American soccer culture is a queer blend of habits aped from Europe and Latin America that, somehow, wants nothing more than to be considered authentic. There’s a team in Utah with a name ripped from Spain, and supporters’ groups across the country singing the same English songs. Leagues in other countries have better television ratings than our own. Little of it is uniquely American; we even borrow British grammatical practices when talking about the sport.
In that context, enter Gus Johnson.
Fox got the rights to broadcast the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, and they have determined that maximizing this opportunity requires Americanizing the broadcast booth. They aren’t necessarily alone in this fact. ESPN thought this way in 2006, when their broadcast of the World Cup featured Dave O’Brien calling games. This didn’t go over well; O’Brien was roundly criticized—some even went so far as to watch the Spanish broadcast instead. For his part, O’Brien described soccer fans as a “petulant little clique” who “aren’t really the audience we want to reach anyway.” ESPN changed their soccer strategy following that World Cup: two years later, their coverage of Euro 2008 was dominated by English accents; in 2010 the same held true for the World Cup; and after his call of Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria, Ian Darke became the voice for soccer on ESPN. NBC has taken the same approach with their coverage of the English Premier League. And the TV ratings keep going up.
But there are still Americans, even soccer fans, who tire of the football, and the pitch, and the kits. Some think of the Britishisms as insular and potentially alienating to would-be fans. And so here is Fox, trying once again to present soccer for Americans, by Americans. And where Dave O’Brien was given a few months to prepare for the 2006 World Cup, Fox is smartly giving Gus Johnson a few years. When they announced last year that they were prepping Johnson to be their main voice for the 2018 World Cup, it prompted headlines like “Gus Johnson Will Make You Want to Watch Soccer,” and the less-rosy “Gus Johnson Won’t Ruin Soccer.”
The idea, in theory, is that Johnson’s American voice and exuberance will help draw in an otherwise skeptical U.S. audience. He’s not Al Michaels or Joe Buck, but Americans know who Johnson is, thanks to the myriad Youtube clips of his eruptions during college basketball. On paper Fox just needs Johnson to bring in more viewers than he turns away, and with the assumption that soccer fans will watch the World Cup no matter what, Johnson might be capable of that. For what it’s worth, Dave O’Brien has his back.
It is good that Gus is getting significant practice in the years leading up to the World Cup. He will call the Champions League final this Saturday, having called the FA Cup final this past weekend. Next summer, he’ll cut his teeth on the Women’s World Cup, and it’s possible that Fox will use him in their MLS and Bundesliga coverage in years to come. You can argue that this on-the-job training diminishes these events, and that’s fair. I personally hope he improves between now and 2018.
But there are American announcers who already understand soccer. Fox employs one, in the form of John Strong. JP Dellacamera (who was pushed out in favor of O’Brien in 2006) has an excellent feel for the game. Maybe voices like these will make up the secondary and tertiary crews in Russia. But Johnson on his own only serves to further the divide between those who wish to Americanize the presentation of soccer and the Americans who are already fans.