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FOX takes a bold stand with Gus Johnson
by Ridge Mahoney, February 12th, 2013 3:56PM

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TAGS:  television

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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.



9 comments
  1. Theodore Eison
    commented on: February 12, 2013 at 4:40 p.m.
    I miss J.P. Dellacamera. He's announced for FOX before -- I guess not exciting enough for the FOX exec's? Oh well....

  1. Miguel Dedo
    commented on: February 12, 2013 at 5:14 p.m.
    I await the return of Eric Winalda.

  1. Al Dunham
    commented on: February 12, 2013 at 5:23 p.m.
    "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)." I enjoy all the commentators, when I can hear them, especially with competing crowd noise being blasted in the foreground. I know what a crowd sounds like; I am interested to hear what the commentator is saying. FOX sound guys must have big pull in broadcasts (both soccer and NFL football) because they dominate the sessions. I would almost turn off games because of the too heavy crowd noise. Get it under control!

  1. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis
    commented on: February 12, 2013 at 5:26 p.m.
    I doubt anyone tunes in to hear the commentators, including Mr Hudson; even the best commentators can only be a side dish at the soccer buffet. But a BAD commentator -- and, I'm sorry, Mr Eison, but Mr Dellacamera is! among! the! worst! -- can utterly ruin the experience of watching. It's why I've never been able to sustain an interest in MLS: even the best matches have routinely inane commentators. That will gradually change, please God in my own lifetime.

  1. Tom TomTom
    commented on: February 12, 2013 at 8:06 p.m.
    Kry-Roger - couldn't agree more. JPDC is terrible. He literally makes the game uninteresting and choppy at best. He speaks in the past tense contstantly and has zero feel for the tempo and rhythm of the game. I fear for what Gus J. will do to the game tomorrow.

  1. David Mozeshtam
    commented on: February 12, 2013 at 8:06 p.m.
    This is ridiculous. A commentator who knows nothing about the game, probably never even kicked a soccer ball. Would Fox or anyone other US network hire a baseball or football commentator who doesn't even know the rules of the game?

  1. James Froehlich
    commented on: February 12, 2013 at 8:59 p.m.
    kyr-rogers and Tom-Tom --- totally agree on JDC. He is the biggest "homer". If you listen to him, the USMNT never makes a bad pass or mis-step. Of course that's probably why the US Soccer powers-that-be love him --- same reason why they dumped Wynalda --- he couldn't be depended upon to always spread sweetness and light..

  1. John Soares
    commented on: February 12, 2013 at 11:02 p.m.
    HEY: Let's give the guy a chance..... Game caller should call the game.. more. Most fans are not familiar with the individual players and or can't see clearly (on TV) who has the ball. Commentator; Keep quite until you have something worth saying. OK; I already flunked that one. BUT AT LEAST make it relative to the GAME. STOP these conversations that go on and on, while the game is in progress. "LESS IS MORE" much less even better.

  1. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis
    commented on: February 13, 2013 at 10:59 p.m.
    Amen, John Soares: the interminable yammering that takes commentators down one conversational country lane after another is tedious, especially when it deteriorates into mere chit-chat about things with only the most tenuous connection to the game; and the corporate-mandated Good-Natured Badinage between the commentators easily becomes jejeune. I don't know who this Gus Johnson is, as I don't watch baseball very often, but if he's a good study he can overcome the lack in depth of knowledge within a short time. I just hope he studies the style of better soccer commentators than we normally get in this country. Personally, I like the Brits' style: low-key straight commentary, only occasional references to things outside the pitch, minimal conversation with the second announcer (the "colour" commentator, who always has too much to say, even in England), and a willingness to say things that the league would not pay to have said on the air, where appropriate.


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