Multiple matches, Messi, and more — MLS Season Pass was a large undertaking for the league that teamed up with Apple. A year into the agreement, Boardroom looks back.
It’s the day that everyone in Major League Soccer has circled on their calendars since the season’s start. It’s a day in which many clubs learn their fate heading into the MLS Cup Playoffs — five playoff spots up for grabs, including four top-four seeds guaranteed home-field advantage.
It’s a nerve-wracking day for players, coaches, and front offices alike, but as much pressure as they have, the same can be said for the league’s production crew.
“I don’t expect it to be run of the mill,” said John McGuinness, senior coordinator producer at MLS production partner IMG, ahead of Decision Day. “It’ll be craziness, but I’m really looking forward to it because it’s kind of fun. I don’t want it to be boring.”
Like the actual season, Decision Day was a crescendo for this production crew, which essentially wrapped up the hard parts of Year 1 producing the new-and-improved MLS Season Pass as part of the partnership between the league and Apple. The two companies entered into a 10-year agreement ahead of the 2023 season with a lofty goal — stream EVERY MLS game — capped by all 34 teams playing on Decision Day.
And just like the crew had done all season, it not only survived the hectic 24 hours, but thrived, doing so thanks to good old-fashioned teamwork.
“Any live production is controlled, whatever you want to call it — chaos, mayhem, whatever it is. And that’s meant in all the right ways,” said MLS Senior VP of Media Seth Bacon. “What you were doing is, you are putting the best possible plan you could in place to cover something that’s wildly unpredictable. And that’s what makes sports awesome — that it’s not predictable. It’s not like going to a musical or the opera or a movie.
“You are covering a ball literally moving, and it can go in any direction. Anything can happen at any point. So that’s just sort of the undercurrent of producing live sports in general.”
With Decision Day in the rearview mirror and Year 1 under this new partnership nearly complete, Boardroom caught up with MLS executives, producers, and on-air personalities to paint the production picture that goes on behind the scenes.
MLS x Apple
MLS and Apple came to this massive media rights agreement in June 2022 and never looked back. Keep in mind, this is just Year 1 of a 10-year agreement reportedly worth $2.5 billion, but that didn’t stop the production crew from creating the best version of MLS Season Pass it could for its consumers spanning over 100 countries and regions.
Consider the following about MLS Season Pass:
- All matches feature commentary in English or Spanish, while matches involving Canadian teams also boast French commentary. Pregame shows and the postgame wrap-up are available in English and Spanish. Fans in the US and Canada also have the option to select their home team’s radio for broadcast audio on the Apple TV app where available.
- The service also features MLS Countdown (the live pre-game show before every match), live halftime reports, MLS 360 — a fast-moving whip-around show that provides live look-ins and analysis from all the key moments from every match — and MLS Wrap-up, the live postgame show.
- The group of On-Air Personalities features a total of 92 announcers representing 22 countries and nationalities — one of the largest lineups of on-air talent covering a major sports league.
“I don’t think people fully understand and fully appreciate what Major League Soccer has done in the first year of this gig,” said on-air personality Taylor Twellman. “I don’t, and the reason why I say that is not because I’m part of it. I would say this if I weren’t part of it. This isn’t a TV network. Major League Soccer was not a TV network at all. It’s a league, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got to, in the blink of an eye last minute, over 600 some-odd games, when you include everything that’s in there. You’ve got to put together the entire equation.”
Some may look at the above and believe it’s overkill, but for MLS fans, it’s just the right amount. Streaming is a huge part of the culture of soccer fandom, and the index is much higher than fans of traditional North American sports when it comes to hours watched per week on streaming devices or recorded television. In fact, 83% of MLS fans watch sports via such outlets in a typical week, which is more than the general population (52%) and fans of the NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB.
So the league HAD to place an emphasis on this offering. And more importantly, MLS fans have never had anything like this before.
Not only is it the quantity of what’s produced, but also the quality. Before Apple, MLS didn’t have the equipment that the Big Tech company had at its disposal, so being able to offer clear picture and audio is something new for fans.
“The picture quality and production we think is the best in sports at this point,” Bacon said. “We’re producing every single match in 1080p. You look at what’s happening with the way we’ve consolidated our schedule and what the impact that’s had on attendance and different ways that fans can interact, that amount of content even outside of the halo effect of being partnered with Apple. You look at consumer products, other parts of our business around partnerships and sponsorships and all of those things. It’s been wildly successful and we’re pumped.”
Growing the Game in America
If you know soccer in America, you know who Taylor Twellman is. Prior to his broadcasting days with MLS, Twellman played in the league and for the USMNT on numerous occasions, leading him to a successful career in the media landscape as an analyst.
Despite accomplishing much in both his soccer and on-air careers, there’s one incident in particular folks remember most, and that’s when Twellman went viral for his USMNT rant years ago.
