As Apple TV deal awaits, MLS is in a race against time to build a broadcast operation

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It’s now been more than four months since MLS and Apple agreed to a groundbreaking new media rights deal that will see the tech giant broadcast every single one of the league’s matches for the next 10 seasons. However, little is publicly known about what games will actually look like […]

It’s now been more than four months since MLS and Apple agreed to a groundbreaking new media rights deal that will see the tech giant broadcast every single one of the league’s matches for the next 10 seasons. However, little is publicly known about what games will actually look like once they begin airing on the Apple TV streaming service next February.

We know that many matches will live behind a paywall, with Apple set to charge a yet-to-be-announced amount for access to every contest. We know that almost all of the games will fall on select Wednesday and Saturday nights, with exceptions carved out as needed due to stadium availability and linear broadcast windows dictated by ESPN, Fox, Univision or other partners with whom the league is still attempting to hammer out simulcast agreements. We know that every match will be broadcast in English and Spanish, and that a number of games will be broadcast in French. We know that none of the games will be blacked out — except Leagues Cup games for fans located in Mexico — and that they’ll all be available in a huge number of countries around the world.

There are also a lot of unknowns. We don’t know who will actually be calling the matches. We don’t know which play-by-play announcers will be paired with which color commentators. We don’t know who will be anchoring studio coverage, which the league has said will include pregame, halftime and postgame shows and a Saturday night whiparound show. Nor has the league, which will handle production for all the games, announced anything about who will run the actual broadcasts.

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The Athletic spoke over the last week to more than a dozen industry sources about those and many other questions in an attempt to piece together some of the details of what the $2.5 billion partnership between MLS and Apple will actually look like in 2023. The sources were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the still-developing plans.

According to their characterizations, there’s still a lot of work left to do, particularly from a technical standpoint. One well-placed industry source expressed confidence that the league will have everything sorted out by the time next season opens on Feb. 25, 2023, but that the process of getting there will be hugely difficult and taxing for those involved. MLS is already nine to 12 months behind where they would ideally be at this stage, another source said. 

The short runway to kickoff in 2023 and the amount of work still left to do will, the sources said, be a headache for MLS. It could create hiccups and affect the quality of broadcasts at the start of the season. 

At some point, though, any potential issues will be sorted out. If there are issues, they might not even be noticed by most fans. There’s also the unknown of how an Apple TV broadcast, even one that might be flawed in one way or another, might stack up against the league’s previous local broadcasts, many of which were lacking in production quality. It’s possible that MLS and Apple’s product might present as perfectly fine, even while the two companies are busy working the initial kinks out.

One source with knowledge of the league’s plans said those involved in building out the production do not feel overly concerned.

“Whenever challenges come up, they just keep throwing more resources at it,” the source said. “And those problems go away pretty darn quickly.”

MLS is essentially building a new network from scratch. They’ve only got four months left to get it straight. Here’s how it’s all coming together.


Broadcast talent

MLS clubs have already wound down all of their local broadcast agreements, with many broadcasters offering their own emotional farewells as the regular season drew to a close. It’s still unclear which of those broadcasters will be returning to call games in some capacity for Apple, and which fresh faces will be brought into the mix.

According to multiple sources, the league is deep into the process of selecting that talent and is expected to extend offers in the coming weeks. The league contracted Creative Artists Agency agent and former Pac-12 network executive Kristin Bredes LaFemina to handle the search, which involved, in part, interviewing every single English-language play-by-play and color commentator employed by the league’s clubs. Sources said that the league has interviewed more than 200 candidates in recent weeks.

Those sources said the league is planning to utilize at least 12 English-language broadcast teams and at least another dozen Spanish-language teams. At least another three teams will handle broadcasts in French — sources said this week that every one of the league’s games involving a Canadian team would be available in French. Sources also said that the league would have additional commentary teams on hand to handle the full slate of matches, which will include as many as 14 games per weekend.

According to multiple sources, the plan is for all of that talent to travel to broadcast matches in person, a change from the past approach of some MLS clubs, who have sometimes had talent call games off of monitors remotely. Fox has also repeatedly had its broadcasters call nationally-televised games off monitors in recent years, including in last week’s Eastern Conference semifinal between Philadelphia and Cincinnati. 

