When Fox Sports stunned the soccer world and won the rights to the World Cup, and when they shocked the soccer world by trying to transform Gus Johnson into their lead soccer announcer, they were up front with the objective.
Bring an American voice to the world’s game.
ESPN and NBC have offered exquisite coverage of international soccer, but have done so by largely importing voices from around the world, most notably the UK. Among American soccer fans, there is a split that resembles the most partisan debates in Washington.
In one camp are soccer fans that prefer to see the prominent British announcers call games on American television. Ian Darke has become a cult figure in America and ESPN’s lead soccer voice, joined by fellow Englishman Steve McManaman to call the 2014 World Cup Final. Arlo White and Rebecca Lowe are the centerpieces of NBC’s EPL coverage. Others like Martin Tyler, Jon Champion, and Daniel Mann are household names to the hardcore soccer fanbase and their resumes and work stand on their own merit.
In opposition are fans who believe that in order for American soccer to take further steps forward, American voices need to be calling the games on American television. A sensible, if not noble ambition and hope for the future. Will American networks be importing British voices for soccer telecasts forever?
Then there are soccer fans that just want to see the best announcers in the world, no matter where they come from, but what would the fun be in arguing that?
ESPN and NBC have largely been in the first camp, with British announcers filling many of the lead spots and American analysts and announcers playing secondary roles. In fact, ESPN filled out a lineup for its 2014 World Cup coverage filled entirely with non-American announcers. ESPN Executive Producer Jed Drake and President John Skipper were both very clear on their preference (via ESPN.com):
“For an event like this, I really believe for the commentators they have to have lived in a country where the World Cup is innate in them,” Drake says. “They’ve spent a lifetime understanding the sport and what the event itself means. …There’s a certain unique character to the World Cup that demands that you understand it in your soul.”
“The Brazilians play the best,” Skipper says, “but I think the Brits call the game the best, without a doubt.”
Fox Sports has always said that they would be in the second camp in taking the World Cup baton from Bristol. When the network unveiled the grand Gus Johnson Experiment, that was the central objective: bringing a distinctive American voice to soccer (via SI.com):
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?
Even when Johnson stepped down from his post in 2014 after the experiment largely failed, Shanks was still committed to centering his network’s soccer coverage on American voices (via SI.com, bold emphasis added):
“He is a pro and if we could give him what he needed with the reps and exposure and the right partners, there is no question Gus could have continued on the path to being the first of its kind American voice in soccer. Maybe I will take a couple of hits for it, but I never viewed it as an experiment. There is no greater believer in soccer and supporter of American soccer and MLS than me. All I want to do is make sure the next generation becomes bigger soccer fans and part of that is the ability for American experts to talk to American audiences.”
When Johnson exited stage right, Fox could have easily retreated from their ambitions and gone the import route by bringing in tried and true veteran British voices. With being under the same corporate umbrella as Sky Sports in the UK, Fox could have easily brought in a number of British broadcasters for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.
However, instead of pivoting away from their commitment to American voices, Fox is doubling down.
At the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Fox Sports will employ an all-American lineup of play by play announcers: John Strong, JP Dellacamera, Glenn Davis, Justin Kutcher, and Jenn Hildreth.
Strong has won plaudits since being named as Fox’s lead MLS announcer. At less than 30 years of age, he’s one of the real rising stars in the industry. The World Cup stage is a massive leap from weekly MLS games, though. And perhaps the most daunting task for Strong is that he’ll be measured not against his predecessor Gus Johnson, but against the likes of Darke and Tyler. Davis and Dellacamera are longtime veteran soccer voices that are well established in the minds of American soccer fans. Even before the recent soccer boom, Dellacamera was the one bringing action from all over the world into American homes from the Bristol broom closet with Tommy Smyth. Kutcher and Hildreth will be more unknown to international soccer fans in that role.
But the one thing they all share in common is that American voice. Additionally, all seven of the game analysts for the tournament either played for the USWNT or Canadian National Team or have connections to American soccer.
All eyes will be on Fox Sports this summer to see if they can live up to the high bar set by ESPN. It’s not overstating the importance of the tournament to American soccer on television to say that it represents a turning point.
If Fox covers themselves in glory this summer with high quality coverage, it will validate the Americanized focus in the broadcast booth and tell even the most hardcore and ardent supporters of European soccer that we can do it just as good as they can across the ocean. But if Fox fails to live up to those high standards and the tournament coverage fails to impress, we could see the network relent even further and go the import route for 2018. Whichever way it goes at the Women’s World Cup, this summer presents a definitive tournament for the future of American soccer broadcasting.