Verifying what has been an open secret around American soccer media circles, Richard Deitsch reported today that Fox Sports is grooming Gus Johnson to do play-by-play on Fox’s biggest soccer matches starting with the upcoming Champions League match between Real Madrid and Manchester United.
Fox is bucking the recent trend of bringing in British voices including Martin Tyler, Ian Darke and Arlo White to broadcast matches, even those including MLS or the US National Team. As someone who has crusaded, ever since ESPN unceremoniously dumped JP Dellacamera from its TV broadcasts prior to the 2010 World Cup, for American commentators to broadcast American matches, I’m thrilled to see Fox being a bit brave here.
That said, what Fox is doing isn’t that different from what ESPN did in the early 2000s by appointing Jack Edwards as its no. 1 play-by-plan leading eventually to harsh criticism of his “over-the-top” and “jingoistic” performance during the 2002 World Cup. ESPN followed that up in 2006 with the seemingly steadying arrival of baseball and basketball commentator Dave O’Brien. He turned out to be an even bigger disaster both inside the booth (where he sounded unprepared and even bored) and then outside it where he took a swipe at US soccer fans in USA Today calling them “petulant” and “mean-spirited.”
Unlike O’Brien though, Johnson is beloved by a large segment of mainstream American sports fans who first noticed him with his very excitable style of calling college basketball and the NFL for CBS. The story hadn’t been out for more than 30 minutes when no less of an indicator of the sports mainstream than Bill Simmons had this to say about the move.
I’ve made it clear, on the air and in many other places, that I think it’s both an embarrassment and destructive to the growth of the sport to have foreign voices broadcasting US National Team games. Fox’s move to put Johnson front-and-center is a great chance to change the perception that soccer cannot be broadcast well unless it’s being done with a British or Irish accent.
That said, the move is risky for Fox because it provides critics a big target to shoot at. At this early point, those critics appear to be divided into two camps:
Category one is the soccer purist bunch who will view this as a move to “Americanize the game” and to appeal to “non-soccer fans.” Take a look at the comments beneath Deitsch’s piece and you’ll see that group’s criticisms starting to take form. In this group, you’ll find both the self-hating types who, raised on EPL matches and FIFA video games that feature English accented commentators, don’t accept that a major soccer event could or should be broadcast by Americans. It also includes the “defenders of the clique,” and of soccer’s perceived “identity culture.” It includes those who don’t think Johnson belongs on the broadcasts because he hasn’t been a soccer fan since utero and probably can’t tell you, at this moment, who the best player on Spartak Cluj is. I’ve explained before why that is completely nonsense and I won’t waste your time by repeating it all here.
Category two is the group of mostly middle-aged caucasian college basketball fans (this means you, Will Leitch) who sees Johnson as a circus act overshadowing the action on the court, and nostalgizing the days when college basketball was a) of superior quality and b) had a season that was worth watching until March Madness. Those days are gone and I suspect to some, Johnson for a couple different reasons, represents this. This is the kind of person who also defends Joe Buck. (Hey wait, this also means you, Will Leitch).
Here’s my response to those in category one. This is a major sporting event that is being broadcast on a major terrestrial network – of course Fox is going to take some steps to make it more appealing to the mainstream. That’s just life and it comes with a sport that is increasingly stepping out of the shadows of American sporting obscura and increasingly, during events like the World Cup, arriving into the popular sporting and even cultural discourse. That’s a good thing, even if it makes you feel less “cool” or “underground” than before.
My response to category two is this. Gus Johnson is fun. Gus Johnson makes the events he broadcasts more fun. Just because you are a member of a past generation of sports fans raised on understated, taciturn caucasian commentators doesn’t mean the following generations require it as well. I think the rhythms of college basketball and the rhythms of soccer aren’t that different. It’s not like Johnson is being asked to broadcast golf or baseball.
Assuming that Johnson and the others around him at Fox are being honest that he’s sincere in his interest in the game and his interest in learning how to broadcast it, I think he will do a great job.
One final thing. I think it’s absolutely great that the voice of the US Men’s National Team will be someone who, for the first time that I can think of, isn’t caucasian. The US men’s team is one of the diverse teams in American sports and it represents a country only getting more and more diverse by the day. Why should the team’s broadcasters continue to either by white guys from the Northeast (Ley, Edwards, Dellacamera and O’Brien) or England (Darke and White)? We should have a commentary team that better represents both what this team looks like, what this team’s fans look like and what this country looks like. Fox’s inclusion of an African-American like Gus Johnson, is much-needed move in that direction.