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The league has already engaged in “test broadcasts,” and mock-ups for potential commentary teams to gauge chemistry between individual broadcasters, a source familiar with the league’s plans said on Thursday.

The plan for the beginning of the season is for most play-by-play talent and color commentators to work interchangeably, sources said. To start, there may be zero or a very limited number of set teams. That could change as the season progresses and commentary teams begin to develop chemistry.

The league, two sources said on Tuesday, is also looking to bring on ESPN color commentator Taylor Twellman to contribute to coverage. Twellman’s eight-year contract with ESPN is due to expire at year’s end. His duties at the network have expanded beyond soccer in recent years. 

A source said that MLS is also interested in two of the biggest-name Spanish-language broadcasters, Luis Omar Tapia and Diego Balado, both of whom currently work for Univision. They have also been engaged in talks with ESPN personality Herculez Gomez, who does English-language and Spanish-language coverage for the network.

Multiple sources indicated the league is looking to former players like Gomez to fill some of the Spanish-language color commentary roles, including former MLS most valuable player Diego Valeri, who has already done a screen test with the league. MLS, the sources said, is interested in filling many of its Spanish-language positions with talent who can also handle English-language broadcasts if needed. 

The league previously announced it is planning to add a Portuguese commentary option in 2025 and beyond.

The Apple deal will also provide subscribers with an option to mute the TV commentary and instead tune into local radio broadcasts during matches; sources said this week that the league will initially only make the home team’s radio feed available to Apple TV viewers. Away broadcasts, those sources said, could follow in later years. None of the league’s teams are required to offer a radio broadcast. Some MLS clubs have hinted that their long-time broadcast voices, if they aren’t available on Apple, will be employed via these radio feeds. 

While talent is the most public-facing and highest-profile part of this story, the sources weren’t concerned about MLS’ timeline for hiring broadcasters, pointing out that there are more than enough experienced candidates to fill out the league’s planned studio shows and every commentary booth. 

The sources were far more worried about how the league will handle all of the behind-the-scenes elements of broadcasting matches with such a short runway to the start of the 2023 season. We’ll have more on that later in this piece.

Studio coverage and broadcast windows

In addition to games, the league will also produce its weekly whiparound show and pregame, halftime and postgame shows for all of its matches. Sources said that those shows will likely be shot out of New York City at NEP’s Metropolis Studios in Harlem, the same studio that was once home to the popular BET show 106 & Park, which was canceled in 2014.

Match windows will exist in two-to-three-hour blocks. According to a league document that was distributed to clubs in August and shared by a source with The Athletic this week, those windows will include a national pregame show, match-specific setup shows from individual stadiums prior to each game, live match coverage, a halftime show and a national postgame show.

The document indicated that MLS is aiming to have all Saturday night matches start around 7:30 p.m. local time, though the league was still discussing that idea with Apple at the time the document was distributed in August. 

Here’s a sample of what a typical MLS Saturday night could look like on Apple TV, as outlined in the league-produced document:

While fans will need to pay to subscribe to the MLS channel on Apple TV in order to view every single match, there may end up being a significant number of games available in front of the paywall and free on Apple TV. 

As indicated in the below slide, a typical Wednesday night window could see six of 14 total matches placed in front of the paywall and available for free. A normal weekend could play out as follows: one Saturday afternoon match available for free on Apple TV and simulcast on linear TV, four out of 12 matches on Saturday night available in front of the Apple TV paywall and available for free and one Sunday afternoon match available for free on Apple TV and simulcast on linear TV. 

Essentially, the league document outlines that six out of 14 matches in every round will be in front of the paywall and available to watch for free on Apple TV. That’s 210 out of 493 regular season matches that will be available for free — more than 40 percent of the yearly total. A source noted that the total number of games available for free in 2023 will be significantly higher than at any other point in league history.

Additionally, as announced at the time the deal was agreed, all MLS season ticket holders will have access to the full MLS channel in Apple TV. They will not have to pay for any match broadcast on the streaming service. On Thursday, a source familiar with MLS’ agreement Apple suggested that those season ticket holders would amount to somewhere between 300-400,000 subscribers. 

