MLS is Back Tournament Promises New and Costly Look at Pro Soccer

    • ESPN will deploy slow-motion cameras, drones, and mics to capture additive content without fans in attendance.
    • MLS will additionally tap virtual technologies to incorporate fans and sponsors during matches.

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Fans tuning in to the start of the MLS is Back Tournament on July 8 at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando will notice a few upgrades in the broadcast production of games without live spectators in attendance.

As a result, airing the competition will be rather expensive compared to traditional MLS regular season matchups before the pandemic. 

ESPN, MLS’s production partner for the tournament, says it will utilize slow-motion cameras, drones, and goal post cameras to bring additive pictures to fans’ television screens. No players, coaches, or referees will be mic’d up during telecasts to limit contact with league personnel. However, ESPN says it will bury several microphones in the turf to capture directional audio of the action.

Instead of pumping in pre-recorded fan noise, MLS will rely on those captured player sounds, movement, and a wide range of camera angles to bring fans at home a more tactical view of professional soccer. 

“This is more than double what we would typically use on an MLS regular season game in terms of equipment,” said Amy Rosenfeld, ESPN’s vice president of production. “Aerial coverage is something I think has been underutilized in the sport because, frankly, it’s expensive. But you get to see the artistry of the sport. And you’re pretty much going to be able to hear everything.”

ESPN, itself an MLS rights holder, will provide the world feed for all MLS’s network partners for the 26 matchday tournament. Games will be broadcast on ESPN, Fox, and TUDN in the U.S., and TSN in Canada. ESPN is allocating more than 160 people for MLS is Back game productions. 

“We may do some stuff in the first few games and change it up. The beauty of having a long tournament is there may be some trial and error,” Rosenfeld said. “I’m really curious to experience the turf mics. I mean, it could be a dud, or it could be incredibly impactful.”

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MLS hopes to resume regular season play later this year at teams’ home venues. At stake during the MLS is Back tournament are regular season points, a spot in the 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League, and a $1.1 million prize pool for players. 

Two games have already been postponed in the competition over positive coronavirus test results. FC Dallas has also withdrawn from the competition. 

In addition to enhanced audio and camera angles, MLS will also deploy virtual technologies to incorporate fans and sponsors during matches, according to Seth Bacon, the league’s senior vice president of media. No specific plans were laid out.

“We are working on a plan that would provide signage for our national and our local partners, but importantly as well a plan that delivers a level of brand integration for our clubs and integration for our fans,” Bacon said.

NYCFC CEO Brad Sims said the league is “going to create as much [sponsorship] inventory for these games as possible,” which will include green screen digital boards alongside the pitch in addition to traditional LED field boards. Those virtual positions will be split between league and club partners. For the clubs, that will allow them to provide make goods to local partners, who will gain additional value given that all matches during the tournament will be nationally broadcast.

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The facility at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex does not offer the same setting MLS stadiums do to incorporate sponsors. The league was tasked with building a significant amount of infrastructure on-site, as a result. That includes physical spaces for virtual and physical signage and camera platforms around fields. 

“There has been a tremendous amount of work done so that when you see things on TV, whether they’re physical or virtual, they appear authentic,” Bacon said. “We don’t want things to become too obtrusive throughout the game broadcast.”