Fox Soccer’s Gus Johnson experiment lasted exactly 578 days. From his first prime-time call of a Champions League match on Feb. 13, 2013, until this past Sunday night, when the news came across the wire that he was no longer Fox’s lead soccer commentator.
The experiment was one that will go down as one of the strangest sports broadcasting decisions ever. There was a lot that didn’t work, but also some things that went well for Gus and Fox. The decision also leaves Fox in a bit of a lurch, as the Women’s World Cup is just 262 days away.
Fox Sports president Eric Shanks made the bold call to hand the microphone to Johnson, with the goal of giving American soccer a voice that was all its own, and initially it was seen as a mistake by even the most ardent supporters of Johnson’s unique style. But over the last 18 months, Johnson was getting marginally better. His ability to just let the game breath—compare the 2014 FA Cup final to the 2013 FA Cup final, for example—is probably the most obvious improvement.
And his presence did not have a negative on Fox’s Champions League ratings, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In fact, his debut match in 2013 was the highest rated Champions League match ever in America, and represented a 268 percent increase over the previous year’s round of 16 coverage. Furthermore, the Champions League semi-final in 2014 between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid attracted 511,000 viewers, the highest rating ever for a Champions League match in the history of Fox Sports 1, and was far greater than the 300,000 viewers that watched the 2012 Champions League semi-final featuring the same teams.
When it came to the nuts and bolts of his calls, Johnson had a very difficult time knowing when he to get excited and when not to—his trademark shouts were ear splitting, so it sounded less like commentating and more like yelling, especially when seasoned soccer watchers knew that we weren’t actually about to see a goal because, for example, that player was very clearly offside.
His volume was not the only problem though: he offended (calling Manchester United “Man U”), he got things wrong (mispronouncing “Atletico Madrid” as “ATHletico Madrid”) and he showed a real lack of understanding when it came to the basic terminology of the game (once calling a throw-in a “sideline throw”). He relied on reciting meaningless stats as a crutch during lulls in games, and he suffered from a simple lack of game time experience, as his schedule was packed to the gunwales already with college football and basketball, which left him no time to adequately prepare for the incredibly difficult challenge that is soccer commentary. He freely admits this last point in his resignation interview with Sports Illustrated, saying he needed 35-40 games under his belt to get his calls where he wanted them, and that just wasn’t happening with his schedule.
Far more than just his commentary problems, however, the move from Fox to hire Gus was a slap in the face to the hardcore American soccer fans who had supported Fox for years, as it represented a dumbing down of the game. Soccer fans are some of the most educated and demanding sports fans on earth—even in, maybe even especially in, America—and they do not put up with second-rate presentations of the beautiful game.The experiment showed how tone deaf the network is—especially when compared with the brilliant job NBC has been doing with the Premier League— and gave all American soccer fans justifiable worries about how Fox would present the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Fans took the move as a personal affront, and as such would never truly accept him as a soccer commentator, no matter how much he improved.
In the decision to end the Gus Johnson experiment, Fox has already started the repairing the bridge between the network and American soccer supporters, so the best next step for Fox would be to reach out to fans of the game and see what they want in a lead soccer commentator. They have a real chance to fix the PR problem that the Gus Johnson hire created with one smart, savvy, fan-supported hire. If they take fans input seriously and hire an experienced soccer commentator, the network may be forgiven and Fox’s soccer legacy in America will be as the network that gave the Premier League a chance when no one else would. But if they try another wacky experiment, Fox risks becoming a laughing stock.