Major League Soccer couldn’t have picked a better weekend to launch its 20th season after a boring, quiet and uneventful FA Cup weekend in England. Soccer fans were craving goals, and MLS dutifully supplied them with an average of 2.25 goals per game for the 4 nationally televised matches compared to an average of 0.6 goals per game for the 3 FA Cup matches played.
But aside from soccer, MLS’s first broadcasts of its new $90 million/year TV deal were largely a success on ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision. There was a new level of enthusiasm for the start of the season perhaps accentuated by the 11th hour deal to avert a strike, which made viewers and broadcasters hungrier and breathing a sigh of relief as action from America’s top flight returned.
Having said that, the broadcasts weren’t perfect.
Here’s our highs and lows from the weekend’s MLS nationally-televised broadcasts:
1. Smart programming selections and timing of broadcasts.
MLS and the three broadcast partners (FOX, ESPN and Univision) struck a perfect chord by deciding to feature the four games from the weekend that are the best examples of passionate fans in the stadium coupled with attacking teams that are pleasing to the eye. Broadcasting the home games for LA Galaxy, Orlando City, Sporting KC and Seattle Sounders exemplified the best of MLS, and the home teams in each of the four games didn’t disappoint on or off the field.
The excitement and passion of the Galaxy, Lions, KC and Sounders fans were on display, and the TV coverage captured the atmospheres, which will have won over a lot of sports and soccer fans who watched the broadcasts.
The timing of the broadcasts — a late game on Friday, as well as a 7-hour block of continuous MLS coverage from ESPN2 at 4:30pm ET through until the last FOX Sports 1 game at 11:30pm ET ensured that soccer fans could watch the games with all of their focus without stellar matches from other leagues competing in the same time window.
2. Energy levels and studio sets
Throughout the entire weekend, the energy levels among the presenters, studio analysts and commentators were at a high. The excitement levels and positive energy could be felt by TV viewers. Everyone on television was genuinely excited and enthusiastic regarding the new season.
The feel good factor will hopefully continue in the coming weeks as long as the entertainment value on the field lives up to its end of the bargain.
FOX’s new studio design for MLS and the associated graphics were a hit (apart from the in-game graphics; more about that later). That contrasted greatly with ESPN and Univision who decided to feature their talent at the stadiums instead of a studio in Los Angeles. Either way, it worked.
Overall, FOX Sports — especially — seemed a lot more comfortable broadcasting and discussing the American games than it does when it covers European matches. Eric Wynalda seemed happier and insightful on camera. Landon Donovan was better than he was on ESPN last summer where he was flat and uninspiring, and Stuart Holden shows a lot of promise. He needs to keep his head up more rather than looking down, and side-by-side. Hopefully Donovan will not try to talk over him too much as he did on Sunday evening.
3. John Strong and Alexi Lalas.
John Strong and Alexi Lalas showed on Sunday night why they’re the two of the best in the soccer business in the United States. Strong was his consistent best commentating the game, and Lalas was confident and informative, adding insight to the game to aid the viewer.
During halftime of Seattle-New England, Lalas’ analysis of what the Revs were doing well and where they let their guard down on the mistakes was informative, insightful and showed his firm grasp on the game (and where he’ll shine, more so than in the studio where analysts are competing for sound bites).
For all of the Lalas haters out there, this isn’t the same Lalas as the one in 2007 that said that MLS is on par with the Premier League. He’s matured, and has changed his focus from saying outlandish remarks to providing insightful comments.
4. ESPN’s substitution graphic.
When ESPN makes changes, they’re often for practical reasons, to figure out ways to accentuate their broadcasts.
Sunday’s example of their new graphic that displayed the number of substitutions used/un-used was something I’ve never seen before by a TV broadcaster.
It’s helpful without being distracting. And it’s informative — especially if you lose track of how many subs have been used in the latter stages of a game.
5. Landon Donovan’s appearance on UniMas.
For Friday night’s game between Los Angeles and Chicago, Landon Donovan was one of the analysts on UniMas’ coverage of the game.
While most of us knew that Donovan can speak fluent Spanish, it was surprising how confident and comfortable he was on camera.
In fact, I’d argue that UniMas’ style is a better fit for Donovan than FOX’s English-language broadcast (although he was fine in English this weekend, too).
Take a look at Donovan and see what I mean.
1. ESPN forgets about Philadelphia Union
ESPN’s coverage of MLS’ 20th season started off on a bad note for the “Worldwide leader in sports.”
With Adrian Healey and Taylor Twellman on the field at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, the duo began discussing the expansion teams that have entered MLS since 2007. Unfortunately, ESPN made the error of forgetting to put Philadelphia Union on the list, which won’t win any favors with the Philly fans.
2. FOX’s obnoxious in-game advertising
For all of the hard work that FOX’s talent and producers made this weekend, they took two steps forward and one step back by their decision to feature obnoxious ads during their games this weekend.
FOX has done this before. More recently last July when it plastered similar obnoxious ads across the screen of a live Manchester City-Liverpool game. The reaction among soccer viewers was negative then, and it was on Sunday again when FOX did the same cheap gimmick.
ESPN didn’t feature the same style ads, and it still finds ways to generate ad revenue for the network without compromising the viewing experience for soccer fans.
3. FOX’s gimmicks (sound effects and on-screen graphics)
Similarly, FOX Sports always feels the need to add sound effects, graphics and gimmicks to boost its coverage when none of the above is needed.
On its TV replays of key incidents, FOX has a number “1” that flies at the viewer on-screen (see screengrab above). That’s combined with an annoying motion sound.
During highlights at half-time and post-game, FOX uses a heavy metal soundtrack to “punch up” the excitement levels.
None of this is necessary. It adds no value. It dilutes the quality of the rest of the coverage. It’s just pointless.
4. Taylor Twellman’s silence.
When New York City FC goalkeeper Josh Saunders went up to grab a cross in the box and fell, with the back of his head hitting the goalpost, there was no expert in all of world soccer better equipped to analyze the situation and inform the viewer on traumatic brain injuries than ESPN’s Taylor Twellman.
In the moments after the incident happened, both Adrian Healey and Twellman let the broadcast “breath” with the images showing what happened and as the broadcasters and viewers held out hope that Saunders injury wasn’t as bad as it first appeared to be.
But after Saunders regained his composure and got up to take his goal kick, Twellman discussed the incident briefly but quickly moved on to co-commentating the game. However, the feeling was that Twellman was holding himself back.
The man, who has been very outspoken (rightly so) on ensuring that measures are properly taken after head injuries occur, could have shared his expertise on-air during the game right after the incident happened. Healey seemed to try to give Twellman an opportunity to add his thoughts, but Twellman held himself back. We wanted to know Twellman’s immediate opinions on whether it looked like the NYCFC medical staff were following correct protocol, what is MLS’s protocol for treating head injuries, was it Twellman’s feeling that Saunders was rushed back into action too quickly, etc.
For someone like Twellman who is an expert in this field, it felt that he had a lot of opinions and observations that were bottled up inside him after the incident happened, and he didn’t know whether the timing was right to share those, or whether he should concentrate on the game itself. Twellman chose the latter, which was a shame because he missed out on a good opportunity to inform the viewer about an unfortunate incident.