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.