According to the document, the plan is for the MLS All-Star Game to air only on Apple TV+ and on Apple’s MLS streaming service — in that scenario, the game would not be available linearly or in front of the Apple TV paywall. The league would like the MLS Cup final to air concurrently on a linear network and in front of the paywall on Apple TV through at least 2026. 

Other MLS playoff games will air on Apple TV’s streaming service and, most likely, on a linear platform. The league is still attempting to work out a simulcast arrangement with linear partners like ESPN, Fox, Univision in the United States and TSN and TVA Sports in Canada. Where exactly playoff games will air will depend on the specifics of those potential simulcast deals. 

Multiple sources confirmed to The Athletic earlier this week that the league is putting serious thought into overhauling its playoff format and expanding postseason play from 13 games to 30. Sources suggested that MLS is expanding its playoff format in order to offer Apple more inventory. One also noted that increasing the number of postseason games would allow the league to more easily build playoff narratives than the current format, which passes quite quickly. The league has historically struggled to captivate television viewers and ratings for postseason matches have frequently varied little from regular season games. Adding more games will also give MLS additional opportunities for ticket and other matchday-related revenue.

Multiple club sources confirmed this week that the league intends to give each of its 30 clubs a “channel” on Apple TV where teams can broadcast their own, self-produced content; the agreement between Apple and MLS, sources have said, does not prohibit clubs from creating agreements with local, linear networks to broadcast ancillary content — a coach’s show, or a weekly recap show, for example.

Technical challenges, costs and more

The overwhelming feeling among multiple sources familiar with the business of producing sports for television is that MLS simply doesn’t have enough time to get its productions to the high standards they are aiming for — at least not by the start of the 2023 season.

MLS has not yet hired an executive producer to lead its broadcast operations. The league recently did hire former CONCACAF executive producer and director of broadcast operations and media distribution Oscar Sanchez to assist in production-side planning and build-out, but it’s still looking for someone to lead those operations.

Sanchez, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, had been in his role with CONCACAF since August 2014, is well-respected by the industry sources spoken to for this piece. Several noted that he’s fully fluent in both English and Spanish. 

Whoever MLS hires as executive producer will play an important role in hiring and managing a full team of individual game producers and directors. They will have to do so on an incredibly tight timeline and without much runway for onboarding. 

Ideally, several sources said, an executive producer would’ve been hired almost immediately after MLS and Apple announced the media rights deal back in June. Multiple sources said that some of the producers and directors who have worked MLS matches in the past have, with their future in the league uncertain, already begun booking work in other sports for next year. That could raise scheduling complications in booking experienced technicians for next season. There is also a question as to where MLS is going to find enough soccer-knowledgeable producers and directors to put together so many broadcasts in a season.

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The league is exploring the possibility of eventually centralizing production out of one facility, but sources said that they won’t be able to get that arranged in time for the start of the 2023 season. Instead, the sources said that MLS will produce every match out of on-site production trucks in 2023. All of those trucks will be responsible for running at least English and Spanish commentary feeds, with a number of them also needing to transmit French audio. Producing multiple audio feeds adds layers of complexity. It also increases the need for good production trucks and technical staff that can handle such complex tasks and deliver a high-quality product.

One of the biggest concerns with the plan for 2023, multiple sources outlined, is what kind of trucks the league will be able to obtain. ESPN and Fox sometimes struggle with this issue; both networks have had issues with video and audio quality which fall below their normal standards when broadcasting MLS matches in recent seasons. That’s particularly true in the fall, when the sports calendar is extremely busy and the newest and best production trucks are typically allocated to NFL, college football, the MLB postseason, plus NBA and NHL games. 

One source pointed to difficulties ESPN had with audio from Montreal’s first-round playoff match against Orlando, in which the crowd sounded far quieter on the American feed than it did on either the English- or French-language Canadian broadcasts, as an example of those kinds of problems. These types of issues also point to the need for technical staff that can set up these broadcasts, and the costs that will come with staffing up these broadcasts.

