As is common with executives and top broadcasting talent, Fox Sports president Eric Shanks and Gus Johnson talk every couple of weeks. But what binds Shanks and Johnson together is unique. More than anyone at Fox Sports given his title, Shanks is responsible for Johnson becoming the face and voice of the network's soccer coverage. For some soccer viewers, Johnson's appointment makes Shanks a bold visionary. For others, Shanks is responsible for the sports broadcasting crime of the century.
"I check in with him to see how he is feeling about his performance and if we are continuing to keep taking steps toward the goals we have set," Shanks said.
The longterm goal, of course, is for Johnson to call (and call with distinction) the signature games of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Fox will take over the World Cup rights (including the 2015 Women's World Cup) from ESPN upon the conclusion of this summer's tournament in Brazil. In the short term, Johnson continues his weekly education as a soccer broadcaster. On Saturday he and analyst Eric Wynalda will be in Lisbon to call Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League Final (2:00 PM ET, FOX). The coverage begins with a preview show on Fox Sports 1 at 1:00 PM ET.
Most sports fans are passionate about broadcasters but soccer fans are particularly fanatical about how the game should be called on television. One of the important things Shanks can do as a television executive is communicate directly with soccer fans about how he sees Johnson's development as a game-caller.
"If you watched and really listened -- not just there is an American voice doing soccer and the American accent versus the U.K. accent -- Gus is clearly getting better every game," Shanks told SI.com. "The broadcast is getting more conversational and not only is he learning the game still, but you are starting to see improvement. He is doing more than just the basics now, and once people understand this is a professional play-by-play guy that has a passion for the sport and is spending the time to get integrated into the sport and taking it seriously, I think the broadcast is entertaining, insightful and conversational, all of the things you want whether it's someone doing basketball, football or soccer.
Shanks' point is fair. But Fox's soccer coverage also needs work. If you flipped between Saturday's FA Cup final on Fox between Arsenal and Hull City and beIN's coverage of the La Liga final with Phil Schoen and the insanely entertaining Ray Hudson, the beIN group broadcast had a better rhythm, more strategic bouts of silence, and because of Hudson, more sheer delight. Meanwhile, Fox's coverage featured Wynalda delivering a classic American broadcasting annoyance: a non-stop yapfest following a score after Johnson went silent when Frenchman Laurent Koscielny delivered Arsenal's second goal. Unfortunately for Johnson and Wynalda, any broadcasting mistake will be pounced -- after Wynalda said that Welshman Aaron Ramsey was on England's national team, he was excoriated by scores of Twitter analysts.
But the weekend's comparison between Fox and beIN isn't perfect given that beIN's game featured two highly entertaining squads in Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and was a match to decide a league title. And American broadcasters calling soccer absolutely take more guff than their U.K. counterparts. On a personal note, I am not a Johnson hater when it comes to his soccer work. I believe he's committed to putting significant effort into learning the game's nuances (Both Awful Announcing and The Big Lead had features with Johnson this week) and I reiterate that if Fox can surround Johnson with Ian Darke-Martin Tyler-quality gamecallers in 2018, the soccer viewer will accept (or deal with) Johnson's broadcasts. (I know plenty of you disagree: Have at it in the comments section.)
One interesting news note from our conversation: Shanks sees Johnson and Wynalda as a long-term partnership -- at least right now.
"We see something with Eric and Gus chemistry-wise and personality-wise," Shanks said. "We believe they are a good fit as a duo. Is there a potential to maybe add someone to the mix? I don't know. Soccer does not really lend itself to a three-man booth. This is the team we believe in going forward and we see a lot of promise. I think Eric has the ability to be critical and insightful. You watch games that he does and he has the ability to tell you things that you don't see. He is not a Mr. Obvious. He is not afraid to tell you what he thinks is going to happen on a set piece, corner kick, free kick."
"I want to see how comfortable Gus and Eric are because they have only done a couple of matches together," Shanks continued. "The biggest thing when you start to work with someone new is figuring out their pace in talking. It takes you a few times on the phone to figure out when someone is starting and stopping their conversation. They are traveling together in Europe, hanging out together, doing games together. I think they are now starting to figure out how each speaks and how they will have a conversation (on-air.) A lot of soccer, because it never stops, is what is the pace of the conversation versus true play-by-play for the play-by-play guy. Clearly, one of the goals Gus has is to have his own insights so he can tee Eric up. Clearly the analyst is the star of the program. When Gus is able to see the field and predict what is going to happen, I think he and Eric will clearly reach some of the goals we have set."
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. How did Mark Jackson land at ESPN so swiftly following his dismissal from the Golden State Warriors? Upon learning of the firing, a group of senior ESPN management had a conversation about bringing Jackson back to work the Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals. Jackson had served as an ESPN NBA game analyst from 2006 to 2011, where he teamed with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy to call the NBA Finals five seasons in a row. Management knew Breen and Van Gundy and sideline reporter Doris Burke would be supportive of such an initiative given how close that group is off-camera.
