Major League Soccer: IMG on capturing fan rituals and delivering consistent coverage

Feb 15, 2024; New York, NY, USA; Kevin Egan at MLS Studios. Mandatory Credit: Mark Smith-USA TODAY Sports

With the first season of MLS production for Apple under its belt, IMG has made some key new hires, added a focus on fans and outlined plans for more consistent coverage as it aims for “bigger and better” coverage of the US soccer league in 2024.

Major League Soccer (MLS) entered a new era in 2023 having signed a 10-year rights deal with Apple, which is sharing coverage with viewers via its MLS Season Pass streaming service.

Working with facilities provider NEP, IMG has been tasked with creating the editorial – making sure the right directors, producers and crew members are in place to produce coverage of some 950 MLS matches.

“Within five seconds of turning on a Premier League or Champions League match, the audience knows exactly what league it is and we want to ensure viewers have a similar experience with MLS”

For IMG, the 2023 season was something of a learning curve. “One of the key lessons we’ve learned is that MLS has all the ingredients to be one of the most entertaining leagues in the world, if it isn’t already,” says IMG vice president and head of football content Richard Bayliss.

IMG head of football production Richard Bayliss

“It’s always had amazing storylines, and obviously Lionel Messi’s arrival is one. But so too was the incredible story of St. Louis in that first season. And with the Men’s World Cup in North America on the horizon, we really want to continue that impressive and consistent growth over the coming years.

“We’re incredibly proud of what we did in 2023. But now as we shift our focus to 2024, and with the aim of bigger and better this season, we’ve taken onboard certain lessons from last year and added to our production team in terms of personnel with a huge amount of experience and expertise from both English and Spanish language coverage, with perspectives from around the world.”

For the start of the 2024 season, IMG has added new coordinating producers with experience of working on coverage of multiple football leagues and tournaments. In addition, a coordinating director with Premier League and FIFA tournament experience across men’s and women’s football has also been recruited with a remit to oversee studio and match direction.

One of the reasons for the hires is a push for greater uniformity of coverage, says Bayliss.

“One thing we’ve worked hard on in the offseason with MLS is to set consistent match production standards that we can build upon editorially but that ensure viewers are given that unique MLS experience. To use an example, I would say within five seconds of turning on a Premier League or Champions League match, the audience knows exactly what league it is and we want to ensure viewers have a similar experience with MLS which of course has its own look and sound.

Read more MLS Kickoff 2024: Behind the Scenes With MLS Productions’ New SVP and Executive Producer Ignacio Garcia

“The way we do that is through an enhanced world feed delivery, which will enable studio shows and MLS digital channels to access more content from stadiums with a particular focus on fan rituals and atmosphere which is maybe underappreciated globally as to how incredible that is in MLS.

Bayliss adds that IMG has created “an enhanced playbook” with the aim of setting certain standards. “In bringing in a lot of that outside experience, we’ve got much more into the detail as to how we produce not only matches, but studio shows as well, to make sure the output that the audience sees is a high standard and continually improving.”

A new hire for MLS this season is Ignacio Garcia, SVP/executive producer at MLS Productions who has spoken about developing a 24/7 approach to coverage of the league. Speaking with SVG in the US, he said: “I come from that 24/7 network environment so one of my goals here is to provide not only the great coverage on match days but also great shoulder programming.”

That’s an area that IMG is hugely experienced in, says Bayliss. “Increasing the volume and quality of output is a focus for all of us, and we’re fortunate at IMG to bring a lot of experience in that area to this project. Take, for instance, our work on Premier League Productions, where shoulder programming is crucial not only for the value it adds for consumers and broadcasters, but it also provides multiple ways into that interaction between the sport and the audience. Our view is that every time a match or a studio show is produced, it’s an opportunity to create content that can be amplified across every channel or platform.”

Read more NEP Group Back for a Second Helping of MLS Season Pass on Apple TV

As part of a push for more content across more platforms this year, production teams will look to include more atmosphere and colour with DJI Osmo cameras used for behind-the-scenes content and fly-on-the-wall fan’s perspective.

“Fan culture in the US and Canada in MLS is fantastic. So we want to make sure we’re capturing that outside the stadiums; what the fan marches and rituals look like, but also just getting more behind the scenes on site with our commentators and players is something we want to push further into.”

Bayliss also spoke about the potential to be more innovative and experimental with MLS coverage, thanks to American sports in general providing greater access to players in leagues and competitions such as the NFL and NBA where players are often mic-ed up and access to locker rooms granted.

“That base level expectation for a US audience is higher than it is potentially in other places. Also, if the MLS is to grow at the rate we all believe it can, heroes will be a key part of that. Lionel Messi is just one example of that. The quality of players in the MLS is improving all the time and MLS is really passionate about making sure those key players are heroes, and the best way to do that is to provide access to them. We’re definitely looking forward to experimenting more.”

Feb 15, 2024; New York, NY, USA; Antonella Gonzalez, Giovanni Savarese, Miguel Gallardo at MLS Studios. Mandatory Credit: Mark Smith-USA TODAY Sports

During his chat with SVG in the US, Garcia also spoke about increasing the amount of digital content. At the start of the season, MLS debuted a new one-hour preview show, ‘This is MLS’ in English and ‘Esto es MLS’ in Spanish, on YouTube that could potentially transition to MLS Season Pass.

That aim of serving English and Spanish-language fans also extends to MLS 360, which last season was only available in English. Bayliss describes the programme as the “flagship” show of 2023.

He says: “From a studio perspective the headline change in 2024 is the introduction of MLS 360 in Spanish…the fact that we’re adding in a separate studio and Spanish version is really exciting; that multi-language offering is certainly not something that happens anywhere else at this scale. There are six hours of English studio programming across three shows on a Saturday match night. Every English show is emulated in Spanish, the vision is set across both, but of course they have their own feel and flavour to them as well. So being able to bring in producers, directors and operators that can execute in those languages and contribute across the board by being bilingual is something that we’ve definitely improved from last year to this.

“There are roughly 80 countries represented in the MLS in terms of the players; it’s the most diverse league in the world. That makes it doubly important to make sure that we’re creating content that each of those markets can consume and enjoy, which in turn then drives consideration back towards whether it’s subscribing to Apple TV or just being more engaged in the league.”

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