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Hefferon: Johnson takes talents to pitch (Feb. 13)

Jack Hefferon | Wednesday, February 13, 2013

“HA-ha!”

That’s just one of the many signature calls of Gus Johnson, a TV commentator who has become famous over his career for being one of the most exciting and excitable voices in sports.

However, it was also my reaction to the news that Johnson, who has called basketball and football almost exclusively in the past, is making the move to calling soccer, and being groomed by Fox to be the voice of the 2018 World Cup.

It’s not that I don’t love Gus. As part of CBS’s March Madness team from 1996 to 2011, Johnson always seemed to get more than his fair share of upsets, buzzer-beaters and craziness, and made the game all that much better with his screamed catchphrases and unabashed enthusiasm.

Even in the NFL games he called, the madness followed him around with so much regularity that sportswriter Bill Simmons suggested that Johnson himself was causing the games to become exciting, and not the other way around. And while the “Law of Gus” may still be a theory, it always holds in the never-ending games from those Buffalo Wild Wings commercials, which were smart enough to have Johnson as their fictional play-by-play man.

However, I’m highly skeptical that Johnson’s style will translate to the beautiful game. Part of the charm of soccer commentary is its almost poetic nature; analysts like Martin Tyler or Andy Gray might respond to a goal with a line like: “And with the scoreline elevated to three-nil, it’s clear which side is in the ascendency.”

In his excitement, Gus is usually content with yelling a couple simple phrases, and would probably just punctuate it with a “Wow! Rooney! Three-Zero! Woah!” (We’re usually discouraged from using exclamation points in The Observer, but writing about Johnson pretty much demands it.)

Johnson was perfect in calling college basketball, a sport where, by rule, something definitive happens every 35 seconds. Football was a bit more of a stretch on his style, but futbol, where back passes and inconsequential build-up account for roughly 85 of the 90 minutes, could tear it totally apart.

That’s not a knock on the action in soccer, as dedicated fans are able to see the ebb and flow of momentum and territorial gains, and the best analysts have the flow to give the game a rhythm like the tide. With Gus, it’s nothing but whitewater rapids.

That’s not to say he has no shot. Johnson is a professional, and has five full years to hone his craft before potentially being thrust onto the world stage. He started calling Major League Soccer games over the summer, and his test run will begin in earnest this afternoon, when he’ll call the Champions League match between Real Madrid and Manchester United for Fox Soccer.

If he can successfully make the transition, Johnson could be another big gain for soccer in the United States, a familiar voice and distinctly American style making the game more accessible for the casual fan. His enthusiasm could help liven up a broadcast, and who knows, maybe the “Law of Gus” can turn some scoreless draws into 6-4 slugfests, too.

I think his style will need plenty of renovation, and we’ll begin to see if a successful crossover is even possible starting at 2 p.m. this afternoon.

But if Gus can pull it off? Well, he’ll definitely have earned that last laugh.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.