LOUDMOUTHS MAY 24, 2013
Soccer fans call the sport, without irony, “The Beautiful Game.” Sportscaster Gus Johnson, by contrast, does not luxuriate in the beauty of any game. The 45-year-old Detroit native is known to American fans of football and basketball for catchphrases and ecstatic calls more befitting a fan than an announcer. It has been said that Johnson puts the “madness” in March Madness, and YouTube is full of proof—like “Screaming Gus Johnson,” a clip of his call in a 2006 NCAA tournament game, after which Bryant Gumbel quips to viewers, “Gus will be out of the hospital in time for tomorrow’s game.” (ESPN’s Bill Simmons has postulated a tongue-in-cheek “Law of Gus,” which states that if Johnson is calling a game, dramatic moments are more likely to occur.) The typical criticism of Johnson is that he capitalizes on these moments at the expense of play-by-play; it is the color commentator, after all, who should be providing color. You could rebut that criticism by arguing that the emotion he brings to those moments more than makes up for his technical shortcomings. He’s like an enthusiastic terrier whose excited yips, even when a touch too loud or frequent or ill-timed, are endearing.
Given Johnson’s style, Fox must have known what to expect when it announced, in February, that he would begin calling soccer matches. Perhaps that is why the network made a hard sell, touting his bona fides like the “over a dozen [Major League Soccer] games on radio” he has called and—no joke—the “pick-up soccer games in a park near his Manhattan home” he has played in. The channel that once gave us the glowing hockey puck was now asking perhaps the most self-righteous sports fans in the world—soccer fanatics in America—to accept someone they would surely hate. And to do so immediately: Rather than ease Johnson into his new gig, Fox has set him loose on matches in Europe's top leagues. On Saturday, he will call one of the biggest sporting events in the world, the UEFA Champions League final, this year held at London’s Wembley Stadium and featuring German clubs Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
Sportscasters are a little like the décor in a bathroom: They may enhance or detract from the experience a little, but they cannot fundamentally mess with what you came to do in the first place. But try telling that to English-speaking soccer fans, who believe announcers should be reserved except in those moments when, every once in a blue moon, a goal is actually scored. Thus, the reactions to Johnson’s hire (helpfully collected by sports-media blogger Eric Sherman) included, “This is dumbest idea ever,” “America is doing its best to ruin World Cup,” “Gus Johnson is a fine commentator but he does not belong in the booth for soccer,” “Gus Johnson commentating the 2018 world cup is nothing short of a disgrace to the game,” and, “guess I’ll be returning to the days of watching World Cup En Espanol.” (This level of vitriol toward something as innocuous as the annoucer is, as we will see, downright neurotic.)
They ought to get used to Johnson. Barring an unexpected setback, his soccer profile will only grow later this decade: He's expected to call the 2018 and 2022 World Cup Finals, to which Fox owns the American rights. And besides, American soccer fans should have precisely the opposite reaction toward Johnson, who could help accomplish exactly what they have long claimed to want: that soccer be embraced by the entire country.
Concern-trolling over soccer in the U.S.—whether it will become a major sport here, and whether it will be defiled in the process—is a sport in itself. “Americans just don’t get a kick out of soccer,” sportswriter Bob Kravitz wrote in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1990, and Irish soccer journalist Seamus Malin said in 1993, the year before the U.S. hosted the World Cup, “Nothing could be a greater mistake. I don’t think Americans should be tinkering with the sport. This is not their game!" (This sentiment is the other side of the coin from American fans’ shame at their benighted countrymen.) A 1998 USA Today article contrasted soccer-mad “ethnic enclaves” in Chicago with the country’s general indifference. “The vast majority of Americans, however, don’t care," McClatchy reported in 2010. Or, as the Boston Globe noted in 2006, also a World Cup year, “We care every four years.”
The substance of the worrywarts’ complaint has always been the same: that if the world’s most popular sport isn’t catching on, that reflects poorly on America, not the rest of the world. From there, it is a very small leap to see most Americans’ allergy to the sport as another manifestation of Ugly American syndrome. “It is just possible that kicking a soccer ball, or watching a soccer game, might help America’s woeful inability to learn a second language,” supposed the New York Times’s George Vecsey in 1988, not even half in jest. “Haven’t you noticed that most soccer fans can speak more than one language?"
