MLS and ESPN pull off unprecedented TV coverage of MLS Is Back tournament during pandemic

Long accustomed to being the broadcaster for select soccer games, ESPN took an unfamiliar seat this July when it partnered with Major League Soccer to become the production services provider for the MLS Is Back tournament.

Instead of just televising its select number of games as it normally would during a typical season, ESPN and MLS worked together to pull off an unprecedented accomplishment — televising 54 games of a soccer tournament during a global pandemic, and creating the world feed for ESPN, FOX Sports, TUDN and international broadcast partners to use. The job isn’t done just yet as the tournament heads into the Knockout Round this weekend before wrapping up on August 11, but like or dislike MLS, what ESPN and the league have done thus far has been nothing short of groundbreaking.

Two of the key personnel that could best explain the sheer complexity of pulling off such a feat are Seth Bacon, Senior Vice President, Media at MLS & SUM, and ESPN’s Vice President of Production Amy Rosenfeld. World Soccer Talk had the opportunity to learn more from both executives during an exclusive interview this week.

“I’m incredibly proud of the team on the MLS side,” shared Rosenfeld. “I’ve never worked closer with a league than we’ve had between ESPN and MLS to really understand each other. To do this together, this is an unusual arrangement that they’re the client and we’re the production services provider, but we’re also the client to ourselves because we’re receiving that production.

“The fact that these productions from all of the broadcast rights holders have looked as strong and big as they do, I can’t put it into words how hard the people side of that is.”

To pull off the TV production of this tournament in such a short amount of time required ESPN and MLS working around the clock, and hosting a tournament inside the “MLS bubble” in Florida, a state that’s currently “ground zero” for COVID-19 in the United States.

“We [at ESPN] frequently very much try to stay in the shadows — whether you’re a league person or a production person — it’s all about [what’s on] the screen,” Rosenfeld said. “I have to say that this is a moment where I’d like to recognize [everyone] and pull the curtain back.”

SEE MORE: Schedule of MLS TV games on US TV and streaming

The tournament itself has been a learning process for everyone involved.

Bacon shared, “I think that what we’ve learned is that it’s smart at times like this to think big and to take some risks, and to use opportunities like this to try new things.

“We’ve learned how to move much quicker with things. We’ve learned how to rethink the way production of games is done. We’ve learned a lot from our friends at ESPN.

“As we think about what the production of games looks like — not only post tournament in 2020 but also from the perspective of what our long-term production looks like in the idea of centralized production — there’s a lot of things we’ll be able to take away from a production and a commercial and a broadcast standpoint that we can apply in the immediate term, the near term and the long term.”

Asked about TV ratings for MLS Is Back, Bacon explained, “We’re learning a lot about the 10:30PM (ET) games. When you ‘program’ in teams that should play at 10:30PM, west coast teams, we’re actually doing pretty well. If you take all those games and just look at it straight across the board, the numbers are about 225,000 (P2+). But if you ‘pull out’ the Eastern and Central Time teams that you would never put at 10:30PM, and you have just the west coast teams, the numbers go up to 300,000 and you’re at a good number.

“We’re learning constantly. We’re happy with the numbers but we always want bigger numbers. Obviously, no matter what the number is, anyone who is in sports always wants the number to be bigger.” (Compared to July 2019, MLS has had more telecasts and more total viewership. For July 2020, total cable viewership is up 7% versus July 2019).

Looking to the future, even with MLS Is Back still in full swing, MLS is already working on plans for the resumption of the 2020 regular season.

“There’s a lot of planning that’s being done,” explained Bacon. “First and foremost, approaching the season safely for players, staff and fans — that’s being led by the Commissioner and the executive team. And once we get through that point, there’s other work that is being done from a schedule standpoint, a marketing standpoint, and certainly from a television production standpoint. Those will get activated and plugged in once the work is complete on player and staff and fan safety.”

Beginning this Saturday, the Knockout Round of the MLS Is Back tournament begins with two games scheduled per day through Tuesday followed by the latter stages of the competition.

Expect more enhancements to the coverage beginning with the Knockout Round.

According to Rosenfeld, a new camera will be used that can super slo-mo the view from behind the goalkeeper with a wide-angle lens. “It’s really great on a goalkeeper POV (point of view) on a free kick to [see] his perspective,” said Rosenfeld. She also added that a Steadicam will be used along the touchline. Plus, with one less field being used in the Knockout Round due to no more 9AM ET games, it’ll allow ESPN to take some of those microphones to redeploy them on the night-time games which will help enhance the audio to a greater degree.

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