Did you know that famed play-by-play man Gus Johnson has called 12 San Jose Earthquakes games on radio in the past year? Probably not, because we don’t know too many people that pay attention to the MLS, let alone the San Jose Earthquakes, let alone on radio. But that’s probably why FOX Sports stuffed Johnson into the dustiest corner of sports broadcasting. After winning the television rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, there was an idea: teach Gus Johnson some soccer, let him loose at the World Cup.
Richard Deitsch over at Sports Illustrated has some more details on the evolution of this idea, but we’re more concerned with its practicality. Johnson will call the upcoming Real Madrid-Manchester United Round of 16 Champions League match on February 13, followed by Arsenal-Bayern Munich on the 19th and Manchester City-Chelsea in a regular Premier League match on the 24th. Later this year, Johnson will call the FA Cup Final and Champions League Final. All of which is to say, what?
By the time Gus Johnson left CBS and the March Madness beat, he had become more than a broadcaster. Though he was synonymous with the year’s best tournament, he was also more than the tournament. People watched games called by Gus Johnson – they didn’t necessarily watch the game. On some level, this was a good thing. The high-pitched screaming and intensified drama drew in even the casual observer. Why is this man screaming so much over a basketball game? Something’s there worth knowing, we all thought.
But it had ballooned to a schtick, a mere exaggeration. Gus Johnson was great because he was being Gus Johnson. He buoyed the subtle art of the play-by-play with a natural enthusiasm that didn’t feel out of place. He was you at your TV watching The Big Game, except he just so happened to have a microphone and an audience of millions. But then one day, as Will Leitch over at New York Magazine noticed, he misplaced the crux of his profession. Gus Johnson was no longer Gus Johnson; he was RISE AND FIRE GUS JOHNSON! all the time.
Soccer is measured. Scoring chances are few and far between. Goals, even more rare. The in-between is filled with names of players and storylines and tactical dissection – everything Gus Johnson isn’t known for. Sure, there will always be those goals worthy of acclaim – Gus Johnson-ian acclaim, that is – but the curtain of heightened drama is not fully protective.
In the coming weeks, we’ll see how Johnson fares – whether he dials it back a few notches or mocks the subtlety of the game with misplaced enthusiasm. And for our own sake, hopefully he gets it right. Because there’s no reason why Gus Johnson can’t fade into the background of play-by-play, only to burst forth, appropriately.