Last spring, Gus Johnson showed up in the unlikeliest of places. Less than a year removed from parting ways with CBS and joining Fox, Johnson was decidedly out of his comfort zone. A familiar voice over college hoops, and with Fox the NFL and college football, here was Johnson, on the radio, calling games for MLS's San Jose Earthquakes.
Johnson teased it as the start, perhaps, of something bigger, tweeting, "I'm about to try something new, something that could change the direction of my career." The six-year plan is about as big as it gets—Johnson is being groomed by Fox to be the voice of its soccer coverage, including the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
SI's Richard Deitsch has the story, and more stunning than the thought of excitable Gus "I Get Buckets" Johnson calling the lowest-scoring sport on earth, is just how long-term Fox's plan is. They hired Johnson in May of 2011, won the TV rights to the Russia and Qatar Worlds Cups in Oct. 11, and by April had begun grooming Johnson for a sporting event that won't take place until he turns 50.
"This is not something that is temporary," [Fox Sports president Eric] Shanks said. "This is something we are going to work at. It isn't an Olympic assignment where he does the luge for two weeks and then we don't hear from that announcer for the next four years. This is something we are serious about and something we will continue to work at. Based on the radio games and the practice games Gus has done, I think this is going to work."
It's an imposing challenge, which would require a complete professional reinvention for a man who not only had no background in the sport, but the barest familiarity with the hundreds of teams and thousands of players that make up the soccer landscape. Johnson started small, with the smallest of audiences—a dozen or so road Earthquakes games on the radio. He did practice games from the Fox studios, with no one but his bosses listening. He jetted off to Europe for a three-week soccer tour, his personal spotter in tow. All of it is building to Johnson's national debut, calling Manchester United's and Real Madrid's Champions League match next week.
But the question isn't whether Johnson can learn the game—he's a pro, and Fox is giving him the time and support. It's whether Johnson's unique style is at all suited for the unique flow of soccer. Here's Gus calling a pair of goals:
His stutter-step oral explosion works on scoring plays, because they're the product of countless minutes' and passes' worth of lead-up. You don't need Gus Johnson's orgasmic inflections to convey excitement. But Johnson's excitement no longer seems genuine, as Will Leitch explained in his seminal takedown:
He has gotten more and more screamy, a celebrity gimmick artist, and less of a person who, you know, tells you what's going on in the game. He loses track of what's going on, he misses obvious points, and he's rather obviously just waiting for the next moment to scream, the next moment to take his moment in the spotlight.
I don't believe Johnson is distractingly bad, but there's something to be said for the fact that he brings nothing to a game. Think of all your favorite Gus Johnson moments: they're buzzer beaters, long touchdowns, incredible plays all. Johnson became famous for losing his cool when the moment called for it—but those are just moments. He's the ideal announcer for the morning after on Youtube, but not someone you want to spend three hours with.
This became increasingly apparent as Fox put Johnson, locked in to the Big Ten Network for hoops, almost exclusively on football. Without someone scoring every few seconds, it became an exercise in watching Johnson bide his time. You almost felt bad for the guy—he's not happy unless he's exploding. And now he's calling soccer.
It could absolutely work. Johnson's role as a soccer novice puts him firmly with the majority of Americans watching the World Cup, so there's the hope that he'll be a relatable entry point to a largely unknown scene. His excitement could act in his favor, too: look at Doc Emrick, in a similarly low-scoring sport, whose yelps and tics are perfectly meshed with the momentum of the game. In Emrick's capable hands, a scoring chance is every bit as thrilling as a goal. You can't get into soccer if you don't comprehend the tidal surges in play, and Johnson's volume, rising and falling with the flow, could help the casual fan pick up a crucial moment as it's developing.
I'm not sure the big objection to Johnson will be from the hardcore fans worried about the mainstreaming of soccer broadcasting, as Spencer Hall seems to expect. It'll be whether the world's biggest sporting event is big enough to overcome a celebrity announcer—will viewers ever be able to stop thinking Hey, it's Gus Johnson calling soccer? 2018 is a long way away. If Fox keeps burying him on late-night Pac-12 games, maybe by then Johnson will have dropped his baggage.