MLS is Back: How tournament broadcasters overcome supporter isolation

MLS will engage audiences even while they’re safely isolated. The league is putting them next to the MLS is Back Tournament pitch with advanced technology.

There won’t be any canned cheering during the MLS is Back Tournament. But supporters won’t be there during pandemic-driven social distancing. So Major League Soccer, teamed up with television production, to put audiences there using an ambitious array of equipment and cameras.

The result has demonstrated the unprecedented presentation of matches. The sum total of technology and personnel is double any MLS regular-season match, said ESPN VP of production Amy Rosenfield:

“We are looking at MLS Cup-level equipment and cameras. This is more than double what we would typically use on an MLS regular-season match. This production is a significant piece of work for ESPN and MLS coming together on this. This is a massive commitment under very tough circumstances.”

MLS senior VP of Media Seth Bacon added that this is the most complex production he’s ever worked on.

The complexity doesn’t come from the technology itself. Television production crews can discuss minute details off the top of their heads regarding the drones, audio-synchronization, and mixing the two for broadcast along with sights and scenes on the ground.

It’s the goal set by MLS for what comes out of this technology. MLS and the networks want the final product to represent the tactical and psychological nuances that supporters would experience in the stands.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate the distance between their home screens and where they would be seated at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. This, of course, requires high-quality equipment. These include:

  • 33 cameras per field which is the most ever for ESPN, Omnicam4Sky four-cable-suspended aerial system, drones, jib cart, pole cams, goal cams, and locker room feeds.
  • Microphones embedded in the field with 300-ft. blue chromakey wall for virtual graphics in the stands.
  • Two microphones in each aerial camera.

The rich array of microphones means the team doesn’t have to put mics on players and coaches to capture their communications. They will pick up sound needed to keep supporters engaged. ESPN announcers will call the action from home facilities. Reporter Stefano Fusaro is in Orlando for sideline and feature reports.

Fans also get their say. Although not in the stands to chant, cheer and play instruments, supporters still may be just as spontaneous as they get their enthusiasm recognized. They can instantaneously make Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Post text and video incorporating the hashtags #MLSisBack, #MLS, or any hashtag related to a club or specific match. Some of these posts will appear in broadcasts, MLS shows, at the player hotel, and even on the video board at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.

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MLS players will work to overcome the opposition in this tournament. Supporters will work to overcome the barriers posed by isolation. The latter is conducted by an army of technology, and thus far, the product on the television screens has been very positive indeed.

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