MLS All-Star 2023: MLS, Apple Recognize League’s Best With Heightened Production Value at Audi Field
Streamer’s inaugural season hits the halfway mark in Washington, D.C.
The 2023 Major League Soccer All-Star Game (8 p.m. ET on MLS Season Pass) heads to the nation’s capital to pit the league’s best athletes against one of the best sides in the English Premier League, Arsenal. Hosted at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., this midseason celebration will also be the first under the production of Apple. From MLS’s perspective, the five-month-old partnership has birthed the implementation of fresh technologies, including a Spidercam, a RF Steadicam, wearable cameras, and the reliance of a connected-production ecosystem.
“Apple has been a terrific partner throughout our production planning process – all season long, not just during the leadup to the All-Star Game,” says Seth Bacon, EVP, media, MLS. “We have great collaboration between our production, operations, and engineering teams to ensure that all aspects of our plan are accounted for and ready to deliver our events to a global audience at a high quality.”
Tech Highlights: 20 Cameras, Including SkyCam, Cover Audi Field
For Tuesday night’s MLS Skills Challenge, the production team needed to capture six different events: Shooting, Touch, Cross & Volley, Passing, Crossbar, and Goalie Wars. With the frenetic pace of each event, Apple and MLS covered the entire playing field at multiple angles. To accomplish this, a total of 16 cameras were placed on and above the playing surface. The most notable being an aerial Spidercam, a Steadicam at pitch level, and multiple super slow-motion cameras. For Wednesday night’s exhibition, the camera compliment will reach 20 cameras with the addition of POVs and a wearable referee camera sponsored by A&T and powered by Mindfly. This same device was worn by players during Tuesday’s Skills Challenge.
On the audio side, the Skills Challenge allowed the league to get creative with how fans understand a player’s point of view. This required the use of IFB communication between the booth and the participating player. For instance, during the Cross & Volley Challenge, D.C. United Goalkeeper Tyler Miller was interviewed by Jake Zivin, Kaylyn Kyle, and Taylor Twellman throughout his turn in the competition:
Nothing easy about stopping shots from Flo Balogun, especially when you’re mic’d up. 🤣
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 19, 2023
Jillian Sakovits joined the trio from the sidelines. Tony Cherchi, Jorge Perez-Navarro, Marcelo Balboa, and Rodolfo Landeros were on the call in Spanish with and Frederic Lord and Vincent Destouches were on the call in French.
On the operations side, the onsite crew is working with 300 credentialed personnel. In the compound, both productions are being done with mobile units from NEP Group. Opting for a model that services coverage in multiple languages, two of the mobile-unit providers’ main trucks are on hand in Washington, D.C. NEP’s Supershooter 9 is handling English-language for both nights as Spanish-language is being done from NEP’s Supershooter 5.
To distribute the game domestically and globally, NEP is supplying seven separate onsite feeds with up to 16 channels of audio to the Apple Live Operations Center (ALOC) at the NEP Production Center in Los Angeles. Some feeds will also need to be sent to NEP’s VISTA Worldlink centralized-production facility in South Florida. In addition to English-language and Spanish-langue coverage, the MLS All-Star Game will be presented in French as well. This production wrinkle requires a tight-rope, balancing act.
“One of the unique aspects of producing live matches for MLS Season Pass is the number of feeds we need to create for each match to service our various stakeholders and distribution regions,” adds Bacon. “With each requiring a sponsored and unsponsored version depending on where the feed is distributed, this requires a significant amount of coordination between the production truck on site, our data center in Dallas, and Apple’s master control center in Los Angeles.”
A Gradual Lead Up: First Half of Productions Leads to Midseason Exhibition
Prior to the All-Star break, MLS and Apple were refining their production philosophy heading into their inaugural season together. Supplying a platform for everyone to take in the U.S.’s top flight, it was critical to not only create a plan for appealing live broadcasts but also team-curated and non-live content to keep supporters engaged with MLS Season Pass.
