The radical idea was hatched in October 2011, shortly after FIFA awarded the U.S. broadcast rights to Fox Sports for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Fox Sports president Eric Shanks wanted to do something bold with his soccer coverage. Most importantly, he wanted to brand it with something unique to Fox. So he called up broadcaster Gus 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.
Fourteen months later, after an immersion in the sport that has included calling a dozen games on the radio for the San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS and a series of practice soccer broadcasts from Fox studios across the country, Johnson begins the long road to becoming the voice of the 2018 World Cup for Fox.
The 45-year-old broadcaster will call his first match for Fox Soccer on Feb. 13 (2 p.m. ET) from Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabéu when Real Madrid faces Manchester United in a mouthwatering Champions League Round of 16 match. The assignment is the first in a series of high-profile soccer matches for Johnson, including a second Champions League match between Arsenal and Bayern Munich in London on Feb. 19 and a Premier League game between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on Feb. 24. Johnson will call additional Premier League and Champions League matches and is scheduled to call the FA Cup final on Fox on May 11 and the Champions League final on Fox on May 25. Johnson will be on site for each of the games.
"This is not something that is temporary," Shanks said. "This is something we are going to work at. It isn't an Olympic assignment where he does the luge for two weeks and then we don't hear from that announcer for the next four years. This is something we are serious about and something we will continue to work at. Based on the radio games and the practice games Gus has done, I think this is going to work."
Both Shanks and Johnson emphasized repeatedly in interviews this week with SI.com that Johnson as a soccer announcer is a long-term work in progress. If all goes well, Johnson will be Fox's lead announcer for the 2015 Women's World Cup as well as its lead voice for the 2018 World Cup. Asked where he was in his soccer education, Johnson used the word "novice." Why novice? "Because it's a lot of information," Johnson said Monday at a patisserie near his home in New York City.
"For example, calling the Champions League, there are teams from all over Europe, whether La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 in France, the Turkish Leagues. So I'm learning everything on Galatasaray, on Bayern Munich, [Borussia] Dortmund, PSG and Ajax etc. ... There are so many different leagues and players from all over the world. The key for me is to try to take it -- and I don't mean to sound cliché -- but literally one match at a time. Learn everything I can about that one match and the two sides that are playing and go with it from there and allow my knowledge to grow."
Asked directly whether he was interested in being Fox's lead voice for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Johnson said, "I don't know. That's too big right now for me, too big to think about and digest. I am interested in getting a little better every day. I want to learn this game. I am humbled by this game and their fans, and I am a little intimidated by the travel. I'll be in multiple countries and I don't speak a second language so I am going to have to become comfortable being an international traveler. But I am excited about it."
The preparation began last fall. After introductions were made through a friend who did business with the Earthquakes ownership, Johnson called 12 MLS games on the radio. "It was tough but educational," Johnson said. Last March he and friend Nick Bernstein (who played soccer at Dartmouth and serves as Johnson's spotter) went to Europe for a three-week soccer excursion, visiting the San Siro to see Barcelona play AC Milan as well as taking in a number of EPL clubs including Chelsea and West Ham. During that trip, Johnson met with the famed soccer announcer Martin Tyler at Sky Sports offices in London.
"Martin gave me some great things to look for because it's a different scenario calling soccer games there [in Europe] than football here," Johnson said. "I'm in a booth at every stadium in America. In Europe, I am out on a gantry [a mount for a crane]. So you are out in the elements, it's cold, and if you have to fight for your position to get a good bird's eye view on what's going on the pitch. You have to do your best to ID players."
Before his discussions with Shanks about the possibility of calling world soccer, Johnson admits he had little exposure to the sport. He played baseball, basketball and football in high school in Detroit and his broadcasting career has involved those sports along with MMA. Johnson says he has been playing pickup soccer since last summer on the West Side of Manhattan to "feel and learn the game." He said he's been playing right-center back "because I'm not in shape to be a midfielder."
Given Johnson's broadcasting inexperience for a sport with a rabid, intelligent fan base that demands expertise in the booth, Fox Sports knows it will get skepticism (if not serious criticism) for the move.
"Look, of course, we are concerned," Shanks said. "But we would not be doing this if we did not think that Gus was putting the time, effort and energy into doing a broadcast that appeals to the people listening to Martin Tyler and Ian Darke. We will work to be as good as those guys but by no means does Gus think he is Martin Tyler or Ian Darke at this point. He will continue to get better and he will make sure he's telling the true story of a match as it happens, and telling it with Gus's voice, which a lot of people love. By no means is this meant to be a sideshow."
"I live in New York City, so I have been criticized by the best" Johnson said, laughing. "It doesn't bother me at all. Hopefully over time, I'll do a good job and they will see it another way. It is something that is going to be challenging, something that is going to stretch me."
Shanks said he and Fox Sports executives will search globally to staff up the 2015 Women's World Cup and 2018 World Cup, so expect some veteran soccer announcers to join Johnson at some point. Johnson will have different analysts for each of his initial matches this month, including Fox Soccer analyst Warren Barton (Real Madrid-Manchester United), former England goalkeeper coach Ray Clemence (Arsenal-Bayern Munich) and former Arsenal right back Lee Dixon (ManchesterCity-Chelsea). Johnson will not have a permanent analyst for some time.
"The only thing I am worried about is Feb. 13," Johnson said. "It's nice of Eric to say that about the World Cup. He is my boss. But I am not thinking about anything more than Feb. 13. I want to make sure that when Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Pepe step in the pitch against Sir Alex Ferguson and Patrice Evra, Antonio Valencia, Nani and Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, I am prepared, confident and comfortable. I think the rest will take care of itself."
Asked what message he wanted to pass along for soccer fans prior to his initial broadcast, Johnson thought about his answer for a good 30 seconds. Finally, he said, "What would I say to them? I would probably say just give me a minute and I'm going to become a convert, and once I do, I am going to give you the passion and the commitment to your sport that I do for every other sport that I'm part of. I see this as a great opportunity for my life, and I'm down with it and I want to get in there."