NEW YORK, N.Y. – Gus Johnson recently bought a soccer warmup jacket, figuring he should look the part as he immerses himself in the sport.
He didn’t know what the Portuguese phrase embroidered on the chest meant until he arrived in Lisbon to call Saturday’s Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
“Without risk there is no victory.” That happens to be Fox’s philosophy in picking the American as its lead soccer announcer and teaming him with former U.S. star Eric Wynalda.
“I completely realize that Gus and Eric, having two American voices, is a change for the hard core, absolutely,” says Fox Sports President Eric Shanks. “It’s a change that I believe in.”
Four years ago, the risk seemed to be ESPN’s decision to switch to British voices at the 2010 World Cup. Once the tournament got going, the move received critical acclaim and television ratings soared. Regardless of whether those two facts were related, the safe bet suddenly was to stick to an English accent.
Ian Darke, a veteran of the U.K.’s Sky Sports, will be ESPN’s lead play-by-play man for the World Cup from Brazil this summer. But when Fox takes over rights for the tournament in 2018, the duties will be handled by Johnson, a guy most famous for his enthusiastic calls during the NCAA basketball tournament and NFL games.
Both companies are confident in their approaches.
Not all that long ago, it was ESPN that insisted Americans wanted to hear American voices. But Dave O’Brien, a baseball announcer with limited soccer experience, was widely panned for his calls of the 2006 World Cup. So for the 2010 tournament, ESPN hired Martin Tyler, an acclaimed Sky Sports broadcaster.
ESPN coveted the knowledge — and restrained style — of experienced commentators like Tyler and Darke in its all-British play-by-play lineup. The network has hired more Latin American announcers for this year’s World Cup and uses several U.S. analysts on air, but its accent is still thickly English.
While ESPN President John Skipper attributes this British invasion to the coincidental result of a “meritocracy,” he acknowledges: “It does sound great on soccer, right?”
“The Brazilians play the best,” he says, “but I think the Brits call the game the best, without a doubt.”
Jed Drake, the executive producer of ESPN’s World Cup coverage, makes his opinion clear while declining to discuss Fox’s approach.
“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.”
Drake says ESPN’s research has shown that catering to knowledgeable soccer fans is most effective. The rest of the audience “will come for the sheer spectacle of it,” he says.
“Authenticity” is the word Drake and his ESPN colleagues like to use. The term also comes from NBC co-ordinating producer Pierre Moossa, who oversees the network’s Premier League coverage. NBC picked Brit Arlo White as its lead voice for its broadcasts of English soccer, which have seen rising viewership.
White, a self-described “American-phile” who loves the NFL and Major League Baseball, will occasionally sprinkle in references to U.S. sports. But he says his calls are no different than if he was working for BBC Radio, his old employer.
“We don’t get hung up on ‘football/soccer,'” he says. “The American audience has moved on from that now.”
The audience for international soccer has been swelling in the U.S. and figures to be substantial for this summer’s World Cup with the favourable time zone and allure of Brazil. And Shanks believes the next step in expanding viewership is to bring in a popular American announcer.
U.S. fans loved Johnson’s breathless, booming calls of buzzer-beaters during the NCAA tournament for CBS. If he occasionally got a player’s name wrong, it was quickly forgiven for an excitability that seemed to fit March Madness perfectly.
Johnson joined Fox in 2011, and with the World Cup on the horizon, the network tabbed him as its lead soccer announcer. And, no, he did not understand the sport in his soul when he started.
He climbed a steep learning curve very publicly. Calling his first Champions League match last year, Johnson referred to Manchester United star Ryan Giggs as “one of the greatest footballers in English history.” Giggs is Welsh.
So started the new sport of bashing Johnson on Twitter.
“It’s tough to have to be vulnerable in that regard,” he says. “It’s not something I’m used to.”
Johnson reminds himself: “This is a process.” The 2018 World Cup is still four years away, and if the best compliments he receives now are begrudging acknowledgements that he’s improving, “I’ll take that.”
Wynalda is mystified that for years the criticism of soccer in the U.S. was that the sport is boring, and now people are deriding the addition of an excitable announcer. That goes back to the debate of the best way to drew in new viewers to soccer. Should the matches sound like a British broadcast, or should they be unmistakably American?
Or it may not matter. Fox’s Shanks acknowledges: “By no means do we think whatever announce team you put on any individual game or sport is a silver bullet to driving new audience.”
Ratings for international soccer have been rising across networks. The major shift in expanding the World Cup audience may not be the accents of the announcers, but the tastes of Americans.
“We as a country have truly come to understand what this event means worldwide,” ESPN’s Drake says. “We can embrace it and enjoy it for what it is.”