From Messi to All-Star to Leagues Cup, NEP Group Navigates Unprecedented Run of Live MLS Productions

All-Star event, giant tournament, arrival of Lionel Messi complicate normally busy schedule

The month of July has been, without question, the most groundbreaking period in the history of Major League Soccer. Between the arrival of the greatest player of all time, one of its annual crown-jewel events, and the start of the largest U.S.-Mexico club tournament in history, the league is hurtling toward a new level of relevance. And the cavalcade of historic moments is being brought to fans live via Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass courtesy of NEP Group’s comprehensive offering of broadcast services.

Coverage of Leagues Cup tournament deploys separate resources for English broadcast and Spanish broadcast. Some resources are shared, but each production has separate sets and talent.

Although MLS, Apple, IMG, and NEP knew the second half of July would be busy, given the MLS All-Star Week and start of the Leagues Cup with undefined locations for some of its knockout rounds, the arrival of Lionel Messi at Inter Miami CF took things into a whole other stratosphere.

“The culmination of these high-profile and complex shows creates all sorts of technological factors, but it’s also a great example of the team’s preparation meeting opportunity,” says Jeff Jacobs, SVP, production, NEP U.S. Broadcast Services. “Together, we’ve developed a series of sophisticated workflows capable of expanding and contracting to fit the production’s needs. 

“MLS is quite the league and not afraid to think differently or call an audible if the need arises. IMG really has their finger on the pulse of soccer and studio production, and our friends at Apple TV are super smart and constantly concerning themselves with the consumer’s experience and how as partners we can elevate that together. It’s an honor to be a part of this,” says Jacobs.

NEP Operations Team Spans Coast to Coast – and Beyond

Throughout the inaugural year of MLS Season Pass, NEP Group has overseen all broadcast services and provided all mobile units, technical crews, and operations; remote and centralized production support; commercial integrations, studio facilities in NYC; and infrastructure and systems management. IMG, meanwhile, is handling all live match and studio-show production and oversees editorial tone, look, and feel; production enhancements; producer/director staffing; and talent logistics.

From left: IMG Coordinating Producer John McGuinness; MLS EVP, Media, Seth Bacon; NEP Broadcast Services SVP, Production, Jeff Jacobs

A typical week of MLS production is plenty busy, with NEP and IMG producing six studio shows out of its NYC studios including its 6-hour long whip-around show, MLS 360, and 14 matches out of onsite mobile units every Saturday and some Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Although MLS NEXT events are produced onsite, MLS NEXT Pro events are captured onsite, backhauled to one of NEP’s connected facilities, where graphics are integrated, announcers call the events off monitors and/or via remote announce kits, and the broadcast is assembled and encoded for distribution.

All matches are produced in 1080p for MLS Season Pass on Apple TV and between Domestic, World, Canadian, English, Spanish, French feeds and more, there are over 100 video and audio channels leaving the venues, totaling over a thousand per match day. Highlight clips produced from remote EVS servers direct to VOD are fully managed on MediaBank, NEP’s media-asset–management solution, and amount to thousands per night. Also, NEP works with MLS Broadcasting in producing broadcasts as a third-party producer for MLS linear partners, such as Fox and Univision.

On July 18-19, the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge and MLS All-Star Game represented two of the biggest MLS productions of the year. In addition, the VISTA team was onsite and fully packaged the broadcast of the MLS Next Pro All-Star Game live from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, the morning of the MLS All-Star Game.

That was followed by the July 21 start of Leagues Cup, which features five games per night five nights a week during group play and 77 total matches in the U.S. and Canada over four weeksWhen the knockout round begins, all venues are TBD depending on the results.

The NEP Production ecosystem spans six states and multiple continents: studios in Manhattan; engineering in Pittsburgh; media management in Washington, DC; production and distribution at VISTA in South Florida; the company’s datacenter in Dallas; operations in Los Angeles; and some systems architecture in the Netherlands. NEP connects the dots at its centralized production data center which feeds the transmission, and commercial control operation is located at NEP’s Van Nuys Production Center.

The NEP MLS operations and engineering team, overseen by Director, Engineering, Nicholas Romano and Director, Remote Operations, George Williams, not only books 15 tech managers and 600 crew members each week but ships EVS replay systems, ingest servers, POVs, Vizrt graphics engines, and more. Steve Grigely and Steven Thorpe helped develop and manage the NEP datacenter and network operations center in Dallas and the Live Operations center in Los Angeles, with both serving as the nerve center when MLS Season pass is on the air. Jay Deutch works with the MLS Content Team utilizing NEP’s Mediabank solution for media and asset management. Executive Producer Mike Freedman runs the production at the VISTA HUB, including all MLS NEXT and MLS NEXT Pro broadcasts.