Right off the bat, the pairing enjoyed a handful of storylines on Matchday 1, including St. Louis City SC playing their first-ever match against Austin FC on Saturday, Feb. 25. The club would eventually play for the first time in front of their home supporters at CityPark against Charlotte FC on Saturday, March 4. As the season progressed, the partnership saw other notable highlights: another edition of El Tráfico between LA Galaxy and LAFC was played at the iconic Rose Bowl on July 4, FC Cincinnati is in first place in the Eastern Conference after finishing in last place in three of their first four seasons in MLS, and St. Louis City SC currently sit at the top of the Western Conference. Overall, the introduction of this new streaming deal along with flourishing play on the field has turned into a prosperous combination.
“At the start of the season, we met with Apple and agreed that one of our biggest priorities in 2023 would be to deliver a premium production with exceptional video and audio quality, an elevated graphics package, and world class talent,” continues Bacon. “We believe we have delivered that through the first half of the season and have many elements on our roadmap to continue to improve our offering to fans as the season progresses.”
A Busy Week: Crew Balances Festivities in D.C. With Messi Unveiling, Upcoming Leagues Cup
American soccer fans have their eyes set on Wednesday night’s match, but throughout the past week, MLS has been bombarded by positive news. On the club side, Inter Miami signed the most coveted player that the game has ever seen, Lionel Messi, to a contract that runs through the 2025 season. The fanfare surrounding the signing has captured the sport, and the tandem of MLS and Apple poured a good chunk of studio programming to his unveiling at a rainy DRV PNK Stadium on Sunday, July 16. This included a dedicated Skycam feed providing aerial views of the moment as well as two varieties of studio coverage: one in English with Kyle and analysts Sacha Kljestan, Stefano Fusaro, and Twellman and one in Spanish with host Andrés Agulla and analysts Diego Valeri, Eduardo Biscayart, and Antonella Gonzalez.
On a continental level, all 29 MLS clubs are about to embark on this year’s edition of the Leagues Cup with the first matches on Saturday, July 21. Teaming with 18 sides from Liga MX to form a 47-team, World Cup-style tournament, the league is ramping up to produce a total of 77 matches in a 29-day stretch with the final on Saturday, Aug. 19. Production firepower will be deployed for these matches, especially for matches featuring the Messi-led Inter Miami on July 21 vs. Cruz Azul and Tuesday, July 25 vs. Atlanta United. These broadcasts will include 18 cameras, a Steadicam, four super slow-motion cameras, a Skycam, and a drone. In the lead up to Messi’s first matches with his new club, Apple also jam-packed MLS Season Pass with live programming of the Argentine’s training sessions. Starting at 8:45 a.m. ET on Tuesday, two one-hour shows were onsite with Devon Kerr and Fusaro presenting in English and Mark Gonzalez, Antonella Gonzalez, and Biscayart presenting in Spanish.
From a planning perspective, this entire week has come with challenges that were solved through internal coordination. With many variables in play and a ton of programming being bounced around from different venues, these efforts are a massive lift. From a marketing perspective, Messi’s star power is a catalyst to making the league an even better product.
“The arrival of the world’s best player to MLS is an indication of the growth the league is experiencing,” says Bacon. “We are excited to bring those matches to fans around the world and have built a production plan to showcase these events.”
A Significant Benchmark: Apple’s First MLS All-Star Game Proves Pivotal in Decade-Long Deal
Since its inception in 1993, MLS has continued to gain more and more momentum. Hitting a new meteoric rise, gaining a partner like Apple is the start of the league’s next chapter. For the next 10 years, Apple will be the main deliverer of the game to fans around the globe, and to get off on the right foot, producing a tentpole event like the All-Star Game is paramount to a fruitful working relationship.
“The All-Star Game is always an important moment for the league, but we are excited about the unique opportunity we have to deliver one of our biggest showcase events exclusively on MLS Season Pass,” concludes Bacon. “We have an outstanding production and programming plan in place and a great team ready to execute that plan.”
SVG’s Ken Kerschbaumer contributed to this article.