked from another planet, forced to call soccer games. He doesn’t commentate. He screams. “THE WORLD’S MOST EXPENSIVE PLAYER… MONEY. WELL. SPENT.” He doesn’t speak in complete sentences. He’s the king of catchphrases.
While I enjoyed the game, the experience of having to listen to Johnson and Wynalda make mistake after mistake was irritating to say the least.
Here are some of my observations from their commentary of the game:
1) Gus Johnson’s announcing style is getting worse. After reading out pages and pages of statistics (if his announcing career doesn’t work out for him, there’s always a job as a statistician), Johnson tired in the second half and got lazy with his commentary. I pity the soccer fans who had to listen to the Johnson commentary on radio as they must have had no idea what was happening on the pitch. Johnson’s tendency to shout out player names whenever anything remotely exciting happens is tiresome (“BALE!!!!” — followed by several seconds of silence. “RONAAALDO,” followed by more silence. “DI MARIA A LASER!” and so on). There’s no description. He just seems to shout the first thing that comes into his head.
Other annoying habits of Gus Johnson include calling a Ronaldo free kick that went wide a “low, line drive” (this isn’t baseball), the way he repeated the fact that Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid were from the same city several times during the broadcast, and his mispronunciation of the Atletico Madrid team name. Johnson repeatedly referred to Atletico Madrid as “ATHletico Madrid.” There’s only one “Athletic” in La Liga, and that’s Athletic Bilbao. Atletico Madrid is pronounced without the H.
2) As bad as Gus Johnson was, Eric Wynalda was even worse. His commentary was high school-level at times. How often does he have to utter “WOW, what a game” or throw in “WOW” to describe an exciting moment in a match. How is that analysis or insight?
And his analysis that Diego Costa’s injury and exit from the game in the ninth minute was “scripted” is inane. Why would a coach want to waste a substitution just to script Diego Costa into playing for 10 minutes and then walking out of the game? To make matters even worse, FOX Sports’ soccer analyst Warren Barton repeated the same thing at half time, saying “Obviously they had something planned. Maybe it was psychological.”
It’s this type of analysis that destroys everything they do well. It’s a perfect example of why I’m still concerned about what FOX Sports is going to do with the World Cup.
Since FOX Sports won’t listen to the complaints of soccer fans about how bad the coverage is, here are some select quotes from actual World Soccer Talk readers regarding today’s UEFA Champions League Final:
“Gus Johnson offers nothing as a match announcer other than name checks, time checks and shouting whenever the ball is in the penalty area. Other than that it’s mostly dead air. He has absolutely no clue what he is watching.”
“Do they pair Gus with Wynalda so Gus sounds better by comparison?”
“Well boy am I excited now if Gus is shouting. I’m so glad Fox has him to help me understand my soccer emotions. And he’s been very helpful telling me the distance between Mardid and Lisbon. And that Madrid has two teams – one in white and one in red and white stripes. Thanks Fox. Thanks Gus.”
“Gus has used up all the stats on his sheet and we are only 20 minutes in. Second time he’s informed me it’s an all Spanish final.”
With Johnson, today’s commentary is an example of how “good” it’ll probably get with him. I can’t see him reaching the level of an average professional soccer announcer. And I don’t see him changing his style any more than he has done already. Unless FOX Sports wises up and realizes they’ve made a mistake, or their advertisers understand that their brands are being tarnished by being associated with an inferior TV product, I don’t see things changing or getting any better.
FOX’s coverage of soccer has moved from being a joke to something that’s just second-rate. Unfortunately, I have no confidence or faith that it’ll get any better in the future. We’re stuck with it unless soccer fans continue to make their voices heard.