“The NEP team is special,” says VISTA Worldlink President Joshua Liemer. “We have the best engineers, project coordinators, and broadcast experts who manage the logistics and operations of these events with focus, diligence, and professionalism. Our team is an extension of MLS, supporting the league at every turn, navigating challenges, and delivering solutions. To say we are proud of what we are doing is an understatement. The team we have assembled is world-class, and we are proud of the partnership with MLS and its various partners that have worked hand in hand with NEP to deliver for soccer fans around the world.”

The Messi Effect: Everything Is Bigger When It’s Messi

Messi’s first MLS game, on July 21 in Miami, proved to be a seminal moment in the history of MLS soccer, but it was just one in a week of Messi-focused live productions. Besides the games, NEP provided facilities for the Messi Unveiling Ceremony on July 16, and live coverage of Inter Miami practices throughout the week leading up to Messi’s debut.

NEP’s Jeff Jacobs (seated, left) and Josh Liemer (standing) with MLS’s Seth Bacon (seated, right) in NEP mobile unit at Tuesday night’s Leagues Cup match

NEP has had mobile units including Supershooter 4, Supershooter 7 and Supershooter 1 on hand in Miami through it all, producing 1080p shows including the Messi Unveiling Special and live “First Practice Special”. VISTA, a longtime MLS partner now fully integrated into NEP Broadcast Services, provided onsite resources from its South Florida headquarters to help the enhanced coverage of the Messi launch. Meanwhile, aside from regular season distribution, VISTA manages and coordinates all of the League’s Cup transmission for both contribution and distribution for all 77 tournament matches. Inter Miami matches are produced in English and Spanish using separate mobile units or control rooms for the separate productions — each mixing their own talent and adding their own language graphics.

“The MLS and VISTA multi-decade partnership has witnessed incredible moments and historic growth of the sport in this country over the years,” says Liemer. “VISTA was front and center when David Beckham joined the league in 2007, which changed the trajectory of MLS. To be part of MLS’s welcoming Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player in the sport, is incredibly rewarding; our strategic partnership with MLS is something we are very proud of and honor deeply.”

The remaining Miami games, featuring Messi — plus possible Leagues Cup knockout rounds and MLS postseason games — feature various production enhancements, including additional cameras, super-slo-mos, RF equipment (Steadicam, handhelds, reporter kits), and a Skycam system.

On top of that, 60-minute English and Spanish pregame studio shows have been produced onsite. Unilateral production teams, both behind and in front of the camera, have been onsite for all Messi games in both English and Spanish. Tech for both English and Spanish preshows includes multiple handhelds, Jimmy jibs, wireless roving talent, and use of Steadicam and RF cameras supplied by AVS, an NEP specialty capture division.

“With Messi arriving,” says Jacobs, “we’ve reevaluated what we are doing, and taking the opportunity to build an even better workflow. We have new efficiencies as well as the latest gear and creative tools. It’s almost like we pressed CTL-ALT-DEL and rebooted our operation as MLS version 2.0. We’ve now restarted bigger and bolder than we had any idea we were capable of.  Luckily, we’ve got an incredible staff of technology, operations and logistics professionals stepping up and pulling it off.”

With Messi set to play next on Aug. 2, things will only get more complex as the Leagues Cup moves into the knockout rounds.

“When the knockout round starts,” says Jacobs, “we won’t be sure of where the games will be until a couple days prior. Unlike [with the NCAA] Final Four or Sweet 16 or even the NBA Conference Finals, we have some but not exactly an idea where we’ll need to be ahead of time; it’s one giant algorithm of dates and locations based on points and rankings.”

Looking Ahead: NEP Third-Party Production Services Continue To Grow

Over the past two years, NEP has invested heavily in R&D and expanded its global production ecosystem to provide more-robust third-party solutions to leagues and broadcasters. Many of these partnerships were struck in 2022 and are coming to life in 2023, starting with the launch of the new MLS Season Pass platform.

Third-party production-services agreements include deals with the PGA TOUR, NASCAR, Swedish Ice Hockey, World Rally Championship, and the new Dyn Media Sport offering in Germany with others in development.

Jacobs attributes much of NEP’s initial success in third-party and centralized production services to senior leaders like NEP Broadcast Services Global President Mike Werteen and U.S. Broadcast Services President Howie Rosenthal and what he calls their “That’s great, can we do it even better” attitude.

“Mike and Howie aren’t looking for business as usual.  This is not just about NEP renting mobile units and gear to a network” says Jacobs. “This is about NEP providing a comprehensive slate of production services to top-tier leagues in MLS and platforms in Apple TV. With VISTA in South Florida as the wind in its sails, the NEP Production team is growing and will be providing third-party and centralized production services for many others in the future. The team’s work over these past few weeks and in the coming months is a testament to what is possible for NEP’s growth.”

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