Leading the cause to bring back Jackson were ESPN senior vice president of production Mark Gross and Tim Corrigan, the senior coordinating producer for the NBA on ESPN and ABC. They discussed the proposition with ESPN executive producer of programming and production John Wildhack and after he approved it, Corrigan had a conversation with Jackson a couple of days after was fired.
"If you'd like to come back," Corrigan told Jackson, "we have a home for you."
Corrigan then followed up with Jackson in-person when ESPN aired the Clippers-Thunder series in Los Angeles, where Jackson has a home. Jackson decided last Tuesday that he wanted to come back to ESPN and the following day, Gross spoke with IMG agent Sandy Montag, who represents Jackson. But then Montag offered an interesting proposal: He told Gross that his client was interested in a deal beyond just rejoining his former partners for this year. Gross said ESPN management was excited by that prospect and a formal multi-year deal with Jackson was closed on Friday night at 9:00 p.m. ET. (Like the Iron Bank, ESPN always has gold to add ex-coaches and players to its House Lannister on-air army.)
"We love Mark, we loved him when he was with us before, and we love him with Mike and Jeff, who were both eager to have him come back, said Gross, dropping love at the rate Chris Paul drops assists. "We just thought it was a great opportunity to bring the band back together. We have all the confidence in the world the chemistry will be the same as it was before."
Gross said he thought Jackson would be a better analyst this time around given the currency he has with players and coaches in the league, having game-planned for them the last three years. As far as returning to the NBA, Gross said Jackson has not spoken about future coaching jobs, but the network will not prevent him from taking one.
"If he wants to go back to coaching, we will let him go back to coaching," Gross said. "We are not going to hold him against something he really wants to do. If it is a coaching job he really wants, we will let him go back."
Jackson will have a full schedule of games next year as a lead NBA analyst. Given the volume of weekday games on ESPN and ABC during the regular season, he will likely end up as a solo analyst at times working with either Breen, Mike Tirico or Dave Pasch. During the Sunday ABC windows, Breen, Jackson and Van Gundy will work together.
One of the perennial concerns broadcasters should have about hiring a former coach who is still in his coaching prime is whether the coach will pull punches with viewers because he or she wants a coaching job again in the college or professional ranks. I asked Gross if he was concerned that Jackson would hold back on certain teams or players.
"I am confident he will talk freely about anything that documents the game, and I don't think he or Jeff hold back on anything," Gross said. "Mark could not have been more candid when he was with us looking for his first coaching job. I would expect him to be the same guy, and his record as a coach speaks for itself. He will be as candid and open as he was the first time around."
1a. Marc Kestecher and Jon Barry will call the Eastern Conference Finals on ESPN Radio while Kevin Calabro and Hubie Brown will handle commentary for the Western Conference Finals. Any chance to hear Brown should not be missed.
2. Mitch Williams has taken a leave of absence from MLB Network -- a network spokesperson said the leave was mutual on behalf of both parties. The move follows published reports and video of Williams allegedly ordering one of his 10-year-old players in a Ripken Baseball youth league to hit the opposing pitcher as well as profanity-laced tirades while coaching. A MLB Network spokesperson told SI.com that "there is currently no timetable" for Williams' return to the network. Williams has been a studio analyst for MLB Network since 2009.
3. NBC's debut season covering the Premier League produced some significant viewership numbers. The highlights:
• NBC and NBCSN combined to average 438,000 viewers for EPL games-- up 99 percent from last season's combined average on ESPN, ESPN2 and FOX Soccer (220,000 viewers). Eliminating the 10 games on NBC, the coverage on cable averaged 395,000 viewers, an 80 percent increase over the ESPN, ESPN2 and FOX Soccer average last year.
•NBC said 31.5 million viewers tuned into at least one minute of EPL coverage during the season-- more than doubling the 13.3 million who watched last season on ESPN, ESPN2 and Fox Soccer.
•This year marked the first time anywhere in the world that all 380 matches were presented live on television (196 games on the networks of NBCUniversal and 184 games on the Premier League Extra Time bonus TV package).
•NBC drew 4.9 million viewers on the final day of season when it aired 10 games across the networks of NBCUniversal,
•Chelsea's 2-0 win over Liverpool on April 27 averaged 940,000 viewers, the most-watched early (pre-10 a.m. ET kickoff) Premier League match ever in the U.S.
•The three most watched EPL games:
1. Cardiff-Swansea City (2/8/14): 1.24 million on NBC
2. Swansea City-Manchester United (1/11/14): 1.10 million on NBC
3. Man United-Crystal Palace (2/22/14): 1.06 million on NBC
•The highest-rated EPL TV markets this season: 1. Washington, D.C.; 2. New York; 3. Baltimore; 4. Boston; 5. Seattle; 6. Richmond; 7. San Francisco-Oakland; Norfolk; 9. Providence, and 10. Philadelphia.
