26 May 2014

Fox's Gus Johnson soccer experiment is still a mess

Fox Sports made a big gamble a year ago when plans were announced that they were grooming Gus Johnson to be their lead soccer voice and eventually their lead broadcaster when they air the FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018, not to mention the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada. But based in the reaction to Johnson's performance on Saturday's UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in Lisbon, there is still a long way to go.

Making Johnson their voice of soccer was a big risk simply because he came into the job with very little experience calling soccer. Before calling his first Champions League match in February of 2013, Johnson had only done a handful of San Jose Earthquakes games on the radio. Now Fox was putting Johnson on to-notch soccer matches (his first assignment was Real Madrid-Manchester United in the Round of 16) more or less right off the bat; instead of easing Johnson into their soccer coverage, they were giving him a baptism by fire.

Soccer is not the kind of sport where you can fly in and call at a high caliber. Just ask Dave O'Brien, who famously, or infamously, broadcast the 2006 World Cup for ESPN despite having no prior soccer broadcasting experience and was an unmitigated disaster. Soccer is unique in the realm of sports broadcasting as compared to your traditional "stick and ball" sports like the ones Johnson is used to. And soccer fans will be the first ones to tell you that as they are particularly passionate about how soccer should be called in television.

Perhaps the biggest critic of Johnson's work, and of much of Fox Soccer in general, is World Soccer Daily's Christopher Harris and he really sounded off over the weekend. Here's a sampling:
"Turning to the commentary of the UEFA Champions League Final today between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, it was honestly a painful experience having to listen to Johnson and [Eric] Wynalda suck the excitement and drama of the game. My chief criticism of Johnson is not his voice or accent. It's his delivery. It still feels (and probably will always feel) like an alien plucked from another planet, forced to call soccer games. He doesn't commentate. He screams.
"Johnson's tendency to shout out player names whenever anything remotely exciting happens is tiresome ('BALE!!!' - followed by several seconds of silence. 'RONAAALDO,' followed by more silence. 'DI MARIA A LASER' and so on). There's no description. He just seems to shout the first thing that comes into his head. 
"With Johnson, today's commentary is an example of how 'good' it'll probably get with him. I can't see him reaching the level of an average professional soccer announcer. And I don't see him changing his style and more than he has done already."
You get the idea. Folks such as Harris are far from a fan of Johnson's work. The serious soccer fan was going to have a hard time accepting Johnson's work as he tried to go from novice to expert commentator, and they certainly have not become any more friendly to him.

One would think that for a green broadcaster, one would want to pair him with an established, respected broadcaster. Instead, Fox has paired him with Eric Wynalda of late and he may just be as unpopular as Johnson in soccer fandom circles. Harris even described Wynalda as "even worse" than Johnson and that his commentary was "high school-level at times." Previously, Johnson has worked some matches with Warren Barton and his game commentary has been less than stellar at best.

What makes Johnson look even worse is what Fox's competition is doing with their soccer coverage. ESPN has worked hard to refine their coverage and after the O'Brien mess in 2006, they stocked up on broadcasters such as the legendary Martin Tyler and Ian Darke, who has helped to become the face of ESPN's soccer coverage. NBC won rave reviews, and strong ratings, for their coverage of the Premier League with strong studio production and an excellent lead broadcaster in Arlo White. And their MLS coverage was well received as was lead broadcaster John Strong, an American nonetheless.

Fox knew the risk they were taking and I give them credit for at least trying to go outside the box. Johnson is not O'Brien and I give him credit for working hard at trying to becoming at the very least an adequate broadcaster in a sport he was not familiar with. But one has to be honest, he simply is not getting the job done.

Has Fox invested too much in Johnson as their lead soccer voice to where they may not be able to turn back? That remains to be seen but at this point, Johnson has a very long road to travel to get to a level that the people want.

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