Gus Johnson has some work to do. Five-and-a-half years worth, to be exact.
On Tuesday, Sports illustrated's sports media maven Richard Deitsch let us in on Fox Sports' plans to put an American voice, and a distinctive one at that, on center stage during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That would be Johnson, known for his high-energy play-by-play coverage in college basketball, who surprised many by branching into soccer last year – check out the clip of some of his calls as a radio broadcaster for the San Jose Earthquakes above as well as his interview with ExtraTime Radio (scroll down to the May 2, 2012 episode).
Of course, Johnson won't get thrown in the deep end come 2018. Fox is dedicated to building him up from water wings to the equivalent of play-by-play free diving through their other soccer properties, most notably Champions League broadcasts. Along those lines, Johnson will make his prime-time debut on Feb. 13 when Real Madrid faces Manchester United in Round of 16 action, and augment his CL duties with English Premier League MC honors as well as stints in the booth for the Champions League and FA Cup finals.
Now, Johnson isn't exactly a universal taste in the sports world, mostly because of his sugar-high style of bombastic broadcasting. He also has a very limited background with the Beautiful Game, admitting he's a soccer "novice" in the grand scheme of things.
To his credit, Johnson has closed-door run-throughs under his belt in addition to Quakes duty, but the Champions League knockout stage isn't exactly a low-profile way to kick things off for a novice, especially with a pair of internationally relevant Cup finals on the docket. You can bet the American soccer Twitterati and blogosphere are going to be looking for chinks in his soccer armor from the minute he opens his mouth.
Deadspin already gave their take here, and – to no one's surprise – it wasn't entirely positive and posed the following question: What will Johnson do without a bevy of opportunities to exhibit his trademark excitability? It's a valid point.
Meanwhile, I'm a bit torn.
On one hand, I'd love for American soccer fans to once again have an American voice to narrate the world's biggest sporting event. On the other, Johnson is going to have to remake himself in the booth, a move that could turn out smelling like roses or, just as easily, reek like a crowded subway car in the midst of an oppressive NYC summer. More likely, Fox's experiment is going to fall somewhere in between, and that makes me wonder what the decision to groom Johnson says about the network's opinion of the current crop of American soccer broadcasters.
Apparently, they're not good enough to develop into national voices in five-plus years, although I don't subscribe to that belief. More likely, they're simply not flashy enough and have yet to break through into the American sporting consciousness. Or they're already contracted to a competitor.
All of which is fine. I get what Fox is trying to do. But, like everyone else, I have no idea how the network's gambit will turn out.
What I do know is that I'll follow the building crescendo from Feb. 13 until the summer of 2018. If nothing else, Johnson's unique style won't let us tear our eyes and ears away from the action. Whether that's a good thing remains to be seen.