As MLS Kicks Off Its 23rd Season, the League Remains a Breeding Ground for At-Home Production Innovation
ESPN, Fox Sports, Univision will deploy at-home model
Entering its 23rd season, Major League Soccer stock is up. The league is welcoming another glitzy new franchise in Los Angeles and striding in off a 2017 campaign that delivered a 4% increase in broadcast-television ratings at a time when many U.S. sports leagues are happy simply treading water.
In 2018, MLS’s national broadcast partners ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision will look to continue to innovate production as the beautiful game grows its roots domestically. Most notably, MLS matches have become a hotbed for progress in at-home production: the concept of forgoing a full-fledged remote-production truck and instead sending camera and audio feeds directly to a centralized control room, minimizing the need for equipment and personnel at the stadium.
All three broadcasters have at-home models in place and will use them aggressively this season. According to sources at each of the networks, ESPN will produce more than half, Fox about 60%, and Univision all of its matches using a form of this approach.
Here’s a look at how all three U.S. domestic rightsholders plan to approach the 2018 MLS campaign.
Perhaps the most aggressively innovative of all of MLS’s U.S. broadcast partners is its Spanish-language domestic partner, Univision. The network opens its season on Saturday evening when Houston Dynamo hosts Atlanta United (3:30 p.m. ET).
Univision has been a pioneer in the at-home production model in its work with MLS and this year, again, will produce 100% of its match coverage using this method. With a small mobile unit onsite (provided by NEP), the network is able to shoot camera and audio feeds to its sparkling new facilities in Miami, where the final show is produced and distributed.
Of the average 12 cameras that Univision deploys on an MLS match, the highlight may be its Antelope Pico camera, a robotic unit that provides unique views in high resolution and super-slow motion.
New this season to Univision’s coverage will be a fresh graphics package and further use of the network’s “teleport” concept for in-studio shows. The technology allows players, coaches, and other personalities to essentially be teleported into the studio in the form of a hologram and interact with the host. The network plans to use the tech during its first match on Saturday during prematch show La Barra MLS.
“We believe our production standards are among the highest in the industry for MLS games,” says Miguel Angel Garcia, SVP, live event, Univision Deportes. “We are proud of the technology and innovation in terms of coverage that we’re able to deliver fans. It’s easy to do when we work with a progressive league like MLS that is always willing to take risks and innovate with us.”
Having been with the league since its very beginning in 1996, ESPN gets a sexy opening to its MLS schedule, with Western Conference Champion Seattle Sounders FC hosting the new LAFC in its first professional soccer match (Sunday, 5 p.m.).
The broadcaster plans to deploy a minimum of 14 cameras (seven manned, seven unmanned) on each of its “game of the week” matches. ESPN has been aggressive over the years in bringing in specialty cameras like jibs, Steadicams, super-slo-mos, and its unique Goal Post Cams that give its match productions a special look and feel.
In its at-home productions, ESPN will have key positions — producer, director, technical director, graphics, tape operators — at a control room in Bristol, CT, cutting and calling the show. Each game has four dedicated Evertz DreamCatchers, and each camera at the venue is given a unique fiber path from the stadium to Bristol. To help minimize transmission time and create fewer inputs for tape operators at home, a small van is deployed outside the stadium where POV and robotic cameras are switched before delivery.
The workflow naturally saves money on travel and equipment rental, but it also helps the network leverage its best soccer production and operations talent, who are in short supply in the U.S.
“In soccer, the number of highly skilled camera, tape, audio, and video people who are consistently available and understand how to cover the sport is an extremely small number,” says ESPN MLS producer Chris Alexopoulos. “It is a priority for us to maintain that crew, so ESPN travels at least 10 technicians to every show, whether it is a[n at-home] broadcast or not.
“Most of these people,” he continues, “have worked on soccer as a majority of their work for over a decade. It manifests itself in subtle ways, but the viewer benefits: getting a definitive angle on a controversial play, having the right framing on a goal (which allows the color commentator to better explain why that play happened), or being able to pinpoint and hear what one player is yelling on the field. There are many small moments like those, which we’re able to capture due to their work.”
ESPN has on-air talent at all of its MLS matches, and, for those matches that do receive a traditional onsite production complement, F&F Productions provides the mobile units.
FS1 gets a fairly attractive start to its season, with a few marquee franchises on the opening-weekend schedule. A doubleheader features Sporting Kansas City vs. New York City FC and LA Galaxy vs. Portland Timbers beginning at 7:30 p.m.
MLS broadcasts on Fox Sports and FS1 average around 10 cameras; the network notes that it will be more aggressively deploying its MōVI Steadicam, which has become a popular fixture at major events like the MLB All-Star Game.
For its at-home productions, Fox use Lawo transmission technology to send all camera and audio feeds to the Fox Sports facility in Charlotte, NC, where the final show is produced before being transmitted to Fox Sports in Los Angeles for national distribution.
As with ESPN, on-air talent will be live at the venue for all MLS matches regardless of the production model. For its traditional shows, Fox Sports relies on Game Creek Video as its mobile-production provider. Game Creek is working with Fox to build a custom mobile unit designed specifically for the broadcaster’s at-home MLS productions.
According a source at Fox Sports, the network’s lead MLS producer Shaw Brown and lead MLS director Wayne Wilson maintain the same production philosophy they’ve had the past few seasons: innovation is deployed only for action that’s happening on the pitch.
On an alternating schedule with ESPN, Fox Sports will carry the 2018 MLS Cup in December.
Jason Dachman contributed to this report.