MLS Cup Final 2023: League, Apple, NEP Group Partnership To Produce First Championship Match on MLS Season Pass
The companies will also provide linear coverage on Fox Sports, Fox Deportes in the U.S.
After a highly entertaining eight months of Major League Soccer on Apple TV featuring more than 1,000 matches, the digital platform’s inaugural regular season will conclude with the MLS Cup Final on Saturday, Dec. 9, with one of the original clubs, the Columbus Crew, vs. the third-newest team in the Western Conference, Los Angeles FC (LAFC). The three-pronged partnership of MLS, Apple, and NEP Group will elevate the production quality of the league’s biggest event and cap off an exciting first year of MLS Season Pass.
“This is the most complex workflow in the world right now, and we’re delivering an exponential amount of video [because of it],” says Seth Bacon, EVP, media, Major League Soccer. “It’s controlled chaos, but there’s something nice about being able to have a week to plan for an event like the MLS Cup Final.”
75+ Deliverables, 20+ Cams in 1080p: Connected-Production Ecosystem Is Put to the Test
For the marquee MLS event, the production and operations teams are deploying their tech arsenal as well as their connected-production ecosystem. The match will include more than 20 cameras to capture every angle of the action, but the most impressive aspect of the MLS Cup Final is the multi-layered production workflow that debuted at the start of the 2023 regular season. Based at NEP’s data center in Dallas before being dispersed to other locations — VISTA Worldlink’s South Florida-based facility, NEP’s Mediabank MAM operations in Washington, DC, the Apple Live Operations Center (ALOC) in NEP’s Production Center in Los Angeles, the MLS Season Pass studios in New York City — the workflow is firing on all cylinders to handle the multiple responsibilities of distributing the match to the masses.
“The platform offers many deliverables for this one event,” says Joshua Liemer, president, VISTA Worldlink. “That’s the secret sauce to what MLS has been delivering this year. Early on in this journey, we set out to build this ecosystem, but what has impressed me the most is that [the final will] be delivered in a variety of languages and graphics packages.”
In addition to MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, the crew will be sending feeds to numerous linear platforms: domestic broadcasters Fox Sports in English and Fox Deportes in Spanish, Canadian broadcasters TSN in English, RDS in French. With all the video signals in 1080p, any match day can be quite daunting, but, with the ecosystem in place, the operation can move forward with minimal hiccups.
“The ecosystem is what has been able to connect all these dots,” adds Liemer. “We always say it takes a village, but, in this instance, it takes the ecosystem to bring it all together.”
Operations in Ohio: Logistical Challenges Resolved With Columbus–Cincinnati Semifinal
Although the ecosystem served as the main artery for distribution during the regular season and broadcasts of Leagues Cup, the production strategy will be used in a support role for Saturday’s game. Opting for an onsite production to crown this year’s champion, the team will be working out of three trucks (one for English-language team Jake Zivin, Taylor Twellman, and Katie Witham on Apple, one for Spanish-language team Sammy Sadovnik, Eduardo Biscayart, and Antonella Gonzalez on Apple, one for the linear outlets). Two of the trucks are from NEP Group: Supershooter 7 and Supershooter 29.
Logistically, a prior result — Columbus Crew’s dramatic 3-2 victory over FC Cincinnati in a postseason edition of the Hell Is Real derby — helped solidify operations plans for the last match of the year. Because of playoff seedings, the winner of the Eastern Conference Final would dictate where the championship would be held. At slightly more than 100 miles from the teams’ respective venues, Lower.com Field in Columbus, OH, was the best possible outcome for the drivers of NEP mobile units and the onsite technical staff.
“It was a dream scenario because were able to lock in the exact crewing that we wanted and needed,” says Liemer. “We’ve been able to prepare to produce from this venue for a good amount of time.”
In addition to preparing for the 2023 final, the team has become familiar with the stadium that will host the 2024 MLS All-Star Game on July 17, 2024. To make things easier for next summer’s broadcast, two-year-old Lower.com Field is the third-youngest stadium in the league. With a recently opened venue comes an updated tech infrastructure, which is very much welcomed for a production emphasizing connectivity.
“The new MLS stadiums being built are the most technologically advanced from both a fan experience and a production standpoint,” says Bacon. “We have very strict standards that we put on our clubs in regard to camera locations, connectivity, and fibering. It was helpful to know that Ohio was going to be our destination, but, when you go through a season with 77 Leagues Cup matches in 34 days, you become pretty good at being nimble and reacting quickly to deploy a full-scale production.”
This special relationship with Lower.com Field will allow on-field studio programming before and after the match on MLS Season Pass. The English-language team will feature Sacha Kljestan, Kaylyn Kyle, Liam McHugh, Andrew Wiebe, and Bradley Wright-Phillips; the Spanish-language team, Tony Cherchi, Miguel Gallardo, and Diego Valeri.
Year 1 Reflections: Complex Workflow Allows Real-Time Adjustments, Enhanced Quality
Aside from adapting to busy days made busier by the arrival of international superstar Lionel Messi, an expanded format for Leagues Cup with Liga MX, and a bevy of regular-season matches, the trio of MLS, Apple, and NEP Group have refined their approach for maximum efficiency, not only promoting a more cost-conscious way of working but also emphasizing an improved production standard.
“Rather than getting rid of the different versions of each match we were producing,” says Bacon, “we understood that we didn’t need so many control rooms. In the past, we saw only about 20% of [our workflow], but, in this current model, we’re able to see every bit of content that we’re producing and have a dedicated team able to fix any issue.”
As with Friday Night Baseball, fans are starting to notice the distinct look of a live sports production under the Apple umbrella. Whether that’s attention to detail or an upgrade in image quality, MLS Season Pass is now a product that stands out amongst the rest.
“When fans look at [one of our broadcasts], we want them to instantly recognize that it’s Major League Soccer,” says Bacon. “I think we’ve accomplished that, as well as grown the MLS brand with elements like our picture quality, graphics package, content delivery, and on-air talent.”
Tip of the Iceberg: First MLS Cup Final on Apple Provides Basis for Future Growth
The MLS Cup Final is the culmination of a hard-fought journey for the teams on the pitch, but, off of it, the production and operations teams will likewise reach a long-awaited finish line. In the near term, Saturday’s efforts are the realization of years’ worth of hard work and collaboration.
“[MLS and Apple] challenged us to deliver over a thousand events this season on a new platform, and we’re all proud of our work,” says Liemer. “It has been a long yet rewarding year, so we’re excited for Saturday night.”
In the long term, the league envisions even more growth and momentum building off the success of 2023.
“We believe that we’re just getting started,” adds Bacon. “We’re going to invest in quality and technology to bring more stories to our fans. We can do great things with great partners, and we’re super bullish on what the future holds.”
Coverage of the 2023 MLS Cup Final on MLS Season Pass begins with MLS Countdown at 3 p.m. ET and concludes with MLS Wrap-Up after the match. Coverage of the match on Fox, TSN, and RDS begins at 4 p.m.; Fox Deportes coverage begins with a pregame show at 3 p.m.