While this doesn’t have anything to do with the production of MLS Season Pass, there’s one thing that’s clear as day — Twellman is passionate about the game, especially growing it here in the United States. In order to do that, MLS needed to find the right media partner that would allow the league to be itself and grow on its own accord.
Twellman believes Apple is that and then some.
“Major League Soccer has apologized for who they are. They’ve apologized for trying to make it mainstream to get it mainstream,” Twellman told Boardroom earlier this year. “And for Apple to come in and say, ‘How do we make the consumer experience better,’ that won a lot of us over. That won me over, and it got my attention because now I can be who I am and do what I love.”
Part of that was hiring the right people. In addition to Twellman, MLS pegged Sacha Kljestan for the inaugural season with Apple. Kljestan played in the league as recently as 2022 and announced his retirement from the game in January 2023.
While still new to the media game, Kljestan is a pivotal piece to the operation, not only as someone who loves soccer but MLS specifically.
“This is my favorite league in the world,” Sacha said. “Yes, a lot of people will say, ‘Well, English Premier League is the best, so La Liga is the best.’ Yeah, that’s fine. They can be the best. But this is my favorite league, and I love covering this league because this is where I grew up. This is where I played. I’ve been watching the league since ’96, since I was a kid, and a lot of people that I work with equally love MLS and love this league and love telling the stories.
“And so the fact that we have so many people working that have that same passion I do, I think really lends well to the growth of our league.”
And you can’t mention the growth of the league or the success of this product without mentioning Lionel Messi. Of course, MLS executives and fans alike were ecstatic when the best player in the world came stateside to play for Inter Miami.
Inter Miami games suddenly had a heavy emphasis placed on them. Celebrities like LeBron James, Will Ferrell, and Prince Harry all flocked to see the GOAT play in America, and so with all eyes on Messi & Miami, the MLS production crew had to adjust.
“I’ve done a lot of sports in my day, and I’ve covered Michael Jordan, and obviously he was big, but Messi is bigger,” McGuinness said.
Up until this point, every game was treated the same when it came to production. But from then on, the crew decided to dedicate a few more cameras to Miami to capture the Messi Madness. Instead of one slo-mo camera, three were used for Miami games, and they even installed a Sky Cam specifically with Messi in mind.
One of the new cameras was even called the Messi Cam, which essentially followed him around during every game, even if he was just sitting on the bench reacting to his teammates.
It would be naive to say that Messi’s arrival didn’t help with MLS Season Pass’s upward trajectory, but even prior to Messi, things were trending in that direction.
“[Messi’s arrival] just sort of injected this — everyone used the term rocket fuel — into it,” Bacon said. “We think we’re at that moment where we are launching into serious growth and putting MLS in position to be what it is, which is one of the most entertaining sports leagues in the world, one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world. We want MLS to be the league of choice for fans, for players, for partners, and that’s what we’re building. We have an awesome partner in Apple doing that.
“Having someone like Messi show up just makes you look that much smarter because he brings with him all the coverage, the following, the microscope.”
Production in Action
Speaking of a microscope, the production crew felt like it was under one heading into Decision Day. Despite anticipating some chaos, this wasn’t the first rodeo for McGuinness and Co., so the work had already been done.
And it’s a good thing, too, because just as they predicted, madness ensued on the night of Oct. 21.
You see, Charlotte FC was playing none other than Messi and Inter Miami with a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs on the line. Win, and Charlotte would qualify for the Wild Card Round. Lose and the season is over.
A 1-0 victory sent Charlotte FC to the postseason in just its second year of existence. To capture the monumental moment, the MLS production crew planned a live interview with manager Christian Lattanzio in the moments following his team’s victory. But nearly simultaneously — as would happen when one broadcasts this many games at once — John Tolkin of Red Bull New York scored in the 94th minute to send his squad to the playoffs for an MLS record 14th consecutive season.
This put the crew in a pickle. Do they move forward with their planned production? Or do they pivot to the game-winning goal?
That was the debate raging in the control room after Anders Aarhus, the spotter for MLS, called out the goal and suggested Tolkin as a new interview. The suggestion ran down the chain of command, hitting McGuinness and fellow coordinator producer Peter Young, who then passed along to tech manager Jamie Weber, who quickly dialed up the remote production truck to get ahold of the show’s producer and director.
And after all that, the shot was finally on the air, while Lattanzio’s interview was taped and aired shortly after. The league and crew called it a “total team effort” and “the epitome of a production control room that is completely tuned in to the moment.”
By now, it’s safe to say that the production crew behind MLS Season Pass is a well-oiled machine, even if there still are some kinks to work out moving forward.
As Bacon put it: “What I would say is this year has exceeded all expectations for us on every possible metric and every possible partnership front.”
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