SI spoke with Gus Johnson and Fox Sports president Eric Shanks on the details behind Johnson's decision.
Depending on your soccer broadcasting orthodoxy, the following news will be received as a cause for celebration or bitter disappointment:
Gus Johnson has stepped down as Fox's No. 1 soccer broadcaster.
Johnson told Sports Illustrated on Sunday that he called Fox Sports president Eric Shanks last week and explained that with a full schedule of college football and college basketball, he could not give soccer the attention it deserved and that viewers demanded of a lead broadcaster. Shanks agreed to pull Johnson off the assignment.
"I think that it was a mutual decision, but maybe I was the guy who came to it first," Johnson said.
Johnson admitted his decision was influenced by the loss of his mother, Btroy Johnson, who died on June 7 from ovarian cancer. The last conversation Johnson had with her came in late May when he was in Lisbon calling the Champions League final between Spanish sides Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid.
"I asked her if she wanted me to come home and she said, "No. You are a Johnson man and your job is to work," Johnson said. "I finished the game, got back home, and she was pretty much unconscious at that point because she had Stage Four ovarian cancer. I never got the chance to talk to her again because the cancer was eating her up. I think I’m still in the process of healing. My mother was the most important person in my life. She is the one who gave me my love for sports and communications."
Johnson said he also had another life-changing event; he just got engaged. He has a scheduled Aug. 1 wedding, the same date as his parents’ wedding anniversary.
"I want to hang out with my wife and that is where I’m at," Johnson said. "I don’t want to be exhausted, tired and unprepared. What I realized about calling soccer and especially international soccer, I needed to do 35-40 games just to get my bars up and my chops going. Because of my schedule, I never had a chance to get that kind of experience and work in. I always felt like I was cramming, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. If I am not the best I can be, I did not think it was something I should continue to do."
Shanks, in an interview with Sports Illustrated on Sunday afternoon, agreed the move was best for all parties.
"We talked about everything he is going through with his mother, getting engaged, and Gus is a single parent sharing custody of his son," Shanks said. "Where Fox Sports is now is different from when we asked Gus to do soccer. To be as good as Gus wants to be at soccer, he would have to be full time on it. It was becoming painfully clear with his additional basketball schedule and things like the CONCACAF qualifiers and getting up to speed on the U.S. women's national team, we could not be fair to him because we could not schedule him on every game. Also, he was brought in to do football and basketball for us. That was the priority. So it was a confluence of all of these things. Gus fell in love with soccer, and it changed his life spending time in Europe. It was really hard, because we both believe given the fair opportunity to immerse himself into it completely, we would have stuck with it. We could not do that for him schedule-wise, so this is the best result."
Asked by SI if the external criticism of Johnson’s soccer work impacted his decision, Shanks said no, but added, "I am not going to lie and say we were unaware of it. We make decisions based on how we feel, and in this case, in consultation with Gus."
Shanks said he still wants Johnson to call some soccer matches and both would not eliminate the possibility of calling some 2018 World Cup games. But Johnson will not be Fox’s lead announcer for the 2018 World Cup, nor will he serve that role at the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
"To be quite frank with you, I was scared to death to do the Women’s World Cup," Johnson said. "Because I don’t know it. I don’t want to do my company a disservice, and more importantly, I don’t want to do the sport a disservice. I feel more comfortable with the men and learning the women felt like a new language. Down the road if I can get some rest and healing, I am not opposed to going back to do some soccer. Maybe not at the same pace as the No. 1 guy, but I’d love to be on the team."
Said Shanks: "All we said at the end of the conversation was he still wanted to do games and I still wanted him to do games. But we did not discuss which games those will be. I would like to see him in some capacity for 2018. But we have to figure what commitment we can make to him as far as getting him reps."
Had Johnson stayed on soccer, Shanks said Johnson would have called the opening match of the Women’s World Cup and not the 2015 Champions League Final given they are on the same day. (Nice going, FIFA.) Shanks said the search is now ongoing for the person who will be Fox’s No.1 broadcaster for the Women’s World Cup and 2018 World Cup. Shanks also said viewers should not assume that on-air talent for the 2015 Women’s World Cup -- which is currently being assembled -- will be the same as the 2018 World Cup.
The radical idea to have Johnson call the World Cup was hatched in October 2011, shortly after FIFA awarded the U.S. broadcast rights to Fox Sports for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. With an eye toward branding Fox’s soccer coverage as something original, Shanks reached out to Johnson, who had joined Fox only five months earlier, and asked him a question: Would you be willing to work for the next six years to become the American voice of soccer?
Johnson was stunned. But he was also interested.
The 47-year-old announcer then immersed himself in the sport. He called Champions League games, including the final, over the previous two years. He and friend Nick Bernstein (who played soccer at Dartmouth and served as Johnson's spotter) went to Europe for soccer excursions to educate Johnson on the sport. While he clearly improved from his initial foray into the sport, he faced severe criticism for his work given that he was being evaluated on the scale of seasoned soccer broadcasters such as Ian Darke and Jon Champion.
"I worked as hard as I could and I am proud of my work, especially the last Champions League final," Johnson said. "I know I did a good job."
More than anyone at Fox Sports, Shanks was responsible for Johnson becoming the face and voice of the network's soccer coverage. For some soccer viewers, that appointment made Shanks a bold visionary. For others, including many hardcore fans, Shanks was responsible for the sports broadcasting crime of the century. The long-term goal was for Johnson to call (and call with distinction) the signature games of the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada and the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
"Once he spent time in Europe and immersed himself in it, I saw his passion for the sport grow," Shanks said. "He is a pro and if we could give him what he needed with the reps and exposure and the right partners, there is no question Gus could have continued on the path to being the first of its kind American voice in soccer. Maybe I will take a couple of hits for it, but I never viewed it as an experiment. There is no greater believer in soccer and supporter of American soccer and MLS than me. All I want to do is make sure the next generation becomes bigger soccer fans and part of that is the ability for American experts to talk to American audiences."
Shanks said Fox has a relationship with the acclaimed British soccer broadcaster Martin Tyler, so look to see if that connection increases over the next year.
"I would not say we are running around here like the sky is falling and we need to fill this position tomorrow," Shanks said. "We believe Fox has some work to do and we will look at every possible candidate that is out there."
Johnson will continue his full set of college basketball and football games this fall and winter. He said he was not much interested in who would become Fox’s No. 1 for soccer, but called it a great job and said he would be happy for that person.
"I hope who they hire is someone who really wants to spend time over there [Europe and elsewhere] and makes us proud," Johnson said. "The job was the greatest experience of my professional life. Having the chance to travel the world and see things and countries I had never seen before, calling the biggest games in the world, two Champions League finals, it was something I will never forget. It was a wonderful experience and I cannot thank Fox enough.
"I’m a much better communicator because of this experience. I have more of a world view. I feel I’m able to better focus on the moments that mean the world to people because, I have seen more people in the world. It’s also another club in my bag. From now on, I can call soccer."