The league has not been shy about touting the overall sum that it’s culling from its partnership with Apple, which is some $2.5 billion over a decade. The costs of producing, broadcasting and promoting every single match from MLS and Leagues Cup and a sizable number of games from MLS Next Pro and MLS Next will eat into any profits, of course. Estimates have varied on what that will run, but one seasoned industry professional estimated that the league might be sinking as much as $80-$100 million into production costs in 2023 alone. Others have said that the league will likely spend at least $60 million in production costs in 2023. Building a separate facility from which MLS could centralize production in future years would be a significant cost separate from that total.

Multiple sources said that the typical MLS team spent about $1.5 million per season on local broadcasts in recent years. For a 28-team league, that’s a total of $42 million in production costs per season.

Sources indicated that MLS plans to use 12 cameras on every broadcast in 2023, while most local broadcasts to this point have used seven or eight cameras. The league has plans to potentially increase that number of cameras to 15-20 in later years of the deal. 

That, combined with multiple commentary channels, requires a technical plan that is complex enough to create some concerns about whether it can be run smoothly at scale. One source, citing those same concerns and the potential for rising costs, said he would not be surprised to see MLS paring down its expectations and making some cuts, at least to start.

As multiple sources said, MLS is simply too short on time to accomplish this all in an ideal way.

Additionally, Apple also plans to extract value from its agreement with MLS via product placement. According to the league-produced document, clubs will receive iPads to be used by club coaches and staff on the bench during matches. Referees, multiple sources said, could be fitted with Apple watches. while one source mentioned the league’s VAR system as another place an Apple product could be implemented.

The tech giant’s influence will also extend to other notable areas, a source familiar with the broadcast deal said on Thursday. Apple will set the subscription price for MLS’ streaming service and will create the name and branding that surround it. The cost of the streaming service has not yet been determined, however the cost for the final year of MLS Live in 2017, the league’s previous league-run streaming service, was $79.99. MLS Live included local blackouts, however, and the league had 22 teams compared to the 29 that will play in 2023.

Apple, sources said earlier this week, is likely to offer deeply-discounted subscriptions or promotions in order to maximize early subscribership. Sources also said that Apple plans to lean heavily on various platforms to market the MLS streaming service.

Every club uniform will also feature an Apple-related logo on one sleeve, be it the Apple TV logo, the Apple logo itself or the logo for MLS’ streaming package. The league-produced presentation says that clubs will continue to be able to sell sponsorship space on the right sleeve of their kits; that ability, which the league had piloted and was set to expire in 2025, has been extended through 2028.

Apple’s presence will also be felt in more subtle ways. Clubs will at times be restricted in what brands and sponsorships they can display within the field of play, for example, while some club advertisements, the document says, will be subject to Apple’s own advertising policies. The league has also defined how much time clubs can allocate to local sponsors in terms of LED signage (field boards, etc) and billboards, with that mix changing based on whether MLS considers a particular match “league-designated” or “club-designated.”  

The common assumption, which has been backed up by multiple sources spoken to for this piece, is that Apple is in part using its MLS deal as a means to test new technologies and interactive elements with viewership. It’s been reported that the tech giant, which began broadcasting Major League Baseball games in 2022, is interested in acquiring other sports properties, including NFL Sunday Ticket. This week, sources suggested Apple might incorporate coverage that feels non-traditional to long-time soccer viewers. 

Speaking alongside MLS commissioner Don Garber at the Paley Center for Media in New York City on Oct. 11, Apple executive Eddy Cue alluded to some of those potential changes, telling the audience that the broadcaster is planning “a lot of fun things” for its MLS productions. Apple’s MLB broadcasts have often featured on-screen statistics and they’ve sometimes employed field-level mics to bring fans closer to the action. 

Regardless of any specifics, it seems like MLS will have a busy and hectic runup to its inaugural Apple TV broadcast next February. Many of the problems, though, could just be issues for the first year of the deal. Eventually, the league and Apple are betting that they’ll iron out any initial wrinkles and deliver a solid, innovative and creative product. 

(Photo: Jeff Halstead / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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