Slowly but surely—how slowly and how surely is a source of constant debate—that is changing. Most Americans might still be monolingual, but they are starting to become aware of, and even appreciate, the Beautiful Game That Sometimes Ends In a Tie (or, rather, a “draw”). Soccer is now a legitimate species in the American sports ecosystem: It’s a tent pole of Fox’s new channel, Fox Sports 1, launching in August, which will broadcast matches from the Champions League, Europa League (a tournament of teams who just missed the Champions League’s cut), Women’s World Cup, and a brand-new international club tournament. Ditto NBC Sports Network, which is soon to have the rights to Barclays Premier League, the most popular soccer association in the world; NBC itself will air a few games. Major League Soccer is setting attendance records, and you can bet that MLS’ rights-holder, ESPN, will use its unmatched power to play the league and the sport up—last week at upfronts, ESPN2 announced it will start a daily soccer show.
Given soccer's rise in America, it's only natural that Fox would make one of the nation's rising sportscasters their face of the sport. But the soccer community—hardcore fans and the media who inform them—doesn't see it that way.
Johnson now has about half a dozen games under his belt with Fox, and most reviews have been unkind. “The shot was easily blocked by a defender. There was no need to yell,” reads a typical passage from a typical blog post of late, "Gus Johnson Is Ruining Soccer Coverage in America, and Fox Doesn't Seem to Care." Sports Illustrated's coverage of Johnson's Fox soccer debut (a Champions League match) noted that Johnson “was late on the run of play a number of times in the first half.” A USA Today blogger chimed in: “[Johnson]’s doing ‘Soccer Broadcasting for Dummies.’” EPL Talk, devoted to the Premier League, has been particularly harsh, with headlines such as “Gus Johnson’s Commentating Goes From Bad to Worse On FOX Soccer” and "Gus Johnson and Ian Wright’s Commentary Has Turned FOX Soccer Into a Joke." Deadspin, in an uncharacteristically earnest post ("Gus Johnson Will Be The Voice Of Soccer, Even If He Has To Ruin The Champions League To Get There"), wrote, “His lack of attunement to the rhythms of the game was laid bare. We got a clumsy call because of it.”1
But if you detach yourself from your sentimental feelings about soccer—love or hate—and think about the sport objectively, you see that Johnson’s style could suit it very well. From a gameplay perspective, soccer’s chief advantage over baseball, basketball, football, and hockey is that its exciting moments, the ones that compel us to stand up and hold our breaths, last a good deal longer. The soccer pitch (which is what they call the field) is gigantic—20,000 square feet larger even than a football field—so in soccer, the tension lasts longer: A kick down the field to an open player sets up a play, which could eventually lead to a chance, which could eventually lead to a shot, which could eventually lead to a goal. The time between the excitement’s beginning and the ball hitting the back of the net can last 15-20 seconds: much longer than a long fly ball, a three-pointer, a deep pass, or a slapshot. The fact that so few of these moments result in goals—that there are so few scores in a soccer game—means that the chances gain in exquisiteness.
Enter Gus Johnson. Whether or not the Law of Gus leads to more dramatic moments, he can certainly make the moments—those wonderfully drawn-out, attenuated soccer moments—more dramatic. Or maybe the Law of Gus is valid? Check out his call from a tilt in England’s FA Cup tournament that he announced earlier this month. In the second injury time,2 underdog (and soon-to-be-relegated) Wigan scored the game’s only goal, defeating the reigning Premier League champion, Manchester City. It was an incredibly exciting moment, and Johnson rightly let loose a vintage scream while his color man, the Englishman Ian Wright, could only giggle.3 Johnson is making soccer his own; which is to say, American; which is to say, kind of fun!
This may not appeal to those hardcore American soccer fans who would have the U.S. turn into a nation of “supporters” of “football,”4 but it actually makes sense for the sport, and it could help translate a game that has likely resisted mass popularity here for reasons beyond historical accident. If Americans, with Johnson’s help, learned to consume soccer in a more “American” way, then the homegrown evangelists could finally get their wish. Unless, of course, what they really want is the smug superiority of believing that only they, living among these simpletons, truly “get” it. In which case, they can continue to roll their eyes at Johnson—and secretly love it.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow him @marcatracy.