4. ESPN president John Skipper said last week that ESPN would be interested in the English Premier League when the contract comes up to market again in two years. NBC just completed the first of its three-year, $250 million deal.
Skipper said he expected EPL negotiations to begin next year. In order for ESPN to acquire the rights, it would have to partner with another network because it does not have the bandwidth to broadcast every game on fall Saturdays given its college football commitments. "We'll be interested," Skipper said. "We love the English Premier league. NBC has done a great job...But what they do on Saturday, we don't have the windows for. We could not do all those games."
Shanks said Fox would also have interest given how many soccer offerings Fox has across its platforms. "Any time a premier rights package, and I know this is a play on words, comes up, of course you are interested," Shanks said. "I think everybody that will be looking at that tender when it comes out will also be pushing hard for a longer deal. I think these three-year rights deals are not ideal. It is far and away the shortest rights package any of us do."
5. Turner Sports declined this week when SI.com asked for an interview with its executives on what future plans they have to replace Steve Kerr. Thankfully, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus was brave enough to talk to a reporter, at least about how Kerr's departure to the Warriors will impact the NCAA Tournament staffing. McManus said he had not spoken with Turner Broadcasting president David Levy about what the two networks will do for the Final Four and national championship game announcing teams next year but noted that Turner would have to figure out the NBA part of Kerr leaving before they got to the NCAA. "I think the first decision probably will be on the part of TNT on who is going to replace him on the NBA and then David and I will sit down and talk about it," McManus said. With the amount of high quality analysts we have working, if that becomes a necessity, we determine what is best for the viewer."
Kerr will be the analyst for TNT's Western Conference finals coverage -- commenting on teams he will be competing against next year -- through the end of that series.
6. NBC's overnight ratings for California Chrome's win in Preakness Stakes were up five percent from last year and the best for that race since 2010, setting up mega-ratings for the network on June 7 when it airs the Belmont Stakes with the Triple Crown on the line.
6a. The top-rated local markets for the Preakness Stakes: 1. Baltimore; 2. Louisville; 3. Ft. Myers; 4. Cincinnati; 5. Buffalo; 6. Knoxville; 7. Sacramento. 8. Orlando; 9. Richmond; and 10. Boston
7. Sports pieces of note:
•USA Today writer Ted Berg wrote a poignant piece about life, the loss of his brother, and taking BP off Mariano Rivera.
•Steve Politi on ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas completing his unfinished business degree at Rutgers 26 years after he first enrolled at the school.
•Great work by SI's Tim Layden on California Chrome winning the Preakness.
• Fivethirtyeight.com's Carl Bialik profiled a 79-year-old man who preserved decades of NBA statistics.
•Loved reading how SI writer Michael Farber battled his cancer; he is now in remission.
•Enjoyed this TED Talk from former SI staffer David Epstein.
•GQ on the revival of Camden, New Jersey through Little League baseball.
•The MMQB's Emily Kaplan on Steve Sabol's office.
•ESPN's Wright Thompson on Bosnia-Herzegovina Vedad Ibisevic returning to his homeland.
Non sports-pieces of note:
•Highly recommended advice for college graduates this year (or any).
•The New Republic on the return of fascism to Europe.
•Syracuse.com's sportswriter Donna Ditota on her boyfriend getting breast cancer.
•What's it like to be the butler of a billionaire?
•Via The New Yorker: Missed connections for a-holes.
•Men are paying up to $1000 a month for wingmen in an effort to meet women. Take it away, NYT trend piece:
8. The contract negotiations for ESPN broadcaster Rece Davis continue. His deal is up in April 2015. "We love Rece and it is a priority of ours to keep him," Skipper said. "He is very good and getting better."
8a. Pardon the Interruption co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon signed new multi-year extensions to remain with ESPN. Kornheiser and Wilbon have co-hosted the show since its debut on October 17, 2001.
9. Skipper said that NBC extending its Olympic deal with the IOC through 2032 was a surprise to his network, but that ESPN was unlikely to ever approach the numbers NBC did. Both NBC and the IOC said the deal was worth $7.65 billion including a $100 million signing bonus. "We were not contacted," Skipper said. "I think the IOC understood that NBC valued the rights the most. We believe in locking rights up long-term too. I think it [the Olympics] is a total network play. What CBS did with the NFL on Thursdays is they want to win that night, and what NBC wants to do is win those nights every year for the next number of years. Look, we were interested in the Olympics before, but there would have been a gap between their (NBC) bid and our bid."
10. HBO Sports will air a documentary on the life of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in early 2015.
10a. ESPN Deportes will air 124 Liga MX & Copa MX matches, 50+ UEFA Europa League matches, 30+ Brazilian league matches and 40 MLS games during the upcoming soccer season.
10b. If you are a fan of the World Cup, you will love this sizzle reel from ESPN.