An early sign of the risk-taking Murdoch & Co. will bring to FS1 was the recent stunner that Gus Johnson, an announcer best known for near-hysterical NCAA Tournament calls and extreme popularity with younger viewers, would become the long-term voice of Fox soccer telecasts, including the 2018 World Cup Finals (ESPN will air the 2014 tournament). Johnson, an admitted neophyte to the beautiful game, is being given several years to grow into the gig, a daring and unusual move by Fox Sports execs.
Johnson has been calling a few high-profile Champions League games lately, and while his debut wasn’t horrifying, he still has a long way to go to even approach the brilliant job done by British vets/ESPN gamecallers like Derek Rae and Ian Darke. Typical for announcers new to a sport, Johnson wanted to pass along all the info he had crammed into his noggin while preparing for the Real Madrid-Manchester United and Arsenal-Bayern Munich matches (Tuesday Gus called the return engagement between Real and Man U). He was consistently a pace behind the game’s tempo and seemed, understandably, a little tentative, not the usual cocksure Gus basketball fans love.
While the hope is that footy will pass into Gus’s veins through osmosis, one technical challenge must be overcome posthaste: Large international soccer events, like the Champions League and the World Cup, are produced by a host broadcaster. Play-by-play men calling the action are thus at the mercy of pictures called up by producers who are not in their ear, meaning the calls of games often have an ad-lib quality, especially when replays come up without warning, inevitably in the midst of a long tangent by the announcer. Seamlessly weaving around such speed bumps is what separates a veteran soccer caller like Darke from the likes of Dave O’Brien, a baseball man ESPN thrust on soccer fans during the 2008 World Cup, drawing much derision (which I found over the top at the time, by the way).
The sizable majority of Gus’ work will be on such outsourced matches, so he will be better served clicking off Robin van Persie’s Wikipedia page and spending some time watching how the Brits handle the international broadcasts. We’re all rooting for him.