How MLS is Back Tournament broadcasts will deliver unique viewing experience

Cameras mounted on drones and booms. “Super-slo-mo” replays. Virtual stands, signs and jumbotrons. An array of microphones dotting the field and even embedded in the pitch itself.

And no faux crowd noise.

The MLS is Back Tournament is an unprecedented event, and ESPN and the rest of the league’s broadcast partners plan to use unprecedented technology and ambition to present it, MLS Senior Vice President of Media Seth Bacon and ESPN VP of production Amy Rosenfeld told reporters in a Monday conference call.

“We are looking at MLS Cup-level equipment and cameras,” said Rosenfeld, whose network is partnering with MLS to produce the tournament at the Wide World of Sports complex outside Orlando, Florida. “This is more than double what we would typically use on an MLS regular-season match.

“This production is a significant piece of work for ESPN and MLS coming together on this. This is a massive commitment under very tough circumstances,” she added. “So I think that really reinforced to me ESPN’s commitment to soccer, ESPN’s commitment to MLS. And we want these matches for our network. We want these matches for the other networks … bottom line, we will be very flexible because we want MLS.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic requiring these matches to unfold in a closed environment with no fans present, the plan is to provide the type of vivid on-screen presentation that might not be possible in a more typical stadium situation, with more than twice as many cameras and mics as usual to take viewers inside the game from myriad angles.

“We are really looking to take what is a negative – not having any fans – and make it a positive,” said Rosenfeld. “How we can look at really leaning into audio and all of the sounds that we wouldn't get the benefit of hearing because of the crowd? Our approach has been taking the negative of not having fans, which is such an intrinsic part of soccer, but then creating an authentic, immersive experience for the audience as if they were there and really giving them access to dialogue that we would never get access to.”

As originally reported by the Los Angeles Times over the weekend, MLS and its broadcasters are investing heavily in the MIB as a groundbreaking televised sports property, with a forward-leaning approach “to push the envelope” across the board. The idea is to give established fans fresh viewpoints of the teams and players while also connecting with new audiences in what Bacon called “a different TV landscape that we're dealing with than it was 115 days ago.”

“This is absolutely one of the most complex shows I've ever worked on,” noted the two-decade veteran of the industry.

Rosenfeld described drone cams and other means to give viewers a stronger taste of the games’ tactical and psychological nuances, and framed MIB’s batch of 9 am ET kickoffs as a chance to carve out a morning niche comparable to Wimbledon and English Premier League broadcasts.

“We are always trying to do our best to capture the athleticism of this sport, and the artistry,” she said. “Can that be additive, not just for creating a sense of place, but can that be additive from an editorial, documenting-the-game standpoint? You're going to pretty much hear everything … I think that there could be some content there that's really instructional, impactful, educational.”

Over the winter, MLS launched a player tracking data partnership with Second Spectrum, but that technology – which hinges on tracking equipment installed at all 26 of the league’s home venues – will not feature at MIB due to challenges with its implementation at WWOS. The number and complexity of moving parts around staging this month’s tournament, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic, has already given the production team plenty to handle as it is.

“You have to have more resources to socially distance people,” said Bacon. “So the number of trucks you need, the number of camera platforms, all those things, there's amplification there, because you have to be safe and you have to be smart and when you're trying to create a big show, all of those things compound. So the level of investment and the level of partnership across the board has been significant.”

While other soccer leagues like NWSL, the German Bundesliga and the Premier League have added ambient crowd noise to their empty-stadium broadcasts, MLS and ESPN elected not to do so after consultation with the Independent Supporters Council.

“We thought using the natural sounds and the sounds of the game, and again, the aggressive audio plan that ESPN has put in place, would allow for people to get closer to the games and provide a more authentic experience for the venue that we're playing in,” explained Bacon.

“One of the things that [ISC] came out and said to us is, they wanted to make sure that we didn't create this inauthentic experience, and that we weren't trying to replicate something that they felt was so unique to our stadium environment and the passion that they bring to our events.”

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