The broadcast world was delivered quite the surprise when Sports Illustrated reported on Sunday night that Gus Johnson would be stepping down from his post as lead soccer announcer for Fox Sports. With much fanfare, Fox announced that Johnson would be their lead soccer announcer for the 2018 World Cup more than five years ahead of time. Unfortunately, Johnson didn’t even make it through 2014 before the plug was pulled on the grand experiment.
Fighting through those early growing pains was always going to be the biggest test for Fox and Johnson as the announcer learned on the job. In truth, Fox did not set up Johnson to succeed in this experiment. Instead of having him work as many reps as possible to gain irreplaceable experience (CONCACAF Champions League games for instance), Fox threw him on the air in their highest profile games as a rookie. It’d be like trying to mark Lionel Messi in your first top class game. It was an untenable situation that faced long odds of ever working.
Had Fox given Johnson lower-tier assignments, he could have gained trust over time instead of losing it with soccer fans, who are notoriously the toughest graders in sports when it comes to their announcers. But it appears that Fox and Johnson just didn’t have the time to make it work from the start due to his football and basketball schedule. Particularly telling were Johnson’s comments to SI about his lack of knowledge of the women’s game and feeling unable to do the job this summer in Canada at the World Cup. Johnson does deserve credit for this – not only did he take the risk in accepting the soccer assignment, but he was willing to call it off when it was clear it wasn’t working to his standards.
So now where does Fox go for its lead soccer voice? The network finds itself at a major crossroads.
When Fox placed Gus Johnson in the role of lead soccer announcer, they made it clear they wanted an American voice to call soccer. With their typical brash panache, Fox Sports was going to do things their way (as they do with nearly everything that has the Fox brand) with the World Cup and move in a different direction than ESPN, which had imported top British talent.
Fox may desire to remain committed to that ideal of having an American be their lead soccer announcer and go full steam ahead through their failed Johnson experiment. They can look to established American announcers like John Strong or JP Dellacamera (maybe even Phil Schoen of beIn Sports) in the hopes that they can emerge as a lead voice for the network. There are several good American soccer announcers that call MLS on a weekly basis in this country. Perhaps all they need is for a network to give them a chance versus importing overseas talent. There are many in the American soccer community who feel that this should be the next step and it’s an easy choice to make.
But is Fox the network to give them that chance? This is the same network that brought Piers Morgan in as a studio analyst for cripes’ sake! And, given the choice of those announcers the first time around, they went to Gus Johnson to transform him into a soccer announcer. Fox above any other sports network values celebrity above all else… even at the expense of common sense. After all, this is a company that centered one sports show around Tom Arnold and now has a fantasy football show in 2014 starring David Spade. Does the current American soccer announcing landscape possess Fox’s desired level of notoriety and pizzazz for a World Cup? Not likely.
Another option would be a dramatic 180 – going the import route. The network can lean on their corporate News Corp synergy with Sky Sports in the UK and d0 what ESPN has done in the past by bringing in top British talent. This could mean the likes of Martin Tyler playing a key role in 2015 and 2018 if he’s up for it. That would likely be a very welcome development for skeptical hardcore soccer fans that question Fox’s ability to broadcast a soccer tournament at a world-class level.
Although soccer fans would likely appreciate that move, it would fly in the face of everything Fox had hoped to do by installing Johnson as their lead soccer voice in the first place. However, Tyler would be a big name that would bring instant credibility. But it’s not just Tyler – Fox can go to a deep well of British commentators that include the likes of Daniel Mann and Jon Champion (who were both excellent at this year’s World Cup for ESPN). They could even make a big money move to steal Ian Darke from ESPN as well.
Finally, Fox could again go back to the lab and name Joe Buck their lead soccer announcer. Or Terry Bradshaw. Or Darrell Waltrip. Nothing would quite capture the excitement of the World Cup like “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity!” You think I’m joking, but I’m deadly serious. Anything is possible with Fox Sports. They’ll do whatever it takes to put the Fox trademark on the tournament.
Now that the Gus Johnson experiment is over, it’s a fresh start for everyone involved. Fox can begin to build goodwill and trust with soccer fans ahead of the 2015 and 2018 World Cups. Will the network stick with an American voice and give someone the break they’ve been looking for? Will they copy what was successful for ESPN and go British? Will they blow it up again and do something totally unpredictable? Whichever direction Fox decides to head for 2015 and 2018, it will say a lot about their global soccer coverage as a whole and the next evolutionary step for televised soccer in America.