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Gus Johnson Will Call... Soccer?

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

In an SI exclusive, Fox is grooming Johnson to be the voice of the World Cup. Will it work?

Gus Johnson Will Call... Soccer?

Gus Johnson has become synonymous with excitement in sports. Buzzer beaters, touchdowns, and even the most mundane of plays are all the same in Johnson's eyes. He delivers almost too much emotion and volume during the big moments, and can you think of a moment bigger than the final of the World Cup? 

That's where you'll be hearing Johnson in 2018.

In a Sports Illustrated exclusive from Richard Deitsch, the writer unveiled Fox Sports' plan to groom Johnson as the American voice of soccer in time for the 2018 World Cup, which Fox has the rights to.

The radical idea was hatched in October 2011, shortly after FIFA awarded the U.S. broadcast rights to Fox Sports for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Fox Sports president Eric Shanks wanted to do something bold with his soccer coverage. Most importantly, he wanted to brand it with something unique to Fox. So he called up broadcaster Gus Johnson, who had joined Fox only five months earlier, and asked him a question: Would you be willing to work for the next six years to become the American voice of soccer?

Johnson was stunned. But he was also interested.

Fourteen months later, after an immersion in the sport that has included calling a dozen games on the radio for the San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS and a series of practice soccer broadcasts from Fox studios across the country, Johnson begins the long road to becoming the voice of the 2018 World Cup for Fox. The 45-year-old broadcaster will call his first match for Fox Soccer on Feb. 13 (2 p.m. ET) from Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabéu when Real Madrid faces Manchester United in a mouthwatering Champions League Round of 16 match. The assignment is the first in a series of high-profile soccer matches for Johnson, including a second Champions League match between Arsenal and Bayern Munich in London on Feb. 19 and a Premier League game between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on Feb. 24. Johnson will call additional Premier League and Champions League matches and is scheduled to call the FA Cup final on Fox on May 11 and the Champions League final on Fox on May 25. Johnson will be on site for each of the games.

My initial reaction: ecstasy. Johnson is one of my favorite announcers, warts and all. Will Leitch wrote an epic takedown on Johnson over at NYMag.com's Sports Section citing Johnson's unpreparedness, his lack of attention to detail, and his focus on getting excited during big moments, a schtick that has become a tired gimmick. Maybe it's because of my youth that I'm able to see past (or am just blind to) some of Johnson's shortcomings. Deadspin's Barry Petchesky elaborates on those here:

His stutter-step oral explosion works on scoring plays, because they're the product of countless minutes' and passes' worth of lead-up. You don't need Gus Johnson's orgasmic inflections to convey excitement...

[...] I don't believe Johnson is distractingly bad, but there's something to be said for the fact that he brings nothing to a game. Think of all your favorite Gus Johnson moments: they're buzzer beaters, long touchdowns, incredible plays all. Johnson became famous for losing his cool when the moment called for it—but those are just moments. He's the ideal announcer for the morning after on Youtube, but not someone you want to spend three hours with.

This became increasingly apparent as Fox put Johnson, locked in to the Big Ten Network for hoops, almost exclusively on football. Without someone scoring every few seconds, it became an exercise in watching Johnson bide his time. You almost felt bad for the guy—he's not happy unless he's exploding. And now he's calling soccer.

SBNation's Spencer Hall writes that it isn't totally necessary for soccer to have an "American" voice simply because other country's announcers are already so good at calling this sport. He champions Ian Darke in his piece, and Darke clearly is the cream of the crop when it comes to announcing soccer. Not only does he call the game with elegance and incredible ferver when the moment calls for it (Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria, anyone?), but has such a tremendous knowledge of the game that he knows where, when and how much to chime in. Everything sounds natural.

All of these things, combined with Johnson's lack of familiarity with the sport, should all be reason enough to be worried about this decision. I'm worried about soccer on Fox for plenty of other reasons, but Johnson isn't one of them.

Maybe I'm partial to Johnson because he called games for my beloved New York Knicks and provided us with the gem, "My name's Al Harrington, and I get buckets!" Maybe I like incredibly excitable, engaging sports broadcasting, even if it takes away from some other parts of the broadcast. For some reason, I'm really excited to see what Johnson can do in this spot even if the first returns aren't that great:

<iframe width="640" height="360" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/2SMAOh2skKs" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

It's important to remember on that clip that Johnson is on the radio broadcast, which when compared to doing television is like comparing night and day. Still, Johnson has plenty to improve on. He needs to learn about the pacing of the game, the build-ups and sequences and ebbs and flows that are soccer, and he definitely has to get a firmer grasp of the terminology. But I'm confident that Johnson will be able to pick up all of that in the five years between now and 2018. This is also the biggest broadcasting opportunity of career. He's going to do everything in his power to make the most of this chance. Sure, these first couple of games are going to be a rough go of it. But the potential payoff of having one of the most excitable announcers calling some of the biggest moments is already giving me chills.

Now we just have to figure out what the equivalent of "Rise and Fire" is for soccer.

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