By Ridge Mahoney
The advent of Champions League knockout play in February signifies a first stirring from a long winter slumber, and in this year's edition a new face is blinking into the sunlight.
After moving the Champions League final and several Premier League games from FOX Soccer to its main channel several times in the past few years, FOX Sports has assigned veteran broadcaster Gus Johnson as its No. 1 soccer commentator.
The setting and the stakes couldn’t be more prestigious for his Champions League debut: the Real Madrid-Manchester United round-of-16 match from the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on Wednesday. He will also work Premier League games this month in his process of preparing to backstop the network’s 2018 World Cup coverage.
For soccer fans, this may remind them of a similar situation when ESPN assigned baseball broadcaster Dave O’Brien as its lead play-by-play announcer for the 2006 World Cup, but the situations of Johnson and O’Brien are quite different.
Johnson is being groomed to work the 2018 World Cup at the behest of Fox Sports executives, who are willing to use major matches such as Real Madrid-Manchester United as a training ground. O’Brien, one of ESPN’s top baseball announcers who also does other sports, asked for the 2006 World Cup assignment during contract negotiations, and prior to the tournament worked some U.S. national team and MLS games.
O’Brien’s interest in soccer began and ended with that World Cup and he’s not worked a soccer game for the network since that year. Johnson is being given ample time and resources to learn the game and also become familiar to U.S. soccer fans, or at least those who follow the properties carried by FOX.
Based on listening to a few of his radio telecasts of San Jose Earthquakes games last year, Johnson has needed the run-up to learn the rules. While too many soccer announcers are cloudy on such nuances as offside, he stubbed his toe on a few basics, such as not realizing the ball or a player with the ball can touch the sideline or goal line and still be in play, which is not the case in basketball and many other sports.
These are understandable glitches, but the soccer-savvy audience that tunes into Champions League games won’t tolerate very many of them before flooding critical comments onto the cyberpages. On the other hand, if Johnson imparts a good feel for the game and runs cleanly through his pronunciations and facts, he’ll be praised.
FOX executives may believe differently but most fans tune in to watch the game, not to hear the commentator (with the possible exception of Ray Hudson). Play-by-play announcers are like referees: the best ones are those rarely noticed, and every mistake is grotesquely magnified. Yet if FOX wanted a big splash of publicity from its appointment of Johnson to the soccer division, that has been attained. He is a celebrity. Johnson’s games for the Quakes last year drew notice on sports talk radio shows and local media columns, and numerous stories have appeared in the lead-up to his Champions’ League debut. Promos of the match feature his name on the full-page graphic along with the teams and kickoff time.
Johnson can nail the tensest and most dramatic moments of a soccer match, but a good play-by-play call, especially on television, requires interpretation as well as narration and not so much the screaming exclamation he revels in. To varying degrees, sports telecasts are overlaid with hyberbole, yet he’ll need to modulate his delivery and not escalate every free kick into a slam dunk.
FOX is also pairing him with three different analysts for his first three assignments, starting with Warren Barton for the match on Wednesday, so the flow of commentary could be choppy as he gets used to his partners and they to him. Johnson and his partners will call the games on-site, and he's scouted out the territory already. As part of his preparation he’s been traveling to games in Europe and speaking with the likes of veteran commentator Martin Tyler.
Those fans familiar with Johnson’s basketball work will give him a good review unless he’s atrocious; the snobby Euro-centric crowd will be ready to pounce on the merest flub. Most of us just want a strong telecast of a good game, and if the announcers don’t get in the way, that’s enough.