How All 83 Matches of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Are Being Live-Streamed to ESPN+
Partnering with Vista Worldlink, U.S. Soccer, and SUM, MLS uses at-home workflow to deliver matches from multiple venues
Founded in 1913, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is the second-oldest continuously operating soccer tournament in the world. It’s a competition unlike anything seen elsewhere in U.S. sports: clubs ranging from the highest professional ranks of Major League Soccer to small-town amateur clubs compete for the same trophy.
Even with more than a century’s worth of history of triumphs and upsets, this year’s edition of the U.S. Open Cup is going places the tournament has never gone before. Through a partnership with ESPN and its direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service, ESPN+, U.S. Soccer, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), and Major League Soccer are broadcasting the tournament in its entirety for the first time: a whopping 83 matches over eight rounds.
Now a tournament that soccer fans previously had to follow on blogs is available in full live streaming. In the past, even if a game were produced and distributed, it might be done by an amateur with a single camera and no graphics or announcers. Through this deal, however, every single match is being given consistent, professional treatment, regardless of the clubs and regardless of the venue.
Needless to say, this is a tall order to produce.
“This is a huge undertaking for everyone to finally get this to be seen,” says Larry Tiscornia, VP, broadcasting, Major League Soccer. “So far, it has been a huge success. Being broadcast on ESPN+ brings huge credibility to the tournament, to the clubs taking part in it. This is a historic event, so to finally get the entire tournament on ESPN+ has been huge for everyone involved.”
Eighty-three soccer matches may not seem like much, but, given the context, the production of this tournament is an operational triumph. The first three rounds of the U.S. Open Cup are largely made up of amateur clubs playing each other to earn their way into the third or fourth rounds, where USL and MLS clubs start to work their way into the competition schedule. In fact, of the 83 matches in the tournament, 53 are played in the first three rounds over just five game nights at soccer fields that were not exactly built with live broadcasting in mind.
With so many matches to produce (as many as 10-15 matches per night with sometimes seven-10 of them happening concurrently), it was going to take something unique to pull the project off. That’s where Vista Worldlink came in. The production and transmission packager’s impressive facility in Fort Lauderdale, FL, is one of the nation’s leading homes for at-home (or REMI) production.
“We needed a plan that was next-generation,” says Josh Liemer, president, Vista Worldlink. “It needed to be agile, flexible, and innovative. U.S. Soccer, Major League Soccer, and ESPN wanted a high-quality product, standardization across the board regardless of size of the clubs that were playing. So we decided a centralized broadcast workflow was needed.”
The tournament’s first three rounds, which were held back in May, were where this at-home model and the operational and logistical capabilities of Vista Worldlink really shined. Each match was a three-camera show, occurring in venues with little or no broadcast infrastructure. Amateur matches from sites like Montclair State University in New Jersey, Des Moines Christian School in Iowa, and Orange County Great Park in California. Nice facilities in their own right but not designed for broadcast.
Depending on the venue, a live production meant having to bring in everything from scissor lifts to platforms for cameras, to power generators, and more. If the facility had internet connectivity onsite (a rarity), Vista would use its Portable Broadcast Unit (PBU), which allows it to rather easily leverage ISP connectivity and infrastructure to backhaul the video and audio feeds through a private network to the facility in Florida. If there was no internet, a satellite uplink truck would need to be rolled in to deliver muxed feeds.
“Being able to package the production workflow, the transmission, the logistical management, the digital archiving, the internet broadcasting all under one roof is what our mission statement is today,” says Liemer, whose company also supports the full at-home production workflows for the regular seasons of the USL and the National Women’s Soccer League. “The ability to leverage satellite connectivity and IP technology and blend those all together to efficiently backhaul a significant amount of video signals at one time is what allows Vista to be successful and the U.S. Open Cup to be successful.”
As the competition moves into the quarterfinals this week, only eight teams remain, and, with more room to rededicate resources, these matches, while still at-home productions, will feature as many as eight-10 cameras per match. It all builds to the semifinals and final, for which the production will move more of its sources onsite and the matches will be produced using traditional truck methods.
Back home in Fort Lauderdale, Vista Worldlink’s facility boasts 14 fully operational control rooms (and corresponding audio booths) built to support at-home productions just like these. Much of the project is overseen by Vista Executive Producer Mike Freedman, who is serving as director of production on this project. On some of the very busiest nights in the early rounds, he coordinates as many as 100 people, from those working a game (producers, directors, replay operators, graphics operators, audio engineers, and on-air announcers) to those supporting the operation’s infrastructure itself (satellite and transmission coordinators, engineers, and technicians).
“What Vista is doing to put this on is really amazing,” says Tiscornia. “They are beyond maxed out, and it’s incredible. There were very minimal issues, if any. It was great.”